Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Adam Smith, free markets, and horror

Free markets are thriving in Freetown and throughout Sierra Leone. You see the competition all around you.

Except the capital is war and poverty. The clients are expats. And the merchants are anyone with a story of suffering and hardship to tell. And the product is horror.

All along the streets and beaches, Sierra Leoneans compete with each other over finding and often contriving the right story to tell of war, poverty, and loss. Sometimes the pitch is simply nudging you with the remaining stumps on their arms (or “residuals” as prosthetic limb designers call them) or asking for money to watch the African cup. Some are prepared with letters and documents of their hardship and needs. Some just follow you for miles on the beaches, requesting aid as your new found Padi (Friend) or Brother. Some tell of their families being killed in the war; some tell of their hungry children at home; some simply tap on the window as your car drives by; some stick their deformed arms in your face or grab your hand pleading for money and food to eat.

It’s a skill, honed by years of sales to expats, discerning what the NGO or UN agency or individual needs to hear to open up the pocketbook and dole out some money. It’s a talent finding the right pitch to reach into the deep pockets of white man, sympathetic and naïve. And so hardships and difficulties are invented, and Sierra Leoneans become fierce advocates for their own impotence so the white man can come and rescue them.

But the pitch becomes so good, comes so often, it becomes harder to discern truth from lie, genuine hardship from contrived. But then, in a country like Sierra Leone, with a life expectancy around 40, with 75% of the population under $2 a day, with over a quarter of the children dying before the age of 5, what hardship isn’t genuine here?

George Packer wrote of war amputees who were brought to Long Island, New York, to be fitted with expensive prosthetic limbs and then returned to their homes in Sierra Leone. He discovered that many of the prosthetic limbs were left gathering dust in some corner of their shack or tin hut. It was so much harder to get sympathy with a nice prosthetic limb on your residual… victimhood was so much easier without a visible sign of the aid you’ve already received.

Maybe this isn’t the capitalism, the free market Adam Smith had in mind. Maybe this is an example where individual self-interest is counter-productive, causing people – like me, with deep pockets and sympathy – to no longer know who to believe and then turn away by default, even from the genuinely needy and genuinely honest. Maybe this is part of the irrationality of man, Kahneman’s psychology of decision-making, injecting itself into the rational calculation of economics. Maybe this is a downside Smith or Milton didn’t consider… Milton, the economist, but I suppose John Milton pertains as well.

For truly, a country sitting on billions in diamonds, with rutile, bauxite, petroleum and now even uranium; a country with arable land and vast fisheries; a country with miles of stretching beaches for the European tourist; a country with all that relying on free market victimhood and horror, isn’t that truly a paradise lost?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

White Man in Africa

Several months ago I was working in my office and one of the local cleaning girls came in. She had been cleaning my office for the last couple days. I like to talk with most of the cleaning and security staff, so I asked what her name was and how she was doing, briefly chatting about a local Sierra Leonean band, Jungle Leaders, and their popular album Pak En Go. Within moments of becoming friendly, the whole dynamic changed and I began to feel uncomfortable, both with her and the other cleaning staff. Like many before me, I had become another rich white man about to rescue some cleaning girl from poverty.

I decided I shouldn’t be as friendly in the future.

Walking to work on a weekend, I stopped and chatted with some kids, saying “hi” or “kushe.” As I was walking away, a couple girls in the group approached and threw their arms around me. I kept walking and shrugged them off as they began offering me prices.

Taking the back road to my apartment, Fatima, a pretty Sierra Leonean girl I met a couple times near my apartment, waved me over to her place, where another girl was doing her hair. Both were probably no more than 14 or 15. She smiled at me and asked how was work, and said she'd see me tomorrow.

In bars and nightclubs in Mali, in restaurants in Senegal and Guinea, on the streets in Sierra Leone, being a white man in Africa… It's almost disturbing to see how easily one could be seduced by the power at your fingertips.
On the way back from work, I took a poda-poda (shared mini-bus) to Congo Cross on the way up to Wilberforce. The poda-poda stopped to drop someone off, and a man standing by the road offered the normal greeting, “Hey White man.” And added, “You come here and fuck our sisters.”

It was rude. It was offensive. And too often, it was right.

After posting On Prostitutes and Whores, the topic emerged in the national news in the US with the Spitzer prostitution ring scandal. This led to several interesting articles on the various approaches regarding various legal approaches to prostitution. Most notably, Sweden has legalized prostitution but, in contrast to Amsterdam for instance, focuses on arresting and prosecuting the clients. Initial evidence suggests that clamping down on the demand and treating prostitutes as victims has been the most effective. The Spitzer scandal is also ironic because Spitzer had taken the lead in reforming New York State law by signing, only last month, a bill strengthening the law against clients (such as himself). New York Times also carried a recent op-ed arguing that the theory women choose prostitution is generally a "myth" propagated by the clients.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On Prostitutes and Whores

Walking back from work at our temporary headquarters in Kimbima Hotel, I spotted a common sight in Sierra Leone and the developing world – a young relatively well-dressed girl escorting an elderly white male around. I ended up sharing a taxi with them part of the way up Lumley beach – the girl informing the clueless gentleman of the taxi-fare (three times the normal going rate) before they headed off to the open embrace of Bunker Beach Bar.

It’s an obvious guess that she was a prostitute. You see them all the time here – whether at Paddy’s – the notorious bar where UN staff such as myself are banned, Atlantic, or in the lobby of almost any hotel frequented by expats. Some are young; some are tall and skinny; some are short; and some are missing both hands.

Sometimes you just meet the pimps, like the teenage boys I met while wandering around the streets of Mopti and Bamako in Mali, eagerly offering up their “sisters” as “babies” where I could get “good sleep, no pay.”

They say wherever an army goes, prostitution follows. Perhaps, more accurately wherever humanity goes, prostitution follows. And in a country as impoverished as Sierra Leone, it’s easy to see why young girls and women capitalize on their comparative advantage in providing cheap sex to a mostly expat clientele… For a girl surviving a war without hands, why shouldn’t she, why wouldn’t she be willing to sell the rest of her body in order to survive?

As the taxi continued its way towards Lumley junction, it occurred to me that maybe the word prostitute or whore doesn’t even fit in many cases, at least not when one considers the origins of the words. The notion of sex for hire is actually not inherent in the etymology of prostitution; rather, “prostitution” has its roots in “sex indiscriminately offered” (fem. of prostitutus, pp. of prostituere, 1530). The dirtier and more offensive of the terms, “whore”, is derived from the Old English word hōra, which in term is from the Indo-European root kā meaning “desire” or “lust”, and the Proto-Germanic word khoraz (fem. khoron-) “one who desires.”

But many ‘prostitutes’ aren’t necessarily indiscriminate or lustful or desiring of sex. After all, they’re selling something – their body or sex – for something else. It’s anything but indiscriminate, and it’s not sex they’re after. Plenty of women and men in the US and worldwide give that away for free. We look down on prostitution because they’re exchanging something we believe shouldn’t be exchanged (sex and by implication self-respect, dignity) for money. Except in places like Sierra Leone, they may be exchanging sex for survival or some chance, no matter how slim, to escape from the grind of every day life, and that is something harder to ask someone to give up. Especially when all we have to offer is some esoteric ideal of human dignity and self-respect – a Kantian Kingdom of Ends far removed from the biting poverty of the here-and-now… And it is far removed from how the “civilized” world has functioned and continues to function. After all the exchange of sex/mating for stability (measured generally in terms of material comforts) has been a central feature of marriage and courtship and dating for time memorial.

But of course all this leaves out half of the picture, namely the elderly chap being led off to Bunker Beach bar – the clients or the “Johns”. The Johns are also exchanging something for sex but not nearly as much stigma is attached to the male clients that feed the industry. Because of the ingrained sexism of our language and culture, the names for Johns are not nearly as varied or colorful or insulting as those for whores, hookers, sluts, and strumpets. After all the clients don’t live in shanty towns and slums or learn to deftly manipulate clothing with the remaining stumps on their arms; instead, they return to their civilized professional careers as UN employees, NGOs workers, businessmen, lawyers, and politicians. But more than any prostitute, these men are exchanging money in order to be able to carry out their lust and fantasies. And they’re the ones continuing to feed a multi-billion dollar industry often based on the rape of children and modern day “comfort women”; a multi-billion dollar industry based on people choosing to turn themselves into an object to be sold on the market.

In the end, I don’t know if she was a prostitute… but I’m fairly certain he was a whore.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Random Stories

My office on Jomo Kenyatta road is undergoing renovations so we moved “temporarily” (i.e. 3-4 months) to Kimbima Hotel at Man of War Bay in Aberdeen. My “office” is now a former hotel room with a balcony that overlooks the Atlantic. You can walk out to the balcony and watch dolphins in the Atlantic.
On the way back from work, I pass Lumley beach. Some days you can see the amputee soccer game around dusk. The ones who lost a leg play as strikers and defenders, moving around deftly on crutches and carrying out vicious take-downs by using their crutches to rip the other players’ crutches away. The ones who lost hands or arms play as goalkeepers.
Sample songs written by children in two villages of Kenema District, Sierra Leone, as part of the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) project.

“A’ mu heimie yeh seseh -
Kekeh latrine bur mu weh
Mu gbe a li la dogbui hur
Nao mia wah a hegbei”

“Keep our environment clean
Father dig us some toilet
So we can stop going into
The bush to shit
Because this will cause illness”

“A luk titi na wati dan di
Na kaka, kaka di gei gei oh, oh….
Na sei oh, kaka di gei korela, oh…
Na korela, kaka di gei, belerun, oh….
Na belerun”

“I look over there what did
I see is shit, shit can cause
Sickness oh, oh… sickness, shit
Can cause cholera, oh… cholera,
Shit can cause dysentery, oh… dysentery”

Sierra Leone has the highest child and maternal mortality rate in the world.