Being ‘rich’ in a poor land

Marketplace Staff May 1, 2007

Being ‘rich’ in a poor land

Marketplace Staff May 1, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Matthew Algeo used to be one of our staff reporters here in Los Angeles. He left a couple years ago and moved to West Africa. Mali, to be precise. Where his wife had been assigned as a Foreign Service Officer in the American Embassy in the capital of Bamako.

Almost overnight, they went from living in L.A. on a public radio salary — which isn’t really saying too much — to a spot in the far upper-class of one of the poorest countries on Earth.

Matthew told us yesterday on the program about Malians living on less than a dollar a day. Today, we learn wealth can be a relative thing.

MATTHEW ALGEO: I never thought I’d be rich. Then my wife and I moved to Mali. Our house, supplied by the U.S. government, is palatial by Malian standards — with air conditioning and a swimming pool.

Between us, my wife and I earn about $60,000 a year — though she earns nearly all of it. The average Malian makes less than $500 a year. So, here anyway, we are fabulously wealthy.

The transition from the middle class to the upper crust hasn’t been easy. The hardest part, for me, has been becoming a boss. Expats are a major source of employment here, and we’re practically required to hire domestic help.

Our gardener is Amadou Coulibaly. Six hours a day, five days a week, Amadou sweeps dust off the patio and waters the flowers. He also looks after the pool. We pay him about a dollar an hour — the going rate for domestic workers here.

Together with the money he makes working at another house, Amadou earns more than $200 a month — but it all goes to support a very large extended family.

AMADOU COULIBALY [interpreter]: They are feeding 42 people.

ALGEO: How many?

INTERPRETER: Forty-two people.

AMADOU: Forty-two.

Besides his wife and three daughters, those 42 people include Amadou’s 69-year-old father, his father’s two wives, and various brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews.

Of the 42, only Amadou and three of his brothers have jobs. They support the whole family. That’s not unusual in Mali, where families tend to be large — partly because polygamy is legal — and jobs tend to be scarce.

Amadou recently invited me to his house. Ducking through a small doorway, I step into an open courtyard, surrounded on three sides by small, windowless rooms built of mud bricks and concrete. Small children, some naked, playfully chase several chickens.

There is no plumbing or electricity. Food is prepared on an open fire in a corner of the courtyard. The usual meal is rice or millet, an inexpensive grain. The chickens are saved for special occasions.

Amadou takes me to the room he shares with his wife and their three daughters. It is tiny, spotless and stifling. The walls are bare, except for a picture of his favorite Islamic preacher.

Amadou says he would like to build a house for his wife and children, but that would cost about $20,000, more than he could ever hope to afford. He says his only goal in life is to keep his family fed.

AMADOU [interpreter]: I don’t see any bright future for me. Because whatever you get, you eat it. That’s why there is no future.

My wife and I have an annual income that is roughly 6,000 percent higher than the average Malian’s. To equal this standard of living back home, we’d need to earn more than $2 million a year.

In reality, our combined income is slightly below the national average in the United States. We certainly couldn’t afford to buy a house in Los Angeles or Washington. But when I explain this to Amadou, he finds it impossible to believe we are anything but rich.

AMADOU [interpreter]: When American people come here and say that they don’t have any money, we can’t understand it. Because what we hear is that in America, even those who are unemployed, they are paid. So when you say that you are not rich, we can’t understand it.

Next year, my wife and I will move to Rome for her next post. We definitely won’t be able to afford to hire any help there, which is just fine with me — on the whole I think I prefer being middle class. But when we leave Bamako, Amadou will lose half his income. We will try to help him catch on with another expat family, but there’s always a chance he won’t get hired.

Meanwhile, his family just keeps getting bigger. Amadou and his wife are expecting their fourth child in about a month.

In Bamako, Mali, I’m Matthew Algeo for Marketplace.

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