A friend of mine in Colorado asked me over the phone the other day if there was poverty in Kumasi. For a few seconds I searched for an answer. “It depends.” I said.
If you are measuring the lifestyle of Ghanaians by American standards, then yes, there is poverty here. The CIA world factbook states that the average income per capita in Ghana is $3,000 compared to $48,300 average U.S. income. But this hardly tells the whole story such as what do the lower 80% of the population earn on average as compared to the upper 20%. The simple answer here is, “I don’t know.” In broad terms, 50% of the people on earth live on $2.50 a day and at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
I don’t need to know the figures to see that the standard of living for most Ghanaians makes the majority of Americans look wealthy by comparison. Many people haul water, bathe outside, posses a meager wardrobe, cook over charcoal fires on the ground and and consume a static diet of stew, fufu or banku, rice, greens and fruit. At the same time, many have air conditioning, drive their own cars and can afford to send their children to private schools.
Interestingly, the neighborhoods are often a mix of well-to-do with not-so-well-to-do. Those with servants living next door to those who earn their living through manual labor. Whereas in the States, people sort themselves by income into neighborhoods, gated, ‘good’ and slum.
But when the majority of folks are in the same situation, it doesn’t feel like poverty. Sure, we wish we could pay off our house in the States and afford health insurance but since most of our friends and family live by the same standards so we don’t feel poor. However, if we consider the top CEO’s who make millions of dollars a year, we feel poor by comparison. We’re can’t jet off to Paris for lunch but we’re happy to drive our second hand car to a friendly neighborhood potluck.
We seldom see poorly dressed people here. Or underfed or diseased. We hear a lot of laughter. Everybody seems fit, with muscles most Americans can only hope for. I’m often overwhelmed by an incredibly beautiful person wearing a fabulous outfit. And neither are we poorly dressed, underfed or diseased. Yet we don’t have to eat fufu every day, saving up for rice on special occasions. And we can easily afford to take a taxi to the lake outside of town or pay a tailor to make us some clothes. In the States, I can’t afford to hire a car and driver nor can I afford the services of a tailor.
It’s strange to think that Bob and I boarded a plane in Washington DC last June as members of the lower socio-economic 80% and landed in Accra as part of the upper 20%. Overnight we went from living like a poor person in a rich country to living like rich people on a poor country. It’s a sobering thought and part of the reason we agreed to move down here. And it makes answering questions about poverty very difficult.