An African take on money

Dan, 38, muses under a large gum tree in Uganda’s green countryside.

“When I was 16, there was only one jacket in my village. One jacket to be shared by maybe 50 guys. If anyone had a date they would all wear that same jacket.”

He laughs at the memory.

“The same was true for shoes,” Dan says. “Not everyone had shoes, so if you needed them you would borrow from those who did.

“That was just the way things were. Everything was shared; no one lived alone.”

Dan is a father of five who grew up in the southwestern part of Uganda as a member of the Ankole tribe. He pauses to consider how he might explain to me, a westerner, how Africans understand money.

“Money is not central to many in Africa. Many people here, they grow their own food which can provide for them the basic nutrients for survival. Even today people can go days or weeks without ever needing to spend money.”

He continues: “Money here is for comfort, not survival. When I was a kid my mother would spend money only a few times a year for school fees, school clothes, and salt — things that were really very rare. So no, money is not central; the community is central.”


Africa is a very different place from the West. It was the last major area of the world to be colonized by Europeans, and because of its size, inaccessibility, and inhospitable tropical diseases, the Europeans were unable to wipe out whole peoples and cultures as they did in other places like North America, Latin America, and Australia. (But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.)

To support the increasing agricultural demands back home — primarily in the Americas but also in Europe — thousands of Africans were enslaved each year to work on farms and plantations. By 1800, about 75,000 Africans were brought to the Americas each year.

All of this was done, of course, to serve that thing that was central to life in the West: money. By the 19th century, money had its fingerprints on nearly every dimension of western life.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian, has this to say about England in 1835:“Intelligence, even virtue, seem of little account without money. Everything worthwhile is somehow tied up with money. It fills all the gaps that one finds between men, but nothing will take its place.”

The centrality of money has its benefits, including the destruction of the caste system so that individuals are not judged according to their status at birth, but by their character or industriousness in life.

But money also replaces the centrality of the community. People no longer depend on social capital — the favours we give and receive to our neighbours, like cooking, hospitality, wisdom, farming, building, and fixing — but on monetary capital to survive.

It no longer matters much if a person lives in or is known by a community; what matters is whether that person can get the job done.

Effective and efficient? Yes. But it also means the communal dimension of life will slowly but surely lose out to the individual.

In his book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein calls the monetization of social capital the “strip-mining of community.” When money becomes central, everything else, including community, becomes peripheral.

This is clearly evident in the marketplaces of different societies. More communal societies will tend to have more bargaining in the marketplace than less communal societies. In places like Africa, bargaining is present because money has not yet usurped the need for relationships.

But in places like the West where prices are fixed for the sake of efficiency and honesty, people can go to the market without ever having to interact with another human being.

The loss of community can also be seen in how we give money away, not just in how we make or spend it.

In 2011 the poorest people in America — those with incomes in the bottom 20 per cent — gave nearly three times more of their income to charity than those in the top 20 per cent. Add to that the fact that the poor are less likely to take advantage of charitable tax deductions and are more likely to give informal donations to friends and family.

The rich prefer to give their money to less personal charities, like colleges, arts organizations, and museums.

The 2012 study in The Chronicle of Philanthropy states that generosity depends in large part to exposure to need. The report says that people who lived in rich communities — communities that had more than 40 per cent of its residents making more than $200,000 a year — gave an average of 2.8 per cent of their income to charity.

Those who earned more than $200,000 a year but did not live in such isolated communities gave an average of 4.2 per cent of their income to charity.

It appears the less we need or even know other people, the less we give to them.

This, however, doesn’t appear to be the case for Africans.

In Africa there is an expectation to give. Whether it is a sports jacket, shoes, school fees, or food, it is your responsibility to give to those who are in need. Jobs and money and possessions are not individual property. They are just the final product of a long, complicated social process that includes one’s family and one’s community.

Just because one person may reap the harvest, doesn’t mean others don’t have a claim in its rewards. If you have, the expectation is to give.

Ghanaian academic Adams Bodomo finds that in 2010 African ex-pats remitted $51.8 billion to friends and family still in Africa, while the Official Development Assistance (ODA), one measurement of foreign aid, sent $43 billion to the continent.

Bodomo refers to these remittances as “family aid.” In an interview with the BBC, he says family aid is “more effective [than foreign aid] because it’s better informed. An African family member abroad knows what is needed, whether it’s for school fees, to build a structure or to grow a business. Compare that to traditional foreign aid and all the cumbersome structures it is distributed through — only a small amount of ‘traditional aid’ ends up with the people who need it.”

So the phenomenon of “family aid” proves that money has not replaced the community as the central feature of African life.

At least not yet.


“Africa is changing,” Dan tells me. “Slowly, but it is changing. And I don’t think it is always a good thing.”

“When I see those ‘Forbes richest’ lists it seems like a competition of ego,” he says. “If you are number two on the list, you want to get to number one. The problem is that when someone becomes more rich, it almost always means that someone else becomes more poor.”

Urbanization, globalization, and industrialization are powerful forces that are pushing change in Africa. The changes are often good. They’re often needed.

But they almost always come with a caveat: the centralization of money.



Article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by  Elvert Barnes.