In Babati last night, at Joas’ guest house, Marianne and I and Matt Chapman met with a prominent local businessman, the kind of person whom Matt seems to draw to himself with no effort. The businessman appeared, as far as I could tell, simply for the purpose of dashing cold water on Matt’s interest in lending the people of Bacho B money to start a small business. Matt mentioned his original idea for the villagers, broom making, and then teacher Paul’s suggestion, pig farming. I talked about the Babati Rotarian—this man knows him—who, as I wrote in my June 3 post, has proposed a volleyball factory. All foolish ideas, it seems, according to the man who talked to us last night.
“The problem here is that one can live very easily. We have a good climate for growing things, so a man does not have to work hard in order to feed his family. He can work for a few hours a day and know that he will produce enough maize and bananas and that his cattle or goats will give him enough milk. So nobody will go hungry. He lives in a mud hut, which may look pitiful to you. But it is all he needs because our weather is mild. It is our winter now, but let me ask you this: have you ever been too cold while you are here? Of course not. So as long as the man in the village can raise a little bit extra to sell so that he can buy his cigarettes and his beer or vodka, he is happy. He has an easy life and that makes him lazy.”
Amused, the businessman shakes his head.
“So you see, that is the mentality. All of you mean well, but these people don’t want anything to do with hard work. And you must be careful, Matt, because when these villagers see a white man they know how to charm him. The problem with the people of my country is that they are liars. One of our golden-tongued Tanzanians will tell a rich white man what he wants to hear so that he can take his money. But what will he buy with the white man’s money? Cigarettes and beer and vodka! A holiday, as you people say!”
By the time the businessman ends his monologue, which I have abbreviated, Matt seems barely able to keep his eyes open; he has labored hard on Ufani School construction despite the cold that dogged him the last several days. Marianne and I see no reason to challenge a man whose mind appears made up and whose statements bear little relevance to the excitement and gratitude that Karimu’s work has provoked among the villagers, who probably don’t need a school to acquire more cigarettes and beer and vodka.
Yet, beyond my shock at hearing a black African voice opinions like these about other black Africans, I also have this reaction to the businessman’s words: I wonder if his attitude to the poor majority of his country typifies its relatively small middle class and, if so, to what extent the attitude itself harms Tanzania’s prospects of economic development?
For years the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has argued that the value of the assets accumulated by the world’s poor and lower middle classes dwarf the total of foreign aid and investment which has poured into developing countries since the end of the Second World War. De Soto calls attention to the need of poor countries to build institutions that will formalize their informal economies, for example, by titling land and incorporating businesses. This would enable creation of the paper trails that replace personal trust beyond the little circles in which people know one another—and without such paper trails, the investing that keys wealth creation will always remain miserly.
But the businessman’s words hint at a different kind of missing trust, which would hold back investment by Tanzania’s indigenous capitalists in the sweat of its workers. We hope this lack of trust is not widespread.—Don Stoll