Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Monday, June 22, 2009

What A Life: Come, Share Mine.

So much of what we take for granted is merely a matter of context. Take my little household. I have a housekeeper whose native country is somewhere in west Africa. Generally speaking, her native country has had an appalling time, economically, since independence from the French in the 1950s. The French helped by basically gutting the country when they left. But, on the positive side, her country has not seen much civil strife during the same period. Only recently have people really risen up against the rulers, and the death of only their second president since independence has been a spur for another military coup. But, her life and that of her compatriots is shaped by those economic-political backings and the following:
  • a country with wondrous mineral resources, which somehow has never had these enrich the population;
  • a land with many rivers, yet most people struggle to get a decent supply of drinking water;
  • those same rivers can supply enough electricity to light the whole country, yet regular power outages are the norm and the capital is notable for being a place of darkness when one lands by plane at night;
  • the country was once the 'grain basket' for the sub region, now it imports most of its food; and rice, which it can and did grow successfully for decades, is regularly imported from south east Asia, putting a massive strain on the meagre foreign exchange reserves in the central bank;
  • wars have gone on in most of its neighbouring countries, and hordes of refugees have flooded into the country, putting a huge strain on the already meagre pickings available;
  • if you want to leave, you cannot get as much as one flight out each day to Europe, though there are daily (arduously long and mainly indirect) flights to neighbouring African countries.
With all of that, you have to do the daily grind. When I heard her talking on the phone to her son (now 7), about some medical treatment that he had just had, I envisaged him in that setting, with his father and sisters, and pondered whether his mother was doing right by him by being here in Barbados, earning a very decent wage, with which she could offer the family good financial support.

She cannot share with them life in this blissful, small island economy, where most things work really well, crime is low, banks have ATMs, currency is stable, daily flights take you to the UK, US, Canada, and nearby islands. I think she is bewildered sometimes with what she hears on the radio as people talk about "how hard things are".

When I listened and read recently about problems of arrears at the Barbados Water Authority and to Barbados Light and Power, I though immediately to the situation that had applied in Guinea. Many people did not have water bills because they had no water piped to their properties; most had wells and the water quality was a bit dodgy. Many people stole electricity if it was available nearby. Even in the best of neighbourhoods, you would be a fool to rely on the national grid, and most homes had a diesel-fueled generator, which was often running because power cuts were often and sometimes very long. Add to that, the fact that those who worked in a property were not averse to stealing diesel for their own use or for profit. Those who did not steal electricity and paid in time and in full, like I did, were often bemused how the monthly bills would sometimes triple and quadruple, even in periods when the house was empty. Failure to pay would mean disconnection. I remember one of the difficult exercises with the government was to track down the arrears to public sector companies and arrange for their repayment. The amounts were huge and long-standing, and often the culprits were other government agencies, who were under tight budgets and passed on their pain. What would it serve to not have water and electricity in government offices?

Likewise, with the telephone company, who billed my residence for two years, even though they had acknowledged that it had no working line. They also billed my office for calls not paid for two years. I recall my first experience of negotiating in French, in my first week in office. The phone company threatened to cut off my office lines for arrears. I told them to send me the details of the calls for review and that I would get back to them within 48 hours. They refused. I threatened to call the Prime Minister and Finance Minister--I had a bit of clout. They still refused. I threatened to go to their Director General's office and give him a good working over. They sent me the bills. I reviewed them and found that most of the calls were made between 7pm and 4am, when no one was in the office! I told them to stop the nonsense, and find out who was pirating my lines. They did...for two years, then tried the stunt again. Suffice to say that by then my French was really good as was my command of a local dialect, and I invoked some jou-jou and all was hunky dory in a few minutes.

All of that spilled into my mind as we had a houseful of American 20-somethings staying for the weekend, and they were struggling with 'driving on the wrong side of the road', and how funny the money was. Coming from the land of AC ever on, they had to be told that breezes are cooling...and that leaving doors open with AC running would not cool the world. But they ate the soused pig knuckles and thought they were tasty. They were happy for sun, when NYC was awash with rain. They enjoyed Caribbean hospitality aplenty and went home with great memories of how strangers can become friends.

My housekeeper does not have to deal with household bills, which her employers (we) pay. She manages her local mobile phone use and pays as she goes. She calls Guinea whenever she needs to on a phone whose bill I pay. She does not really fathom the difference between energy-saving bulbs and any other kind, as before it was light or no light sometimes at night.

I try to put myself in someone else's shoes when I encounter a difficulty, but it's not always easy. The shoes are so many different shapes and sizes.

1 comment:

Drey said...

If you only knew how good your musings are for me.