Sunday, December 29, 2013

Village Festivals, Social Capital and Soft Power

La Fête de la Sagesse et la Richesse -- This past Saturday, a friend took us to a festival in a village near Dabou, about 90 minutes outside of Abidjan.  There was music, dancing, food, colorful outfits, relentless sun, and an endless ceremony with long-winded speeches.  It was a lot of fun.  In particular, there was lots of music and dancing, both traditional African dance and more modern stuff, in which I participated.

Being in the village, rather than Abidjan, was much closer to the Western conception of "Africa."  We weren't even the only white people at the festival, but white people are clearly a rarity in those parts, and I was an object of fascination.  Barefoot children followed me around.  Someone asked me if my hair was a wig.  They all wanted to touch my arm hair, as they'd apparently never seen anything like it.  I told them that I had the blood of the wolf.

Christmas in Abidjan -- There are some spectacular displays of Christmas lights here.  The bridge to Plateau is lit with Christmas lights shaped into beautiful, colorful flowers.  I assume that the government pays for this, and you can argue with the decision to prioritize funds for this purpose, but I do think there is something to be said for creating an attractive and happy environment for citizens.  Many private establishments also have impressive displays of Christmas decorations.

Queueing and Social Capital -- At the village festival, there was a lunch buffet for a group of us.  Even among our relatively wealthy group, the social capital was absolutely atrocious, with people shamelessly cutting each other to get ahead in the buffet line.  My initial impression has been that social capital is actually worse among the wealthy here, perhaps related to an increased sense of entitlement.

I've been noticing the lack of social capital a bit more in recent days.  I went out to buy a couple of things on December 24, a busy shopping day, and there was a disgraceful amount of cutting and other uncharitable behavior.

That being said, these are minor points, and I've found most of my business dealings to be quite honest.  Prices aren't always fixed, so people might charge me a bit extra for being Western, but people don't try to cheat me outright.  I've never given someone money for a good that was broken or a service that went unperformed.  

Soft Power -- The U.S. has a great deal of cachet over here.  A cabbie recently told me that even having a brother or a cousin in the U.S. can gain one a great deal of status.

I had a run of five cab drivers in a row who told me that their dream is to move to the U.S.  One had saved up $4,000 for his application, only to have the money stolen through a fraudulent service (very common here).  Another is in the process of trying to save up $8,000.  These are shocking sums for people who probably make about $10-$20 a day.  The driver who is saving towards his $8,000 goal says he's been saving money for 10 years now, ever since he was 18.  Most of them hope to drive taxis over in the U.S.  Such a tragedy that we make it so difficult for them to get over to the U.S.

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