I was talking with several individuals from Soroti that I regularly interact with. Several times today topics came up that made me think about saving. Now, before I go any further I want to ask you to quickly picture the thing you are saving for. What is that big thing that one day you’ll break open the piggy bank for? (Figuratively speaking.) Got it pictured? O.K- I’ll continue.
As I was driving out to Katine village, Angelina (my translator and consultant on all issues cultural) was telling me about her saving group that was going to meet later in the day. She told me that one woman was saving to purchase a large bag of charcoal to resell bit by bit (the principle to start a business. Price tag: around $25.) Another in her group was saving to purchase tires and tubes for her wheelchair. (Price tag: about $10.) Yet another was saving to put a few tin sheets on the roof of her house. (Price tag: maybe $50.) When asking how long most in her group will be saving Angelina told me most likely more than one year. They put in 2,000 shillings a week- that will purchase several meals, but is less than $1. The car got quiet as I pondered this. When we reached the village I couldn’t help but ask Lazaro’s mother if she was saving for something. Yes was the answer. Sandals and a new dress. (Roughly $3.50. As much as $6 if it is a really nice dress.) I asked how much she had already saved. None. She then told me how school fees are due right now and she has 9 kids. I know that only 4 of them are going to school and I’m paying the fees for one but still, 3 kids in school means she will be saving for that dress and sandals for a few more years yet. I was walking along the road in town and I met Tabatha. A woman who is employed (and paid well I may add!) by one of my team mates. The conversation came around somehow to how she was saving for a bike. I know this is something that very many Ugandans are saving for. A bike really makes travel and life easier. It makes carrying firewood, water, well, practically anything, easier. Many are saving for one but a limited number have one. Having been thinking about it all morning I couldn’t help but ask Tabatha how much she had saved already for her bike. I got a very long discourse about money being spent for Christmas, for medicine for one of the girls, about a funeral in the village…. The short of the answer? None. The best woman’s bicycle that you can purchase in Soroti is 150,000 shillings. $53. She could save that much if she really set her mind to it and said no every time others asked for money from her. But many know that she has a good job and it is just considered wrong to turn away a family member of friend when they ask for help. Even though you know you will most likely never be repaid. I just went outside and asked Uruis (the night watchman of the place I’m staying) if he is saving for anything. He got quite animated and told me all about a piece of land that he is going to buy. When I asked him how much he saved already he became much quieter and told me that, actually he was too far in debt. You see he had just bought a bull. After a few more questions I learned that he had received a very large advance from a “wealthy” foreigner (someone like me) and was going to be paying it off for quite a while. I know that his employer is not Ugandan but if he had been, the odds of that large of an advance were slim to none and he may never have gotten a bull. After a few more questions, I finally got out of him that the bull is actually step one in getting the land. Eventually, the bull will be resold. (So, reading between the lines- he invested in the bull so that now when family asks to “borrow” money he can show them the bull and explain that he has no money to give them. Everyone knows how expensive a bull is so they understand when he says he has no money.) One last anecdote from the day about saving. On the way home from the village I asked Angelina what she was saving for. She gave me this wonderful explanation of how blind children would benefit so much from a nursery school (like a pre-school) so they can begin at a very young age to take care of themselves instead of being locked away until they are 8 or 9 years old then struggling in the blind school. She told me she knows of several children who could start right now and how she would add a room onto her house and keep them right there with her and how they can easily learn to use a cane and learn to do chores and the freedom it would bring for them. She talked our whole way back about it and she has it well planned out. It cannot be said about her that she doesn’t dream big. I asked her how much she had saved already? Actually none. I should add here that Angelina herself is blind and has no income to speak of.
By the way, I’m not telling you all of this so that you will contribute. I know our American mindset is that we can just fix these things. I have the money that most of these guys need for the thing that they are dreaming for. But well… it just isn’t the answer. I’m not sure what the point of my mental wandering tonight is. The thing I clearly saw is that without a savings group or a wealthy, benevolent “friend” who is in a position to save their money for them (in the form of an advance on wages) very few Ugandans manage to save anything or get ahead. Why? What is the root of this problem and how can I address that instead of just handing money out?