From the rich to the poor (or, what I learned in Africa)

After 36 hours of travel (followed by twelve hours of sleep), Kris and I are back from vacation. For the past three weeks, we've been exploring southern Africa. With a tour group, we visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. We had a great time, and we learned a lot. It was well worth the expense. In fact, I loved what I saw so much, that I'm eager to return. (On my next trip, I'll probably aim for Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.)

Because it's now ingrained in my being, I spent the entire trip looking at things through the lens of personal finance. This wasn't tough. We saw a lot of wealth and poverty.

From the Rich to the Poor

On our first day in South Africa, as the tour bus set out from our hotel in Johannesburg to nearby Pretoria, our tour guide interrupted his narrative to say something strange.

“Before we go too far,” Brian said, “I want to thank you: Thank you for coming to Africa. Tourism is the biggest transfer of money from the rich to the poor in the world. For every seven people who come to South Africa, roughly one job is created. So, thank you.”

I thought this was odd at the time, so I pulled out my notebook and jotted down the quote verbatim. (When I travel, I always carry a small notebook to capture quotes and impressions.) During the course of our three weeks in southern Africa, I kept coming back to this notion, to the idea that tourism isn't exploitive (as I've always believed), but actually beneficial to countries and communities.

Entrance to Robben Island

Brian wasn't the only one to mention this. Several of our local guides brought up the subject too. On our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for nearly eighteen years, our guide echoed Brian's statement. “For every six tour buses to visit Robben Island,” he told us, “one job is created. Thank you for visiting.” And on the final afternoon of our trip, we took a tour through the “informal settlement” in Langa Township. (“Informal settlement” is a polite term for a squatter camp or shantytown.) Our local guide — who lives in Langa Township — expressed heartfelt thanks.

Morning at the Victoria Falls Hotel
The Victoria Falls Hotel is gorgeous.

Despite assurances from Brian and the local guides, I felt guilty a lot of the time. I felt ashamed that I have so much and the people I met had so little. Yes, they were happy and friendly and giving, but consider this calculus:

  • We spent three nights in the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the average room costs $618 per night. I'm not sure what our actual cost was — it was probably much less — because we booked the entire trip as a package through a tour company. If we'd paid full price, though, we might have expected to pay $1854 for our time in Victoria Falls.
  • According to our local guide, minimum wage in Victoria Falls is currently $250 a month. And right now, nobody can afford to pay that, so workers are only being given a living allowance — enough to buy bare necessities.

So, three nights in this posh hotel cost the same as seven months of local wages. Worse, most Zimbabweans don't even have a job. Unemployment in the country runs at nearly 80%. 80%!! One in five people has a regular job. Perhaps you can see why, despite our guides' gratitude, I often felt ashamed to be there.

Valentine's Day in Vic Falls

The Open Market

On Valentine's Day, my favorite day of the trip, our group experienced three cultural outings.

In the morning, we visited the Victoria Falls open market, where local residents sell hand-made jewelry, rugs, statues, and knick-knacks. Before we entered the market, Brian gave us a piece of advice: “Think of this as a cultural experience, not a shopping opportunity,” he said. “And don't just give these folks money. They don't want your handouts. They want to earn a living.

I heeded Brian's advice, and did my best to learn more about the vendors I spoke with. At one stall, Joshua taught me about haggling. He explained how the process works, and where you might use it. (You don't haggle at the grocery store, but you can at the fresh food market.)

I asked how much a carved hippo cost. “Thirty-five dollars,” Joshua said. He quickly added, “But that's just my starting price. Now you make an offer.” I eventually bought the hippo for $12. I felt guilty for not paying $35.

A fellow called Moreblessing (no joke) talked to me about how his family produced and sold the items he had on display. (His brother had a stall right next to him.)

On Names

In Zimbabwe, names are the same as ours — Francis, Richard, Jacqueline, etc. — except when they're not. Some people have African names, as you might expect, and others have names derived from English nouns and adjectives: Reason, Accurate, Blessed, Moreblessing, and Garlic (also no joke). We didn't meet anyone named Precious, though.

Several of the fellows (I only spoke with men) told me that they needed to sell something because this was the only way they could get money to put food on the table. I asked Brian if this were true. “It is,” he said. “Some of these guys may only make one or two sales per week.”

I bought too many carved hippos, and I wish I could have bought more. No, I don't need a dozen carved hippos — it's just Stuff — but I wanted to help these people. (Some members of our group traded their clothes and shoes instead of using money. Brian says that in many ways, this is more useful to the vendors.)

Quiz at the Chinotimba Primary School

The Primary School

During the afternoon of our cultural day, we visited the Chinotimba Primary School, where about 25 children sang and danced for us. When they finished, we had a chance to chat with them. (English is the primary language in the countries we visited, another remnant of the colonial past.) One boy was fascinated by my camera, so I let him borrow it; he ran around the room, snapping photos of all his friends.

Before we left the school, we had a chance to donate school supplies. Kris had brought some pens, pencils, small notebooks, and inflatable globes. I was unprepared. I hadn't expected to be so moved by the visit. I pulled aside Francis, our local guide (who had attended this school when he was a boy and now has a daughter who's a student here), and showed him the books I was carrying in my bag. “Could the school use these at all?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“Even these?” I asked, holding up four digest-sized comic books I'd brought to read on the plane.

Francis laughed. “Yes,” he said. “They'll love them. The kids know who Superman is.” So, there's a grade school in Zimbabwe that has some comic books from my collection now. The school principal, who collected the money and supplies our group donated, seemed touched and grateful.

Students at the Chinotimba Primary School
Photo taken by a boy at Chinotimba Primary School.

Back on the bus, many tour members talked about how sad it was that these kids had so little. Brian tried to squash this sentiment.

“Look at the children,” he said. “Are these kids unhappy? I'll wager that you'll see the children are happy. They're happier than any of the children in South Africa. Why? Because everyone is equal. They all have the same Stuff. It's not one kid has an iPod and another one doesn't. They've got nothing, and we know that. But they've all got nothing. They're all the same.”

Brian wasn't arguing that it's good for these people to live in poverty. He was trying to make it clear that it's possible to be happy even without a lot of Stuff, and that if you give something to one person and not another, you sow the seeds of envy.

Note: Parents pay $25 per term to send a child to the Chinotimba Primary School. There are more expensive schools available, but only government officials can afford them. So, if you want your kids to be educated — and most Zimbabweans do — you spend $75 a year (or $100 — I'm not sure how many terms there are) to send each of them to school. Now, go back and re-read the calculus of our hotel again. For the cost of two nights in that place, I could probably fund a child's entire grade-school education.

Dinner at Home

In the evening, we made a quick trip to a nearby food market, where we spent a few minutes wandering the stalls, looking at the items for sale. (I found two women who were selling used boxes! Because my family owns a small box factory here in Portland, I asked to snap their photo.)

Women selling boxes in Victoria Falls

After this brief detour, we split into small groups. Each group went to the home of a local resident, where we were served a typical Zimbabwean meal. (Actually, it was a little atypical: We were given the equivalent of both lunch and dinner. Plus, our meal contained more meat than the families usually eat.)

Kris and I dined with Blessed and her family, which owns two homes on adjoining properties. “We are a family of sixteen,” Blessed told us, “and we are still expanding.” She says that “uncles, aunties, misses, cousins” live in these two houses.

Blessed served us hominy in peanut butter, pumpkin leaves in peanut sauce, and sadza with chicken stew. Sadza is a cornmeal pap; it's Zimbabwe's staple food. In fact, Blessed's family eats so much sadza that they buy a 50kg (~110 pound) bag of cornmeal every month. (I think the “mielie pap” we saw in Botswana and South Africa is the same as sadza, but I can't swear to it.) Fish is expensive, so it isn't eaten often, and meat seems to be used as a flavoring agent, not a main ingredient.

As we ate, we talked with Blessed and her two helpers, which included a friend and a cousin. Blessed told us that her family is actually fairly well off compared to many in the area. Doreen, who is eighteen, is nearly finished with high school. She just got her exam results. Because she did well, she'll soon be going to university, and then (she hopes) to medical school. So, in contrast to a lot of what we'd seen on this cultural day, this family seemed to be on a path toward relative prosperity.


This six-minute video mostly features footage from our cultural day.

The Bride Price

On the bus ride from Botswana to Zimbabwe, Francis, our local guide, talked about marriage customs in his tribe. Just two generations ago, it was common for men to have several wives. This still happens, but less often, especially in the city. Still, some of the old ways continue. When a man is ready for marriage, for example, he pays a bride price to the father of the woman he intends to marry. This is paid in cattle. (Francis actually called this a dowry, but that's technically not correct.)

When Francis was married, he paid nine cows plus $700 for his wife. Our bus driver Ernest paid seven cows for his wife.

If a young man can't pay the bride price, he pays in installments. If the man is unable to pay the full bride price by the time his own daughters get married, he has to use half of their bride wealth to repay the outstanding debt. And if the debt doesn't get repaid in his lifetime, the responsibility falls to the man's oldest son. In this way, it's possible for complex chains of bride debt to exist.

Francis feels lucky — he has three daughters, which means he will eventually be a wealthy man. (In theory.) One day, he'll have a lot of cattle.

“What do you do with the cattle?” one member of our group asked. “Are they for meat? Do you use them for milk?”

“In our African culture,” Francis said, “your cows are your bank. You can't eat your bank. You have to save them.”

“What about people who live in the city?” another member of our group asked. “Where do they keep their cattle?”

Brian, the tour manager, explained that in places where it's impossible to keep actual cattle (such as Johannesburg), the bride price has become abstracted. Some pay it in gold coins called Kruggerands. Others buy “bonds” (Brian's word, not mine) that represent the cows. Brian says he's been in homes where the certificates representing the cows are framed and displayed on the wall, like a stock certificate.

Soweto shantytown
An informal settlement (or “shantytown”) in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Informal Settlements

e ended our African adventure in Cape Town, a vibrant city on the southwestern tip of the continent. We took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, walked along the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (which is packed with shops and restaurants), and wandered through the Company's Garden and Greenmarket Square.

On our final afternoon, we went on a three-hour tour of the local townships. To quote Wikipedia:

During the Apartheid era, blacks were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. Separate townships were established for each of the three designated non-white race groups (blacks, coloreds, and Indians)…

Townships sometimes have large informal settlements nearby. Despite their origins in apartheid South Africa, today the terms township, location, and informal settlements are not used pejoratively.

Townships are permanent communities. As part of a township, there might be one or more “informal settlements”. You may know of informal settlements by less flattering terms, such as squatter camps or shantytowns.

We spent most of our time in Langa Township, where a young woman nicknamed Sugar (who lives in Langa) described how people work and live. As in any community, there are different levels of wealth in Langa. Some folks have relatively nice homes, with yards and garages and fences; we were told these belong to people who have university degrees: teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers. These homes would seem small in the U.S., but are positively luxurious compared to the shacks in the informal settlements just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sugar led us on a short walking tour of some of the government-built housing in Langa. We were able to see two homes. I didn't see much of the second because I stopped to talk with a girl in the first house (I couldn't understand her African name, I'm afraid). I started by asking her about her life, but she was actually more curious about me. Where did I come from? Did I like Africa? And so on.

Girl in a Hostel in Langa, Cape Town
I wanted to know more about this girl; she wanted to know more about me.

I learned so much from this three-hour tour that I can't possibly share it all here. Besides, you're probably bored after reading this far. Instead, I've compiled this 9-minute video that features Sugar and Sophia (our guides) talking about the daily lives of township residents, especially from a financial perspective. I've done my best to annotate things to head off confusion.


This video is the cornerstone of this entire post.

I wish more of our trip could have been focused on meeting the people. While others appreciated the birds and the animals and the spectacular scenery, I got so much out of our brief interactions with actual South Africans and Zimbabweans.

Note: I found two great write-ups of Langa Township tours. One wonders if these tours treat the poor like zoo animals, but notes township residents don't seem to mind. (This is what our guides told us, too — the residents like us to see how they live.) The other is from an up-close-and-personal walking tour, the kind I wish I'd taken.

Guilt is Not Productive

Because this trip was arranged through a tour company, there were a couple of obligatory shopping stops: one at a jewelry company and one at an ostrich farm. Kris and I bought nothing at either place (except pellets to feed the ostriches). Neither of us is interested in jewelry or ostrich leather goods.

Ostriches are dangerous
Ostriches are dangerous — unless you ply them with food pellets.

Others might have liked to buy something, but didn't feel good doing so. “I'd feel guilty spending $320 on an ostrich-skin purse,” one woman said at dinner one night. “Especially after the poverty we witnessed in Zimbabwe. I'd rather give $300 to a family in Zimbabwe and then buy a $20 purse at Goodwill.”

As I've mentioned already, at times I felt guilty too. It's hard not to feel guilty when you're staying at a hotel where the average room runs $618 a night — and meanwhile, half a mile from this posh palace, men and women are scratching to make ends meet.

What is my moral obligation to these people? Do I have one? Should I feel guilty for spending money on tourism? Or, as our guides suggested, should I be comforted by the fact that I'm participating in a transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor? What productive ways can I help aside from just throwing money at the problem?

I don't have answers to these questions.

Tip: How rich are you compared to the rest of the world? Check out the Global Rich List. You're probably richer than you think.

Ultimately, however, I've realized that guilt is not productive. Guilt doesn't accomplish anything. I can't change who I am or the circumstances I've been born into. I've made the most of what I have: I've been lucky, and I've worked hard to build upon that luck. I can't change this, and I can't regret it.

Instead, I feel like it's my responsibility to do something with this hand that I've been dealt. Do what? I don't know — and I'm not sure I need to know right now. As I travel, I'm becoming more aware of the world around me, and I feel like maybe there's something I can contribute to make it a better place. I'm not sure what that something is, but I'm willing to be patient until I discover it.

Reminder: As usual, I'll be posting my travel diary at my personal site. The first couple of installments are already up.
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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Wow! Thank you for sharing about your Africa trip. I can’t wait till I’m debt free and can take trips like this. 🙂

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

Thank you, J.D., for sharing such heartfelt impressions from your trip. I was very moved reading about your experience. I look forward to watching the second video when I have a little more time. I’ve been fortunate to help a number of immigrant families buy homes in my town. One of my favorite families arrived in the U.S. after fleeing the civil war in Liberia. The wife only found out her husband was still alive after being here a year. She worked and raised her children while saving enough to bring him to the U.S. Even as they improve their… Read more »

Brett | Investing Part Time
Brett | Investing Part Time
9 years ago

JD, Glad you had a safe trip overall, and that all sounds like fun! I agree with your conclusions–being born in America is in no way universally fair, but thankfully we have the ability to give back and really serve others with our time or money. And I’ve noticed with the whole haggling thing that it is in fact more respectful to barter with them, since they too are businessmen and women that don’t want to just get free money. Much like if you ran a fruit stall at a farmer’s market somewhere in the states, and some rich tourists… Read more »

Paul
Paul
9 years ago

I was only able to quickly skim through your post (will read more later), but it struck a chord with me. As much as being financially secure is important, it is easy to get stuck in the money “trap” and forget how much we really have. We all need a good reminder now and then about the things we should really value – family, friends, health, etc.
Thanks!

Jan Doggen
Jan Doggen
9 years ago

Correct, guilt is not productive. There is even a logical inconsistency in your reasoning: If what your guides at the top of the article said is true (‘creating jobs every…’) than your stay in that hotel *is* creating jobs. You could argue about the efficiency (e.g. money being siphoned off to western companies), you might consider staying at another place next time, but that is also the local people/governments *own* decisions: if they are fine with that hotel being there, than who are you to argue? 😉 And thanks for the great article. J.D.’s note: Right. The “efficiency of wealth… Read more »

Stephen
Stephen
9 years ago

As a South African who regularly reads your great website, I’d like to thank you both for coming and for your fantastic attitude when you did so. I only wish that your thought provoking questions were asked just as frequently by those of us who live here every day and who have been blessed with relative wealth.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Fascinating article! As for what you can do… well, there are a lot of NGOs out there in Africa doing all sorts of things. You want to help kids go to school, you can do that. You want to provide comics for schools, you can do that. You want to help kids born with cleft palates or mothers with incontinence get surgery, charities exist for those. Mosquito netting, deworming, anti-malarials… etc. all have NGOs that need money for supplies. Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes will often profile one or another of these problems and the charities that help: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/nicholasdkristof/index.html It… Read more »

rachel
rachel
9 years ago

This was such a wonderful post, JD…thanks for sharing it xx

Suzanne
Suzanne
9 years ago

J.D. says: “It’s hard not to feel guilty when you’re staying at a hotel where the average room runs $618 a night – and meanwhile, half a mile from this posh palace, men and women are scratching to make ends meet… What is my moral obligation to these people? Do I have one?” And I just want to point out that this same situation exists right here as well, right in this country, in the cities and neighborhoods where we live. If we can’t (or don’t) get involved in Africa or other far-away places, we *can* get involved locally, and… Read more »

ArandomPerson
ArandomPerson
9 years ago

Regardless of your ethical worries (wealth transfer etc.), I am delighted to read about your travels.

It allows me a bit of fantasy escape from my life.

Thanks for posting it.

Casey
Casey
9 years ago

Glad you enjoyed your trip. It sounds like you got a very well-rounded view of southern Africa.

You gained an appreciation for just how much we have, and that’s a good thing. Your eyes were opened to what true poverty looks like. I livied in South Africa (Durban) for an extended work assignment, and it completely changed me.

Surani
Surani
9 years ago

>Ultimately, however, I’ve realized that guilt is not productive. Guilt doesn’t accomplish anything.

>Instead, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do something with this hand that I’ve been dealt.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Thank you so much for sharing your trip. I will be coming back to this post again and again.

Yasmin
Yasmin
9 years ago

Thanks for your post, been reading this site for awhile now. I am a South African and yes I do live in a country with jarring extremes. Often with the work I do I find it v humbling to realise how caught up we can get in the rat race. I’d like to think that every little contribution that we make – whether it’s supporting a local trader or even employing someone to do menial labour has a positive impact. Good to read that you had a good trip and Africa isn’t just about the game safari 😉 Always interesting… Read more »

Danielle
Danielle
9 years ago

The trouble with “wealth transfer”, by staying at jobs-creating hotels, is that a significant portion of the wealth gets transferred to a few wealthy families and siphoned into the hands of rapacious, brutal dictators, perhaps no more so than in Zimbabwe. Some of these monsters are far worse than the (admittedly horrible) colonial rulers that left so much of Africa in a mess. While I support the work of NGOS, especially ones like Partners in Health that seek to develop local capacity, continuous handouts from the rich West aren’t going to fix the lives of people when so much of… Read more »

margot
margot
9 years ago

Welcome back! A few reactions to your post… 1) I agree that guilt isn’t useful unless it’s channeled into something that makes the work (or just your community) a better place. You’ve pondered the idea of becoming more generous and philanthropic, but this part of your financial self has been blocked. Hopefully you can work on unblocking it and becoming more of a giver with your wealth. There are thousands of great ways to give domestically and internationally. It’s a powerful (and scary, but in a good way) feeling to give until you feel/notice it, meaning going way beyond $50… Read more »

Marlane
Marlane
9 years ago

First time poster and long time reader. This site has be been enormously helpful in helping us get our finances in order and I’ve recommended many times. I used to live in South African and am now north of your border, though haven’t been back in 10 years felt some trepidation about reading your views on your ‘Africa trip’. Many see Africa as a big mass. The continent is huge and diverse with many vastly different countries. If an Italian says they’re going to visit family – people tend to refer to the country by name ie Italy and not… Read more »

Jon
Jon
9 years ago

The women selling used boxes reminds me of a story some friends at church told me. They were on a short mission trip in Tanzania and in a shop they saw someone selling Christmas wrapping paper. It was the used wrapping paper from Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.

http://www.samaritanspurse.org/index.php/OCC/index/

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

Sounds like a wonderful trip. i plan to re-read this post later and watch the videos to really take it in. I like what you said about guilt and poverty vs wealth. Years ago, I visited Mexico and one of our day trips was to a small, brick making business. As we pulled into the driveway, our guide told us we’d be seeing a lot of poverty that day, but not to feel sorry for anyone. They are all happy and grateful for what they have and are happy to share their lives with you. That stayed with me. And… Read more »

Brian B
Brian B
9 years ago

Great read!

Is there a way to donate to these people without having to deal with charity corporations? I have zero faith that anything donated to a charity would actually get to the people.

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

This is what I learned while traveling around SE Asia with my wife last year. 1. Haggling is good, just don’t get caught up in it. I once caught myself haggling with a local over what was effectively a quarter. Once it clicked I just went with his slightly higher offer. Its easy to forget the exchange rate when haggling in a foreign currency. 2. Try to stay at locally run establishments, not western owned ones. Locally run places see a larger amount of your money stay in the community. Hostels with large staffs of locals are usually a good… Read more »

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

“No, I don’t need a dozen carved hippos – it’s just Stuff – but I wanted to help these people.”

Perhaps it’s time for a blog giveaway? Something like: Tell me which charity you donated to, and I’ll enter you in the drawing for a reminder of why we give.

And welcome back.

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

Wow, what a trip. Living in the U.S., we sometimes forget how others live around the globe. It is hard to imagine an area where school costs $75 per year or having an 80% unemployment rate. Talk about a learning experience!

eva
eva
9 years ago

This post brings up great points. Wealth transfer: What you did is great and falls under the term ‘eco-tourism’ which is a form of tourism that’s sensitive to the natural resources and cultural heritage of the host country. But a lot of tourism, ‘mass tourism,’ the kind where you get on a cruise ship, stay in a chain hotel and don’t visit any villages–this kind of tourism mostly benefits multinational corporations headquartered in rich countries and can be quite environmentally destructive. It’s up to travelers to make the choice. “Why? Because everyone is equal. They all have the same Stuff.”… Read more »

Louisa
Louisa
9 years ago

Thank you for your rich story-telling! I agree with you about the wonder of conversation. The longer I travel, the more I cherish conversations; for me, it is the heart of travel. The best way I’ve found to invite conversations is to stay in small family-run hotels whenever possible. I understand the impulse to buy things in order to help people (e.g. the carved hippos), but I’m conflicted about buying something if I have no interest in it. It may help the person, but consuming something I’m not going to use or give someone else seems environmentally wasteful. I don’t… Read more »

KK
KK
9 years ago

My husband and I visited South Africa in 2007. We were there for two weeks, one of which was spent at an academic conference, so we did not get to see nearly as much as you did. It was such an amazing trip and the people we met were so warm and welcoming. I knew that you and your wife were going to love it. So glad that the trip turned out so great and that you were able to visit several other countries as well. You very eloquently echoed many of the feelings I was left with during and… Read more »

Sarah Russell
Sarah Russell
9 years ago

Wow – thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like an amazing, if eye-opening trip.

I hope you’re able to channel that guilt into something helpful and productive. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be in Africa – there are probably plenty of people you could help within your own community.

But kudos to you about being open with the fact that it can be uncomfortable to spend so much time focusing on money and wealth when our standards in the US are so grossly different from those around the world.

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

“One way to do this is to use as many local services (shops, restaurants) as possible instead of sticking strictly to the tour itinerary. This efficiency question is also something to consider as I look at aid organizations.”

Not to take away from the needs of Africa, but this thought also makes so much sense when visiting/shopping closer to home. If you take a day trip to a spot two hours away from home, try the locally owned restaurants and shops.

Also, for those who are moved to give, this site can’t get enough love:

http://www.charitynavigator.org/

Clambone
Clambone
9 years ago

You mention that you wish that you had taken an up close and personal walking tour. Can you recommend one?

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago

It sounds like you may have had a life-changing experience for the better. When my family and I lived in Argentina while I was a teenager, I remember that feeling of guilt when we had so much and the families around us didn’t. But you are so right, guilt is useless. I made friends, we laughed, we ate a lot at my house, and no one ever seemed to hold wealth against us. By the time we moved back to Texas, 3 of my friends were pursuing college degrees and the others had their own life plans. Stuff isn’t necessary… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa
9 years ago

I’ve had amazing opportunities to travel and live abroad, including in some very poor countries. I’ll never forget being in India in 2001, when a little boy, no more than 3 years old, followed me for several blocks, with his hand extended, not saying a word. My study abroad advisors had implored us not to give money to children. That it just encourages their parents and others (think Slumdog Millionaire these days) to continue to take advantage of children. His face, dirty and gaunt, haunts me to this day, and I always wonder if I should’ve just given him money.… Read more »

Dean
Dean
9 years ago

Great post – in particular I like the quote “…don’t just give these folks money. They don’t want your handouts. They want to earn a living.” It’s hard to take pride in easy money no matter where you live. Whether you’re digging yourself out of debt or toiling to put food on the table, hard work and self-sufficiency are very rewarding and provide a sense of worth and dignity. For those who read this article and would like to know what to do to help I would encourage you to check out and consider Kiva.org. If you’re unsure, start with… Read more »

Sharon Brugh
Sharon Brugh
9 years ago

Thank you for this post! I loved watching the videos. I felt like I was on the tour bus. I really appreciate you sharing this.

Amy
Amy
9 years ago

Hi JD,

Great post. I am not a finance expert, but work for an international development company in DC area. We focus a lot of our efforts on improving health care in Africa. It’s a frustrating business, often 3 steps forward and 2 steps back. Remittances and tourism can sometimes provide a more direct impact than the country level work that we do. I recommend Jeffrey Sachs book “The End of Poverty” as food for thought on these topics.

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

JD, I often skip over “vacation” posts, but this one was really eloquent and well written. I’m not big into traveling myself, but your post almost made me want to go there. Thanks for writing and sharing this.

Daria
Daria
9 years ago

I lived in South Africa as a child. We had a gardener from Malawi. My parents gave him a bed with a wooden bed frame to use. He was so proud of that bed. When he first got it, we had a line of people coming to look at it. Many of my white South African friends slept on army like folding cots, so it was very unusual for the help to have a bed like that. Every year, my family was required by the work laws to send him home for a month to see his family in Malawi,… Read more »

liz
liz
9 years ago

Thanks for sharing your trip – I would love a post about NGOs that explains some of them, what they do, and which ones are worth donating to. Either in Africa, or anywhere, including here in the US. Its something I always want to do but never have the time (ok never MAKE the time). Another suggestion for a post would be about service travel. There are many organizations where you can travel somewhere and help out while you are there, live amongst the locals and use your skills to improve their community. I know of a few of these… Read more »

Bruce
Bruce
9 years ago

Wouldn’t beat yourself up to much over the “efficiency of wealth transfer”. More money often makes it into the hands of the locals at the higher end places. If I spend $100/night maybe $20 will go to the locals whereas if I paid $10/night at a local establishment it all might go to a local. At the end of the day a lot of the higher end places still provide more jobs for more people. For instance, I’ve traveled to all the places you’ve been for quite a bit less money than the tour you took. However, you probably still… Read more »

bon
bon
9 years ago

Welcome back JD – I can’t believe you paid $12 for carved hippos – so expensive! (Peace Corps negotiating skills die hard) Some thoughts on tourism: My project in Peace Corps was in local tourism development – helping a small community build their tourism capabilities to attract more visitors, and to create methods to distribute the income equitably. I’m actually very torn as to whether or not this has been a net positive for the community. It did bring more development dollars, improved roads, and more services, but it created a lot of political infighting. After I left the chief… Read more »

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
9 years ago

Wonderful! I especially love the perspective from the children, which reminds me of the idea of “experience stretching” as described by Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness:” “We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that ‘they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing.’ Okay, sure, but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing. It does not mean that those who don’t… Read more »

David Jones
David Jones
9 years ago

Great article, and it really goes hand-in-hand with conversations I’ve been having with several of my friends lately about “How Much is Enough?” Also, Pandora was kind enough to be playing Ben Harper’s “Satisfied Mind” while I was reading this. The lyrics perfectly capture the essence of your post: “how many times have you heard someone say if i had his money i’d do things my way but little they know and it’s so hard to find one rich man in ten with a satisfied mind once i was waiting in fortune and fame everything that i dreamed of to… Read more »

Mat
Mat
9 years ago

2 simple things that we can do to help lift the worlds poorest out of poverty:

-actively oppose subsidies to ‘rich world’ businesses.

-actively oppose anything our governments do to make ‘poor world’ products the expensive choice.

Jacqueline
Jacqueline
9 years ago

That was a great post, JD, and there are so many things in there I would like to hear you expand on. Future posts, perhaps? The concept of relativity in terms of poverty and finance (the school children in this post) in particular is something I am interested in hearing more about. A few years ago, I lived in an African capital city earning more in one month that most people there would in many, many years. I was uncomfortably aware of the differences but my savings account definately benefited. Now, I currently live in a very expensive european capital… Read more »

Money Maker
Money Maker
9 years ago

It seems to me be a major breach of good taste, for western tourists to trek through the ugly side of African slums toting cameras around their neck and treating the people like a tourist attraction, animals at a zoo. And a major ethical problem to PROFIT from it. I mean, I can maybe see putting something like this on a personal site, but on a commercial site where you are making money of it? Really? I’m very disappointed to see this posted here. I hope a major portion of the proceeds from the “Ally Bank” ads I see plastered… Read more »

Janice
Janice
9 years ago

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. While I certainly understand your sentiments re poverty vs. riches as exemplified in your travels, do keep in mind that money exchange, whether we GIVE it away or spend it on manufacturing something, is creating value for someone. This is why New Orleans after the hurricane and countries affected by the tsunami were begging people to come visit. It’s not exploitive, it’s helpful to have money spent in your own locality. Why do you think NYC prospers? Because not only do we have the financial world here, the city does everything to… Read more »

Laura
Laura
9 years ago

Thanks for such a great post! It shows how people live in other countries. As we have always said and heard,”There’s always someone better off than you and someone who’s not.” That is the way of the world. There are people who are healthy but are poor. There are people that have medical problems but have money. People can be happy with and without alot of “stuff.” That was proven on this trip! There are billions of people in the world and just as many situations. Just help those that you can, when you can.

Tiffany
Tiffany
9 years ago

It sounds like your trip was amazing, and served as an opportunity to re-affirm your values and life choices. I, too, struggled with my relative wealth while on a trip to the Dominican Republic. We stayed at a fancy hotel that was securely gated in, and 2 miles down the street were shanty towns. It all felt so awful to me. We were drinking wine, laying on the beach, and eating great meals while children ran around in rags just miles away. I’ve determined in the future that I will stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants, and do… Read more »

Brenda Pike
Brenda Pike
9 years ago

I had the same experience when I went to Cuba last year. The disparity between their two currencies meant that a single tip from a tourist could equal a month’s salary. While I recognize that it makes tourism even more important there, it also made me really uncomfortable to be staying in such (relative) luxury while all around me people were far worse off.

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

I’ve read this blog for a long time now and by far this was my favorite post. There are those who accumulate money and wealth simply for the sake of having stuff, status. J.D. clearly is not one of those people and I’m glad to see he’s enjoying the fruits of his labors, sharing his experiences, and hopefully teaching others humility.

Gerard
Gerard
9 years ago

JD-
I loved this blog post. It was one of the more interesting things that I have read in a while and I read a lot.
I think the best thing about travel is it is a tonic for preconceptions.
My challenge is to eliminate preconceptions and to see things freshly even when I am at home!

Brooke
Brooke
9 years ago

My sister has been to Africa several times. She is a teacher. She went to both Nigeria and Liberia twice with the organization Litworld, http://www.litworld.org/about/ educating local teachers on literacy. In Nigeria, she worked in Kibera, the largest slum in the city of Nairobi.
Each time she went, when she returned to the United States, she went through a period of depression and culture shock.
We are so lucky here. We really should work more on truly appreciating everything we do have.
Thank you so much for your article.

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