I read once that a quarter of what medical students learn will be obsolete by the time they graduate, and I’m beginning to be concerned that perhaps the same is true for political science students.
In Political Science theories about informal economies, illicit economies, and the “economy of affection” have been in vogue for over 20 years now, but it wasn’t until I started traveling—first in Uganda, and now in Dakar—that I came to realize to what degree the economy as represented by traditional metrics is divorced from the day to day life of people at the base of the economic pyramid. Dakar is a city that positively pulsates with growth and expansion: the neighborhood that I live in consisted of sand dunes and huts 30 years ago, and the autoroute arteries that pump the lifeblood of taxis and long-haul trucks into center city are a form of bypass surgery for the sandy roads plugged with donkey carts and wheelbarrows that knit my neighborhood together. There’s a lot of money to be made here: in the Sine-Saloum delta I saw the sprawling weekend home of a cement tycoon, and if there weren’t eager customers there wouldn’t be outposts of Celio and H&M and tony gelato stands that cater to the nouveau riche of Dakar, foreign and local alike.
The fact is, the economy of “the streets” is bizarre and unclassifiable. My job puts me in regular contact with entrepreneurs who can realize 200% profits on their investments with a loan of only $750. The other day I met with a client who had fallen behind on payments who had given me cause for concern: every time I called him he named a different enterprise he was engaged in and a different client who owed him money, which led me to believe that he was trying to defraud our NGO. Every time I met with him he was engaged in an entirely different project: the first time he talked of nothing but sheep that his cousin was taking care of back in his village, and gave sweeping estimations of how much profit he stood to realize when he eventually sold the lambs. On my last visit to him he directed me to an ordinary shipping crate next to a highway in a landscape punctuated by cinderblocks drying on the outskirts of nearby cement factories, and with the pride of a renaissance sculptor revealing his latest masterpiece he threw open the doors to reveal to me that the whole container was packed with auto windshields: Peugeots, Renaults, Toyotas. A plethora of brands were represented, and he explained that he bought the glass in China or Dubai for $50 a plate, and then resold them in Dakar for up to $200. He promised to make a repayment soon, as soon as his next enterprise started turning a profit: an umbrella shop that his cousin ran down in HLM.
What I’m getting at is that a lot of people here make a living off of a lot of very unusual industries. I mentioned that when I first got off the plane at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport I was surprised to have been approached—nay, overwhelmed—by men hawking 2 liter bottles of shampoo, but truth is stranger than fiction and I regularly encounter people carrying even more bizarre combinations of merchandise. The other day I was sitting stalled in traffic in a taxi when a man came to my window holding a Scrabble board, a sack of limes, and a hammer. He told me that if I bought the Scrabble board, he would throw in 2 limes for free. Billy Mays could learn a lot here.
I’m uniquely privileged to be able to see the economic world through my clients eyes. We have for example Monsieur A.D., who explained to me that he works 6 days a week from 8h to 20h—I’ve been to visit him at “work,” and his job consist of drinking tea and chatting with friends while he keeps an eye on his cell phone kiosk and occasionally sells a pair of headphones. Another client I met with, D.P., explained that his business consisted of selling Polo and Lacoste perfume out of a backpack. He assured me that all of his products were original and also that he sold perfume for $3 per bottle, which I pointed out simply didn’t add up. “Yes it does,” he said, “I sell Lacoste and XXL perfume, made and bottled by the Original Company Ltd., China.” His business is doing great, and he’s perfectly on track for repayment.