Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Number Five

There are so many deficiencies in human capital which make it difficult for the Malian economy to function that one might be tempted to cast the blame on economic illiteracy. Very few people here understand that profits = revenues – costs because the Bambara language has not evolved different words for money to express those three distinct concepts. Quite often rural shops fail because the butigitigis purchase their wares in the cities and then resell those wares to their customers in village for the same exact prices – with every sale, they actually lose money. Most vendors don’t even bother to keep ledger books; they just eyeball how much money is flowing through their business in relative terms; “a little”, “a lot”, “enough”.

But economic illiteracy is only the tip of the iceberg; it has not been uncommon for merchants to hand me incorrect change – not because they are necessarily trying to cheat me, but because they simply cannot handle the math. Most owners of big shops in this country are able to invest 500 francs in a small calculator, and most are so uncomfortable doing subtraction in their heads that they whip out their machini every time they make a transaction – but that doesn’t mean that they know which buttons to push. The deficiencies in Malian human capital run even prior to arithmetic.

I myself never really understood how devastating ignorance can be on the local economy until I sat down one day in market to talking with a Malian vegetable-seller named Ma about the prices of the goods she sells at market. As we were discussing all of these numbers Ma stopped her own thought in mid-sentence, smiled radiantly and hunched over to trace her index finger into the dirt:

“One, two, three, four, five, six!”

And that is how I was introduced to the concept of “innumeracy”: the inability to read or write numbers. Innumeracy is a phenomenon causally related and integrally tied to illiteracy, of course, but it comes across to the numerate observer as incredibly more astonishing. In a society completely bereft of novels and plays or anything application of the written word more complicated than the labels on tea boxes, being unable to read does not seem to be all that much of a handicap. But numbers are an intrinsic part of material existence prior to their utterance by humans, and for an adult member of society to be unable to recognize or portray the visual representations of these numbers in any system at all means that they cannot possibly comprehend a base-ten system, that they can at best comprehend mathematical concepts as complex as the amount of digits they have on their two hands.

The sorry fact of the matter is that the Malian monetary economy is predicated on society’s inability to recognize and identify the numbers printed on their own currency. Back in the days of colonialism and the first two and half decades after independence, Malians conducted business with the sou – the smallest denomination of which was a 1 sou piece. But in 1984 the Republic of Mali joined the Economic Community of West African States and adopted the CFA as their new currency, and since this new currency had already depreciated in value from rampant inflation the smallest denomination in circulation at the time was a 5 CFA piece. Those who could actually read those numbers and speak a little French referred to the money with the proper French terms for each denomination: “cinq francs”, “dix francs”, “vingt-cinq francs”, “cinqant francs”, etc.

But very few Malians could make sense of the squiggles representing those concepts on their coins and bills, and even fewer could speak French. Though the different denominations of this new currency were easily distinguishable by size and color, the vast majority of the Malian population could make no sense of the “5”, “10”, “25”, “50”, “100”, “250” and “500” engraved on their coins, and they especially couldn’t decipher the “1,000”, “2,000”, “5,000” and “10,000” printed on their bills – that is, if an innumerate person could ever get their hands on a paper bill to begin with. So they referred to their new ECOWAS currency with the same names as the sou; since the 5 CFA coin was the smallest denomination like the 1 sou piece, innumerate Malians referred to it as the Bambara word for “one”, the 10 CFA coin as “two”, the 25 CFA as “five”, the 50 CFA as “ten”, etc. There were a lot of people who could in fact read those numbers, but if they read them correctly they couldn’t do business with the innumerate.

Moreover, this is a culture that regularly bows to the lowest common denominator - no matter how absurd. The older generations who came of age during colonialism were disproportionately more likely to be unschooled and innumerate, and Malian society is largely structured upon youth’s deference to elders; in this country, if Grandpa has no teeth, then no one can eat solid foods for dinner so as to not hurt his feelings. So just as the House of Habsburg purposefully mispronounced every “s” as a “th” to humor the grotesquely underbitten, dreadfully lisping King Carlos II, the entire population of Mali established the practice of misidentifying their currency to accommodate those who do not recognize that the numeral 5 stands for the number five.

As though Malian shop-owners don’t already have enough problems staying in the black without any accounting or arithmetic, there is a unique problem which besets those who are in fact numerate; the spoken terms used to identify prices are five times smaller than when those prices are written down – thereby making every transaction at least five times more confusing than necessary. If a shop-owner does know math and he knows that a customer’s order is 9,750 francs, he has to ask his customer for “one thousand, six five hundreds and sixty” no matter how nonsensical that is.

Even I have a really hard time converting between numeric prices and Malian illiterate prices, accepting the cognitive dissonance between seeing one value of numbers on budgets and currency but referring to it as something else. Let’s say I’m haggling over cement prices and the market price for 83 sacks at 7,100 francs a sack and the vendor’s starting price should be 589,300 francs, but I don’t have any scratch paper on me so I have to figure out in my head, what’s 589,300 divided by 5?... well, 100,000… then… what’s 89,000 divided by 5?... um… 16,000… plus 1,800… then 60… so 100,000 plus 16,000 plus 1,800 plus 606 equals… 117,860…

“The price for this should be '117,860', but since I’m buying so much cement here how ‘bout you cut me a break and cut it down to '100,000'?”

“ '100,000' is too low. '107,225'.”

'107,225' ... what’s that in real numbers?... multiply by 5… 500,00… plus 35,000…”

And even I have to give up and take out the calculator application on my phone and translate every numeric price into an illiterate price, and even though I and the cement seller can actually do relatively advanced math the negotiations take so long that we get confused as to what the other is trying to say and we completely lose track of each other’s offers because the only common language we share requires that we manhandle our numbers out of deference to all of those who don’t know what to make of the numeral 5. This is why – as much as I hate speaking to people in French in this country – Bambara and all of Mali’s other tribal tongues are wholly inadequate and the language of the former colonial power is in fact necessary for dealing in transactions more complicated than a few thousands francs.

If you can imagine how difficult handling money in this country is for people like me who can in fact do math, now try to imagine how much harder it is for the masses who need to use their fingers to count to ten…

It is pretty hard to find statistics quantifying the population of the innumerate – maybe that makes a lot of sense, actually – but if slightly more than 70 percent of all Malians are absolutely illiterate, and identifying individual numbers is significantly easier than sounding out combinations of letters into words, then the innumerate population must number at least a few million persons out of a total population of 13 million. But seriously, when is the average millet farmer eking out a hand-to-mouth existence going to interact with any amount of currency so complex that it cannot be adequately expressed with the illiterate numeral system? The fact of the matter is that most people living in countries like Mali are still living in a pre-modern subsistence level agricultural economy in which they farm the coarse grains that they eat, they eat the coarse grains that they farm, and there usually isn’t enough to feed the whole family to begin with. Unlike cash crop farmers, it is fairly rare that subsistence farmers can produce any sort of surplus that can be traded for currency, the whole question of money is a relatively minor aspect of their overall business plan.

And so long as they are illiterate and innumerate, Malians are extremely vulnerable to exploitation by the better-educated urban elite. There probably isn’t very much exploitation present when two rural peasants trade between themselves, like when Amadou the farmer goes to his village market and sells handfuls of tomatoes or onions to his neighbors. Though exploitation is certainly present if Amadou farms cotton on a third of his fields and sells it all to the representative from the nearest big city textile mill. Mills like CMDT and Comatex enjoy perfect monopsony over their respective local cotton markets, so they can still collect supplies of raw cotton year after year by paying the farmers only 200 CFA for a kilogram of cotton. A typical small-scale farmer will sell about 100 kilos after an extremely successful harvest – so for that year, they will take home a monetary revenue of 20,000 CFA (roughly $40). To an innumerate farmer who does all of his counting on his fingers, all of those zeros equate to a completely incomprehensible sum of currency – he will consider himself such a wealthy waritigi that he will spend without abandon.

But in reality, the innumerate farmer is getting royally screwed. The only reason why the textile mills can pay below market value for their raw materials is that no one else in town is buying – the peasants can either take the below-market value offer from CMDT or get nothing. Maybe the executive leadership of the textile companies knows about this disparity, but Amadou the farmer has no means of tracking global commodity prices, he doesn’t even know that he is being exploited. He understands so little about the value of money that he thinks that he is coming out on top, so the next year he is going to whittle down his acreage designated for cereal crops so he can grow even more cotton.

What exactly is Amadou the farmer going to do with the 40,000 francs he earned from selling cotton this year? Perhaps he will invest it in a new plough, another donkey, some better hoes and shovels. Perhaps he will hide it under the loose brick behind his bed in case of emergencies. But most likely, he is going to blow it all on tea, sugar, cigarettes, warm Coca Cola, millet beer and prostitutes. If he hasn’t already, there’s a good chance that he will spend 20,000 francs on a cell phone which he will use can play Tetris and the snake game – he will have to pay more for credit if he wants to actually make any calls. Amadou will spend hardly anything on better food, clothing or medicine for his family; taking care of the children’s day-to-day needs is generally considered the complete responsibility of the women of the family. There’s a good argument that such profligate spending could be reformed if women had more say over family decision-making or if men knew enough about science that they appropriately valued modern medicine– but there’s an even better argument that money would be spent more wisely in this country if people actually understood its value.

And while Amadou the farmer has blown all of his cotton money on toys and candy, the cotton he planted last year has mined all of the nutrients from the soil and put nothing back in, so the third of his fields used for cotton production have become too barren for food production in the long run. Amadou might have money, and he might have even more of it if he expands his cotton acreage the next planting season, but if this trend continues he will eventually be forced to purchase his food – and the 200 francs earned for each kilo of cotton will by no means suffice to compensate for the lost food production. So even though Amadou made what looked like a lot of money this year, the nutrition and health of his family will suffer from the paltry stores in his granary. If Amadou was duped into planting too much cash crops in proportion to food crops he will have to sell off some of his cows or donkeys, maybe even take out a loan at an usurious rate of interest in order to feed his family until the next harvest.

Maybe the typical Malian farmer could avoid such hardships if they could buy better fertilizers, high yield seeds and machine tools. Maybe they could be better off if they actually knew how to manage their finances. But neither can become a reality so long as the typical Malian farmer does not comprehend that the numeral 5 stands for the number five.

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