Salambo in Addis

Salambo discovering Ethiopia

Rampant inflation

For the first time in my life, I live in a country where inflation is a daily reality. Until now, my knowledge of inflation was confined to theoretical books or historical accounts of strong inflationary times in Europe. Never before did I have to experiment it with my own purse. Prices for some goods in Ethiopia have suddenly gone up by about 30 to 50 percent at the start of the New Year in September. This kind of sudden rise doesn’t apply to local food prices (fruit, vegetable and meat) which tend to go up more gradually and remain extremely cheap compared to Europe, but it is noticeable on other goods and services. For Ethiopians at the lower end of the social scale, it is a harsh reality. Their already low salaries would never go up so drastically in one year. For them, food is becoming increasingly more expensive, leaving less disposable income for other basic necessities. Their chance to improve their standard of living is becoming thinner in the current condition.

We can’t be oblivious to it because we have people working for us, whom we are morally responsible for. This is the part I am personnally struggling with, as it is new territory. Whenever I required the services of a baby-sitter or domestic help in the past, the work relationship was very clear: I was paying an independent worker the market rate for providing the requested services. In Ethiopia, the work relationship is completely different. People call it feudal, but it reminds me more of the paternalistic work environment of the post industrial revolution in the 19th century. Staff are expecting their employers to look after them and their family. They would never openly ask for a pay rise, but they ask for an advance on salary, and when such advances become too frequent or are requested too early in the month, we know they are struggling with money. So it’s up to us to re-adjust in a fair way according to the local practice here. It goes even further, they ask for medicine when they need it because they can’t afford to buy it; they ask for used clothes, bags or domestic items.  So for exemple, when our babysitter had a cold, she didn’t say anything but she was coughing until I gave her some medicine.  She would not tell us she was pregnant until she was six months into the pregnancy by fear of losing her job (a common practice here). I had to address the matter and re-assure her that she would stay on and would go on maternity leave. Our guard recently asked me for used school bags for his kids; they didn’t have any and he couldn’t afford to buy them. A few months before, I gave him a pair of flip-flops when I noticed that he could hardly walk because one of his was broken.  In my view, this way of working creates a kind of dependency from the worker towards his employer. In return, workers are prepared to work overtime or extra days when requested by his employer without claiming extra pay, which makes them more reliant on their employer generosity or lack of it. The cards are not openly set from the start, and people are lucky or not. They never ask for a holiday, it is an unknown concept to them. At the most, they will ask for a few days off to visit their relatives in rural areas, which implies spending two days travelling on a public bus. The development of holidays as a social and economical concept came with the rise of the middle classes in the 20th century. In that respect, we are far away from Europe, where paid holidays have been a due since they were introduced in the 1930s.

Fortunately, we also see some improvements in the social condition here. Our maid’s second daughter has just started university last week, which means that she will likely get a much better job than her mother. On her request I sold her a second-hand computer, at a highly subsidised price, which her mother wanted to pay for. She asked me to take the money off her salary every month. That in itself was a dilemma for me: I know she needs the money and at the price I sold it (60 euros), I could have just given it to her, but if I had done that, the rest of the staff would have asked for a computer as well, which I couldn’t give. I did say that if her daughter graduates, she will get the money back…

I remember thinking that Virginia Woolf was a spoiled aristocrat when through Mrs Dalloway, she wrote at length about managing her domestic staff. Now that I find myself in that situation and I have to live with this kind of reality, I understand better how she felt. Even when all the chores are taken away, it is not easy to manage people who are in essence paid to serve us. We need to learn to preserve our personal and mental space, where the physical space is occupied. I have difficulties with the concept itself , let alone with the practical reality it implies, and in the meantime I lack the space to feel at home.

9 comments on “Rampant inflation

  1. baskettoethiopia
    October 24, 2012

    I liked this blogpost a lot. I found it a very apt description of the dilemmas that one faces as an employer of domestic staff in Ethiopia.

    • amin
      October 24, 2012

      To judge the entire country just with one case is a harsh one

      • Salambo
        October 25, 2012

        This is exactly what I am trying NOT to do:to judge an entire country. This blog is about my personal experience of living in a country and culture so different from mine; it is about the discovery and the inherent emotional difficulties of adapting to a unknown place. It is an honest personal account with no pretension to be something else.

  2. rwm
    October 24, 2012

    Excellent analysis…

  3. francescandreini@me.com
    October 26, 2012

    I found a lot of similarities with the situation I had to face, some years ago, in Senegal. You talk about this problem with precision and attention to detail but also with a lot of participation and sensitivity. I really appreciate your writing this, thank you for sharing about your experience!

  4. dmdalgetty
    November 7, 2012

    I am a recent follower and am touched by/fascinated with your from-your-heart observations. Clare dB passed your blog on to me and I am so pleased that she did. Your stream-of-consciousness writing is ‘real’ and I feel as if we are having tea and chatting! I sense some ‘journal’ type ‘release’ writing also. Please keep writing. I wish you and your family well.

    • Salambo
      November 7, 2012

      We can have a virtual cup of tea then!!!

  5. Hamilton Richards
    December 19, 2012

    This vivid and perspicacious post brings back poignant memories from 1966-68, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, first as a high-school teacher in Dire Dawa and then on an irrigation project based in Mekele. Three of us PCVs living in Dire Dawa didn’t have staff, as such, but we did have a cook, Belaynesh. We felt guilty that her salary (set by our Peace Corps area rep) was so low, and then discovered that it was enough that she could hire a cook for her own family.

    I came across “Salambo in Addis” while looking for information on the Blue Nile Falls. My wife, who taught in the Keren (Eritrea) Secondary School, and I are about to make our first trip back since we left in 1968. We’re revisiting the towns where we lived, and filling in some gaps that we missed the first time around. Awaze Tours, whom we’ve engaged to schlep us around, advises us that

    the Blue Nile falls is much less attractive than it was before because of the Electrical dam being built there.

    but according to http://wikitravel.org/en/Bahir_Dar,

    The water is no longer diverted to a hydro-power dam. It is a very nice sight – smaller than Niagara Falls, but amazingly scenic.

    In case anyone reading this has been to Bahir Dar recently and cares to comment, I’ve checked the “notify me” box and would be grateful.

    • Salambo
      December 19, 2012

      Hi Hamilton and thanks for reading Salambo!

      I visited the Blue Nile falls in May this year, and thought that even though the falls are no longer what they used to be (or so I heard), the whole experience of going there was very interesting. I wrote about it on Salambo, if you look in the May-June archive you’ll find the post. We crossed the Nile not far from its source on a tiny boat and then walked for about 20 mns through fields of ….(I can’t remember what!), before reaching the falls. I thought the sheer power of the water falling down was still impressive. I was told since that the best time to see them in their full glory is September, right after the rain season. You may be lucky as we had quite a lot of rain this year,so maybe there will still be a lot of water. Enjoy!

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This entry was posted on October 24, 2012 by in Living in Addis and tagged , , , , .

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