Field Notes from Africa: the Sorrows and Opportunities of Rich Foreigners on a Poor Continent

Field Notes from Africa: the Sorrows and Opportunities of Rich Foreigners on a Poor Continent
Photo Credit:AMISOM Public Informationflickr@Public Domain

To meet the not-so-numerous Chinese community in Tanzania, I occasionally jump onto WeChat, a Chinese messaging app that has quickly evolved into a platform for meeting strangers in geographic proximity.

As I was lounging around late at night the other day, I casually browsed through the “Look Around” function that shows WeChat users nearby.

Suddenly, I received a private message from what seemed to be a Chinese girl based in Dar es Salaam (largest city of Tanzania).

“Where are you? When are you dropping by the Yuetan Hotel?" She was referring to the popular Chinese hangout in the busy Kariakoo market area of downtown Dar es Salaam.

After a few nights of using WeChat, this kind of language no longer surprised me. The content is just too predictable, a young Chinese girl luring random Chinese men to some hotel for “a drink.”

Indeed, in a Chinese expat community where the population is almost exclusively composed of youthful and energetic Chinese businessmen and laborers, girls like these have become a hot commodity.

“Working in the service industry," they would introduce themselves, and then immediately move to introduce their “massage services" if the man on the receiving end displays the slightest degree of interest.

Yet despite the steep price of US$100 per hour, or at an extreme bargain, US$300 per night, their “services” seem to be bringing in good business. Out of sheer curiosity, I tried to book a few girls for a couple hours. All reported that that they were booked for the next two or three days and requested for later bookings over seductive apologies.

When asked why business is so good, the girls have no qualms about sharing some work details and their personal philosophy. Purportedly not receiving any non-Chinese guests, they cater solely to the local Chinese male population who, they say, accumulate “enormous needs" while abroad. Even before arriving in this country, they heard about such “needs” and proceeded to devote a couple of years “to really make money.” The fact that they only take cash payments in US dollars upfront partly shows that their desire to make “internationally competitive” amounts of money was not going to be hampered by Tanzania’s general economic conditions.

A couple of days later, I was walking around town as I thought back about, for lack of better word, the “business-savviness” and “boldness” of these Chinese masseuses. Suddenly, I saw a job advertisement on a lamppost on the main street leading to the bustling central market.

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

A renowned international organization was hiring local staff to do market research and data analysis to help determine the best strategies for gaining access to target markets. In its brief description, the high expectations for the job were clear. To get the job done, computer abilities and critical thinking skills, a rarity in this mostly farming community, are obviously essential.

The salary was also clearly noted on the poster: US$140 a month in the current exchange rate. Post-taxation, this is equivalent to around US$4 a day in final earnings. Just to reiterate, this is the salary for highly competent university graduate-level talent, in a town where 95% of the population are farmers with little education beyond few years of primary school.

A Tanzanian college graduate living on US$4 a day contrasted with that of the Chinese prostitute at US$100 an hour does show the disturbing multiplicity of the local economy. Yes, there is money to be made here; otherwise there would be no Chinese businessman paying large sums of cash to girls flown in from back home. But the money is not going to the locals or intelligent, but to the foreign and opportunistic. The example of Chinese “service workers” is an extreme one, but depicts the general mentality held by many of the country’s foreign residents.

The differing economic fortune of the local worker and wealthy expat is most clearly displayed in the local markets. Even at relatively affordable prices, compared to the already affordable standards of the developing Southeast Asia where I used to live, many daily necessities in minds of expats are pure luxuries for locals. This is especially true considering that many packaged goods of non-agricultural nature need to be imported from abroad and shipped into this remote town via under-developed logistic networks. It also explains why a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of mouthwash would add up to 10% of this four-dollar-a-day university graduate’s monthly income.

This results in a sheer display of misfortune, as a person of high intellectual caliber can barely make a living or afford the lifestyle he deserves as a white-collar worker.

But, to end on a more positive note, I would like to think that, perhaps, these highly educated critical thinkers in small town Tanzania are simply ahead of their times. As economies grow and become more complex, bigger firms will emerge and require services of capable people to provide complex data inputs for long-term and strategic decision-making. It is just that in the potential-filled Tanzanian economy of today, such high-skilled human resources are not yet necessary. There are too many market niches waiting to be filled and too few contenders to fill them; it simply needs no complicated analysis to show what one can invest in to make good money.

In essence, both the lowly paid college graduate and highly paid expat are part of this rather early stage of economic development. At this point, those performing highly demanded services, whether requiring intelligence or not, will be rewarded handsomely. As such, the limited number of foreigners catering to a wealthy foreign crowd with niche needs have become fabulously rich in the process driving up inequality with locals.

But this reality will undoubtedly come to an end, as the country becomes one where more and more credible competitors emerge in every industry. When that day comes, the college graduate will have the last laugh. Their rare combination of critical thinking skills and understanding of the local culture will be in much higher demand, raising their incomes significantly above the current few opportunistic foreigners dependent on looks and sheer luck to earn their economic survival.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: A University Graduate Living on Four Dollars a Day and a Prostitute Making 100 USD an Hour