Grey economy (Monday 10th of June)

Everywhere in Tanzania, I get confronted with normal people trying to survive and taking each and every opportunity they can find to do so. When you know your government will provide next to nothing, and jobs are scarce, you need to make a plan.

When you have a mango tree or banana plant in your garden, you can sell the fruit while sitting on a blanket at the side of the road. When you have a car, you can be a taxi. When you make cuttings of the bougainvillea or ficus in your garden, you can sell plants. If you have scissors, you can be a hair dresser.

I once took a course in ‘third world integration’ preparing myself for expat life, and some professors in economics taught us this is called grey economy. It is not registered but it is also not downright fraud. There is no business license and no tax paid but another human being is keeping himself alive. A grey area.

You see this kind of grey economy everywhere. Arriving here as a Westerner, it takes some getting used to that you have no way of knowing if the hair dresser can cut straight, the mangoes have pesticides on them or not, the taxi driver has a driver’s licence, and the seemstress uses an overlock-machine (and can she cut straight?).. And there is no way of finding out other than using their services and living by trial and error.

Each morning I see a young boy at our gate at work selling mandazi (pastry, kind of like smoutebollen)  that his mother probably baked that morning. I am afraid to eat one because if they re-use their oil too often, I will get sick. These days, when I had my car in the workshop for maintenance, I open the bonnet to check if they put everything back, because in the past I did happen that an open lid fell out or a lose wire caused a problem on the way. Each time I buy potatoes from the side of the road, I inspect each and every potato. I would really like Test-Aankoop to open a branch here.. And I wish I was less negative sometimes.

But then there are moments that I get philosophical (I tend to do that in unguarded moments), and I ask myself what it would be like to live like this. These people probably have no electricity – or tap it illegally from the house next door. Their hut is not registered in some sort of city planning document. Some do not even have a birth certificate.. They just… survive. And not even always.

Sometimes it also explains a lot to me. It explains why people in an office are not motivated to work hard and be ambitious. With a set salary, why would you do more than the bare minimum – let alone do more than the person sitting next to you earning the same? It sheds a light on how everyone in this country expects commission on everything. It explains why they tried socialism – but also why it failed. It even sometimes explains (unguarded moment again) why someone would snatch your phone from your hands when you are in a traffic jam with your window open..

I guess ethics is a luxury problem.

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