Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Steady Job

“Mas um, toma.” Brimus handed me another shot glass filled with grogue.
“Okay, okay,” I said, as if he had to ask me twice.

“Mas um, toma.” Brimus handed me another shot glass filled with grogue.
“Okay, okay,” I said, as if he had to ask me twice.

It was about midday on a nice Sunday afternoon and I was comfortably positioned on a rock, half drunk and quite full after eating corn and kachupa. Brimus, a friend from Assomada, brought me to his sister’s house situated on a mountain, a steep 20-minute climb up from Achada Igreja, the central zone of Picos.

About the time I was dozing off from drinking grogue and eating all day, a guy came out of nowhere with a huge bag over his shoulder. He spotted my pale face and asked if I spoke English:

Immediately, “s!#@!! I hate climbing this damn mountain. What I do everyday sucks.”
“Whoa, whoa. Calm down man. What’s up?”
“Look at me man. I have to climb up here to sell this bull[exp] out of this bag. I hate my life.”
“I’m sorry it’s like that man.”

Every Sunday, Alexandre climbs up the mountain to sell things like soap, combs, sandals and watches to people far from town. He came to Cape Verde for work, like many other West Africans, about 16 months ago.

“On good days, I’ll eat rice in the morning and evening, and drink a cup of tea before I go to bed. Sometimes I eat nothing.”
“Can you really not make enough money to eat?”
“Between paying rent and supporting my mother back home in the Gambia, it’s very difficult. I mean look where I am. I’m selling sandals and bedsheets to people who live in the middle of nowhere.”
“What would you need to make life better?”
“I need a steady job.”

People depend on several things. These are the same things no matter who you are or where you live: security, health, education and gainful employment. In Alexandre’s case, he is lacking a steady job. He has his security, his health and enough education to know how to sell things for a living. But even Alexandre’s ability to speak five languages has not helped him find a better job.

Now, if Alexandre grew up as an American in the US – he could walk around the US feeling relatively safe, he probably wouldn’t be as hungry or thirsty or sick as other parts of the world, he would probably have gone to school (90.7%1 of Americans graduate high school) and, he would have had a decent chance at finding a job (unemployment rate 6.1%2).

If Alexandre was born in Cape Verde, he’d also feel pretty secure. He’d likely be in decent health though he probably wouldn’t have as high an education as in the US. Where he would struggle is finding a job – unemployment rate is 25%3.

To me, coming from the United States, 25% unemployment is high. But for Alexandre, this place is a paradise of paid labor. The unemployment rate in the Gambia is an estimated 77+%4 by some accounts, although it is reported unknown in several official documents.

While the level of healthcare in the Gambia is lower than Cape Verde or the US, at least Alexandre doesn’t live in a place like Sudan or Pakistan. Forget health or education or jobs – when you’re not sure if the 12 year old kid walking down the street has an AK-47 strapped to his shoulder or if an 18 year old will park a truck full of explosives on your front lawn and detonate a bomb that will blow out windows of houses two miles away, it must be difficult to find any joy in your day.

We don’t know fear. Not me, not my friend Brimus, not Alexandre. When you don’t have security for your life, life sucks.

But you know it must be rough where Alexandre comes from. He’d take his life in Cape Verde – hiking around mountains on Sunday so he can take care of his mom and put food in his mouth – over whatever the situation was like at home.

Then you have Capeverdeans who tell me they have it rough when they hear about the kind of life people live in “America”, mainly with the jobs and the cool stuff Americans flaunt.

And Americans, well, Americans really have nothing to complain about. And if you asked them, they’d probably tell you they’re relatively well-off. They’ve got their security, their health, their education and their employment. It could be better, but it’s no doubt better there than most places.

Alexandre sold a bedsheet to my friend’s grandmother at a bargained price of about US$9. This put him in a good mood, “this job sucks, but I believe God will make my life easier someday.”

“You and me both man.” As he walked across the mountain to the next house a few hundred meters away, my tight belly swelled. I looked at my empty glass and couldn’t help feeling guilty.

That one man – a person struggling day-to-day to make ends meat – represents the majority of the people in the world who can’t do much to change the situation. While I – a person with nothing to complain about – represent the small minority of the people in the world who can. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, coming from a relatively well-off place, I’d like to think I’m having somewhat of an impact on my small community in Cape Verde. But to make life easier for people like Alexandre the world over, it will take much more than 8000 Peace Corps Volunteers and the few tens of thousands of other peace-seekers living abroad trying to improve the living conditions of the less fortunate.

It will take nothing short of an army of millions of committed people with an entire political administration behind them, both working selflessly, to provide everyone the basic means of survival. What this means, is that the most fortunate people in the world may have the most work ahead of them.

Looks like we all have a mountain to climb.

3 (final stats from 2005)


Island dreamer said...

The funny thing is, since being back in the US I feel like all I hear is people complaining about their lives and how difficult things are. Only when pressed or forced to recognize that there is a developing world do they begrudgingly (yet quickly) admit that "yeah, okay, it could be worse". It's annoying.

I am hoping that with new leadership we can start to engender that drive to service, like back in the 60s, where floods of Americans realized it was their duty to take what they had (privilege) and use it to serve others.

Do you really think Obama will double the Peace Corps?

Senor Tango said...

Brian, I just read this post for the first time, some 6 months later, and I have to say thank you for putting this stuff out on your blog for others to read. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment "we all have a mountain to climb". I don't know who, if anybody said it, but I throw it out every once in a while, "with great power comes great responsibility." My only wish is that we all realize our own potential and power and realize that we are called to utilize that power and ability to serve others. Thanks for the reality check Brian. I hope more people read this 6 months late like I did!

Eliezer Silva said...

hi brian, great post man. I'm brazillian but i grew up in cape verde. now i'm studying here and thinking about things i could do to make some change for people like alexandre. I really appreciate the great job of peace corps volunteer. Sometimes i get myself with this feeling of this great mountain to climb. I really hope that more people would realize how big this world is, and that there's a lot o people that needs the very help we could offer.