My family and I are in the midst of a relocation to Washington, DC, a city with a cost of living at least 35% higher than my current home here in Columbia, SC. The rent for our (nice but hardly lavish) new place approaches double that of my current mortgage, and childcare is going to run us 50% above what we are used to here. And I am moving to take up a fellowship that grants me a 13% increase over my current salary to make up these costs . . . yes, I am going backward to take up this position, but I think this opportunity is too important to pass up. Luckily, my wife agrees.

The net outcome of this is a situation where my family will be living hand-to-mouth for a year or two, despite having two pretty good salaries under one roof. This situation reminds me of a story I use to explain the importance of purchasing power parity when comparing incomes and/or material standards of living in different places. Purchasing power parity is a measure of what your money will buy you, based on a “market basket” of goods that you might buy in each place. Since things like food are much more expensive here in the United States than they are in farming communities in sub-Saharan Africa, it makes no sense to compare incomes between these two places without normalizing for what those incomes can purchase. Which leads to my story . . .

My first year doing fieldwork in Ghana, I spent a lot of time simply hanging around, talking to people, getting my bearings and building relationships. Once the folks in Dominase and Ponkrum realized that I was 1) actually listening to them when they spoke and 2) willing to answer any questions they might have of me, I never lacked for evening conversation. This was especially true when I was buying the akpeteshi (distilled palm wine – it’s pretty serious stuff).

Fun at the akpeteshi still, 1998

One night, while I was talking about money, incomes and making a living with a group of people in Dominase, the issue of my income and net worth came up. Now, at the time I was a graduate student in Anthropology, just about to start a Ph.D. program in Geography. I was fortunate enough to have a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which is (by grad school standards) a very generous award . . . but it was still not much to live on. In the interest of honesty, I told them exactly what my annual stipend amounted to: $14,000*. Once someone managed to convert that into Cedis (the local currency, then trading at about 2300 to the dollar), this news resulted in shouting and amazement.

I then asked if I could explain what things cost me in America. I began to lay things out – my rent of $350/month (this provoked a near-riot, as $350 is as much as some households earn in a year in these villages). Then the cost of food – and another near riot, as the farmers began to realize that crops like the oranges they sold me for the equivalent of 5 cents were worth at least twenty times that amount in the US. I then explained about my car, gasoline, insurance, clothing, etc. Never let anyone suggest that a lack of education leads to deficiencies in mathematics – despite incomplete elementary educations, nearly every person in these villages engages in trade in markets in nearby towns. As a result, they can add and subtract large and complex sums in their heads very, very rapidly. Several of the villagers talking to me were converting the amounts I was listing into Cedis, and then adding this total up as we went along. As I came to the end, one of them looked at me and said (in Fante, via my field assistant’s interpretation) “then you have nothing!” “Yes!” I replied (in English – I did not yet speak Fante – but yes is pretty well understood in Anglophone Africa). There was a pause, and then a general cheer of “nothing!” broke out among the assembled group – and with that, most residents of the village stopped seeing me as particularly rich, and therefore much more able to understand what it meant to live from hand to mouth as they did**. At the end of each month, we all had nothing!

Here I am, some 13 years later – with tenure, and paid reasonably well. And moving into a situation where, once again, at the end of each month I will have nothing! I’m not sure if the folks in Dominase and Ponkrum will be horrified or amused. But they will understand . . .

* I should note that I was completely screwed by NSF with regard to the size of my stipend – there was no cost of living adjustment across the four years I held the fellowship. As soon as it ran out for me, though, they instituted a 50% (!!!) increase – the next year. Yes, I am still a little bitter about that.

** This is not to say that I did, in the end, completely understand what it meant to be a resident of these villages. While I tried as hard as I could to live under the same strictures as the villagers when I was in the villages, I also spent time in more comfortable settings in Cape Coast. Further, when things went wrong (such as in 1998, when the monsoon failed and a lot of the farms around these villages failed), I experienced short-term discomfort and frustration, but always knew that I had resources to meet my needs, if only I chose to walk a few miles to the nearest road and catch a cab. Thus, while I spent a few days without food in 1998, like everyone else in these villages, I always knew that if things got really bad, I could get to a road and to a store where I could buy food with money from my bank account in the US. Thus, I cannot say that I understand what it is like to live on the edge like the people I work with do each and every day – honestly, none of us really can.