Of course my monthly allowance was not paid out in American dollars, but in Ghanaian cidis. If I recall correctly, I used to go down to the capital Accra to collect my allowance on a semi-regular basis. I think for other volunteers who lived farther away, their allowances were delivered to them periodically by Peace Corps staff. Boso was about a 3 hour bus ride from the capital, and I was always going down there for medical treatment anyway since I was always getting sick, or injured, or both, so I just took care of payday myself.
I collected my monthly allowance in cash, about 100,000 cidis at a time, in 500 and 200 cidi denominations. Quite the fistful of cash when paid out! It was a little uncomfortable having that much cash on hand so I opened a bank account in Peki, which was the closest town to Boso (my town) that had a bank. Peki was about a one hour bus and taxi ride or a one hour bike ride from Boso. Didn’t matter if I took the bus or rode myself, the trip was about the same! There was a nifty shortcut one could take on the bike, an old disused road through the forest that was too rutted-out for cars but still passable by brave cyclists.
Also Peki was the home of fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Cindy D_, who was the closest Peace Corps volunteer to me, and closest non-Ghanaian to me in general. And Peki was also for a short period of time the home of Donna G_; she was just finishing her service as I was starting mine. Donna now coincidentally lives in the same town as I back here in the states, and I went to High School with Donna’s daughter Jodi. Small world, indeed.
So after getting paid I would deposit some of my monthly money at the bank in Peki and keep the rest with me. I never had a problem with pickpockets or anybody stealing my money from my house, which was something I was warned about over and over before coming to Ghana. Maybe the larger cities had more of a problem, but I was out in the sticks and people were generally pretty nice and law-abiding. I had a travel wallet with wads-o-cash in it, just sitting there on my table in plain view. A lot of cash, in retrospect! A lot of cidis.
The cidi is the currency used in Ghana. At the time of my service, or at least when my service started in 1993, the exchange rate was about 700 cidis to 1 dollar. By the time I left the dollar had gotten stronger, or the cidi weaker, or both, so the exchange rate had climbed to about 1000 cidis to 1 dollar. So what was a $150 per month allowance became a $100 per month allowance by the time I ended my service. But the purchasing power of my cidis remained about the same with the exception of transportation costs, which seemed to go up at the same pace as the exchange rate went down. At the time Ghana imported most if not all of its oil and gas from other countries, Nigeria and Gabon I would expect, so they were at the mercy of market oil prices as we all are to an extent. I understand now that Ghana has discovered some fairly significant off-shore oil fields so that may change things quite a bit, but “back in the day” fuel costs were relatively high, and it was expensive to travel around. But other than transportation it was very inexpensive to live in my little town, and I thought I could actually save money while living there.
About a month into my teaching assignment I decided to keep a daily log of expenses. I think then I was using it as a tool to help me budget for a trip I was planning through West Africa. I wanted to travel to the Sahara and see Mali, and Burkina Faso, and some of the even more exotic places near to me – because Ghana wasn’t exotic enough, I suppose! I figured, and correctly so, that this would be my best chance to see the fabled ancient salt caravan town of Timbuktu (apparently not that exciting), the Great Mosque of Djenné (apparently just exciting enough), and maybe even the seldom-seen Aïr Mountains of Niger (apparently far too exciting). Living in my village was cheap, but travel was expensive. cidis.
So $150 per month breaks down to a little over $35 per week. I made it a goal to spend the equivalent of less than $10 per week, thus saving about $100 per month. I probably shouldn’t be posting this information! If the Peace Corps knew they could spend only $50 per week on me, than they might re-think the allowances!
So here it is in all its glory, 5 weeks of painstakingly annotated fiduciary goodness. Who says feds can’t come in under budget?
200 cidis got me two loaves of tea bread, bananas, oranges, and peanuts
Food. "caliaco"? That’s what my journal says. Caliaco.
3000 cidis to Africa my housekeeper, 4300 in Accra (bought a mirror!)
food -- likely bananas, oranges, fried yams
3500 on kitchen utensils, 500 for a school fundraiser, 140 on food
230 on food, 60 on oranges (not considered food?)
1700 on stamps, 270 on food and matches
4000 on a food cabinet (should've seen that coming), 75 on food
3000 to Africa, 160 on food
2500 -- Volunteer Advisory Council meeting in Peki. Beer?
food. Bananas, oranges, peanuts, fried yams, tea bread if available, repeat
foooooood. Bike trip to Kpandu
2400 on stamps, 400 food
food. Bike trip to Nancy's site for Thanksgiving
3000 to Africa, 100 on food. Bike accident. Beginning of the end...
Wow. That number really astounds me. $40 for 5 weeks, and it could have been less even.
13 dollars for 5 weeks of food.
Africa usually brought me dinner so some of this is food as well
I was writing a lot of letters
Basically stuff to eat food with and store food...
* I used an exchange rate of 1000 cidis per dollar
I think in retrospect I could have spent a bit more money, I was living perhaps a bit too frugally. I wanted to try to fit in though, and not throw my money around town like the rich white boy I was. I don’t think I bought too many beers or sodas in town, just the food I needed at the market. Seems a silly thing now, this desire to spend as little as possible just to see if I could do it, but at the time it made sense.
I wonder if I could live on $40 for 5 weeks today? Take inflation into account. Could I live on, say, $80 for 5 weeks? That’s like $12 per week. Let’s see. Assume rent is covered, as it was for me in Ghana. Drink only water. Eat ramen noodles, I can get 24 packs for $8. And I have $4 to spare for the week. I could purchase some fruit, perhaps, or carrots. Those seem to be cheap. Can’t drive anywhere, can’t afford gas. Holy crap that’s insane! The living was cheap in Ghana, and the food was pretty good actually. The bananas and oranges were particularly flavorful. I think if I had gone totally native, and not written any letters, and never left my site, I could have gotten my expenses down to about $6 per week.
So yes, when I hear something like “per capita income in Ghana is $150 per year” my first thought is that everyone is starving to death. And certainly $150 isn’t going to get you very far in Ghana. Quite literally, it won’t get you far. With $150 to spend for the year you are probably going to have to stay in your village and eat whatever is in season for food. You will be able to get by, provided you don’t require medical care. There’s the rub; the margin for error is pretty slim for people living on very little money, as it is here in the States. Medical care is either non-existent or expensive, and therefore unattainable in either case. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I had it easy. Get sick? Get injured? I could always head to the capital for free medical treatment. And I took advantage of that benefit frequently. Very frequently! For the rest, well, typically the family provides support for those in need, incapacitated by disease, injury, or age. This is one of the reasons, perhaps the biggest reason, why rural poor women in Africa choose to have more children than women in more developed countries, or even urban women in Africa. The family is a safety net, providing that margin of error that the state can not afford to be.