Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I am wealthy, but I have no money

Yes, I have a theme today: I am wealthy, but I have no money. But first…

For now, here are some snaps of last night’s stroll about the campus.
I took a small stroll around campus last night and here are some of the other things I saw.
The skeleton is of an unfortunate South African domestic animal; in this case, I believe it was canine. I found his brightly polished bones a few weeks ago and the sight of them has been haunting me since. I thought I'd snap a photo.
I don't know if you can see well, but the remnants of his fur/skin are still there, desiccated and clinging to some of the bones. I have yet seen a dog here that I felt assured was happy and healthy. Most are living in heartbreaking conditions. (But again, so are most people.) For this one I thought, "At least his suffering is over."
And on the right, although the photo isn’t very good, is of a few of these butterflies that are swarming and have been swarming these last few days. At anytime during the day, I can look out and see thousands of these small, whitish butterflies flying up and swirling about up out of the grass. They are so beautiful and delicate to watch.

After a few years of gardening, I’ve come to view small, whitish butterflies as the parents of those cabbage loopers that will soon be consuming my vegetable seedlings, but I’m enjoying watching these. (Perhaps because I’m not growing vegetables?)

There are so many of them and I enjoy their delicate dance. I’m not sure what they are but there is a South African butterfly field guide at my town’s library. I'll give you the scoop when I find it out.

And more South African sunsets… If there were only one thing that could keep me here, it is the on-going spectacle of South African sunsets. I am up early enough now to see South African sun rises, but they are not nearly as spectacular. (More on why I’m getting up so early soon.)

These are shots of last night’s sunset. Wasn’t it gorgeous? Absolutely gorgeous!
And down below is a shot of a piece of garbage near one of our campus “dumpsters” (which is really just a pile of formally-burned garbage, and of course, not all of it burns—especially cans and bottles, and then anything that blows away from the fire site kind of "hangs out" at various spots all over campus). This is a KFC bucket that at one time contained a large amount of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Most of you know I’m from Kentucky, most of you reading are from Kentucky, and most of you know Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders, the founder of the fast food chain, is buried within walking distance of my home in Louisville and his wife (is she still living?) runs her own restaurant, Claudia Sander’s, in Shelbyville.

Many of you also know, and even the company knows, that eating KFC isn't very good for you. Although eating poultry is good for you, if it is heavily battered and fried in fat, it is not. KFC is heavily battered and fried in fat. It is very delicious, this not-so-healthy food, and South Africans eat a lot of it and like it very much.

(In fact, the company knows so well that their product isn't good for you, that they launched a very successful ad-campaign years ago that moved the brand name from "Kentucky Fried Chicken" to "KFC," specifically to down-play the fact that their product is fried. The brand renaming was so successful, most S. Africans won't make the association of KFC to my home state. Dare I say, many Americans at this point, may not associate this brand with Kentucky any longer.)

This is the only place in the world that I've seen more KFCs than McDonald's. In fact, you won't find a McDonald's in a village town, you'll only find them in the big cities. In every village town I've seen so far, I've seen a KFC.

Now, on to my theme.

I am wealthy, but I have no money.

I will also qualify, that the fact that I'm living in America, only in of itself, makes me much wealthier than most rural South Africans.

I am wealthy, but I have no money. What does this mean?
This means, that as a middle-aged, American woman, I have a beautiful, wonderful, healthy and happy family and lots of loving and caring friends; I have no debt and have work I enjoy that allows ample leisure time; I have a "home" (although rented) with healthy food to eat, clothes to wear, safe water to drink, electricity to heat and cool my house, and access to entertainment and information sources. I also have access to excellent medical care and can walk down the street and feel safe from assault (well, relatively safe).
I am very wealthy. Very, very wealthy and I have a very, very good life.
However, I have no money.
Since I have never figured out "what I want to be when I grow up," and since the nature of work in America is changing (the days of working on the same job for 30, 40, 50+ years, retiring at 65 and drawing a pension are over) I have changed jobs frequently over my working life. I have done many interesting things both in the professional realm and in the blue-collar realm. I have loved "trying on" different jobs and learning new skills.
However, this tendency to vary the nature of my work has kept me in the lower-pay ranges and has prevented me from buying a house. ( I have never made enough money to qualify for a mortgage.)
I've come to learn that the easiest way to build wealth in America, for a single woman or a young family, is to buy a house and to buy a house as soon as possible. In this way, you are investing in an appreciating asset, and since you are young, time is on your side in a way that you will accumulate wealth relatively easily. It takes time, but again, your young and have plenty of time.
I skipped this vital step for financial independence and financial security. Of course, an early marriage with children and divorce didn't help help my progress toward financial security.
Now, while I'm happy, and working in a field that I love, and am able to work as little or as much as I'd like, I am also without job security. (I teach part-time in America, and my contract is only good from semester to semester.) I never know from semester-to-semester whether I will have a job in six months and am basically living paycheck to paycheck. I have no savings to fall upon in an emergency, and worry about making enough money in my life's work to buy private health insurance. Every year, I come within $300 of declaring the "low income tax credit" on my income taxes.
In short, I am that statistic in the US that is one major health crisis away from homelessness.
Believe me, I have no money. :-)
Now, Peace Corps is a volunteer service position. We are not paid a salary. Let me say that again; we are not paid a salary.
We are paid, however. We are paid a "living allowance." This living allowance is the same for all PCVs in my group in S. Africa at this time. It is calculated to cover our living needs at the level to match those of the rural South Africans with which we live.
What does this mean? Well, I'm not sure, exactly, but I have been making observations as I go along.
(All of this is a background information that will be helpful in my telling of a story in a minute. I think the fact that I need to be telling you all of this background information is evidence of poor writing. Sorry!)
It seems to me that I live in a very poor area. However, as with much of the rural South Africa that I've seen, the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" within the villages is very, very wide. I've seen a corrugated tin shack or a mud house next to a ranch-style home with a manicured lawn ( and in at least one instance, with heated floors.)
I know I "make" more money than many, many of the people in my village, even only on my "living allowance." The pensioners here, which are the majority of those living in rural villages of South Africa, are paid R1100 per month. Pensioners are the retired people of the community that are too elderly or sick to work, most of them seem to be women raising their very young grandchildren.
PC volunteers here in SA at this time, are paid R2200 per month. In this way, we "make" twice what the average, rural, South African pensioner is paid per month.
However, we are volunteers in the education sector. I work with, and spend much of my socializing time, with South African educators. I was somewhat surprised to find that the educators here seem to be paid quite well. They seem to be paid well enough in that most of them have secure housing, cars, furniture, nice clothes, washers, dryers, plumbing, TVs, DVD players, laptops, treadmills, etc. You get the picture. They seem to be doing ok.
I've had at least one educator tell me that the lower range of educator pay scale is around R150,000 per year, which, on the lower ranges for educators, would come in at R12,500 per month. (Remember, PC volunteers only "make" R2,200 per month.)
I've already spoken about my heart-strings feeling when the children ask for money and I tell them "no." Well, at first it was heart-strings, and then we it became constant, it became irritation.
I think the irritation comes from my dislike of telling people that I do not have money. But this irritation also comes from the fact, as addressed yesterday, that most rural South Africans, or at least those asking for money, assume that all Americans are rich.
All of this to help you hopefully understand how I felt when recently, and again, asked for money.
So, there is a woman in one of my schools: I've nicknamed her "the lioness." I've nicknamed her this because she is a very large, strong, imposing South African woman. She is an elder and has been teaching in my school the longest span of time, for over thirty years, I think. I have great respect for her and admire her. She seems to hold a powerful position of authority in our school, and even though she isn't in charge, she seems to be in charge. :-)
So, here I have all of this "baggage" around money anyway and am feeling very pinchy with my pennies. While I'm sure I am paid plenty of money to live just fine, I'm still overly cautious right now in this early phase of my service and want to make sure I manage my money well. I'm already feeling anxious and irritated with the constant requests for money that come from every person I meet.
In fact, the night before, I was tossing and turning with worry because a nearly-blind woman I met in the community garden, who is probably my age but looks like she's 70, had asked me "if she could do my washing" because she (obviously) needs the money. I'll never forget the pain I saw in her eyes when I had to tell her "no" and have been worrying about her since.
And I walk into the school the next morning and guess who asks me for money?
The lioness.
It was a bit more than I could bear, that this woman, who is at least "making" seven times more money a month than I am (and with her length of service, probably much, much more) and I could barely contain my frustration, and at this point, anger.
And then she asked me again, the next day, for money.
At this point, while I respect her, I'm not going to concentrate any more of my efforts in building our relationship. In fact, I've decided to stay out of her way.
In other words, we kind of already don't like each other. :-)
On the last day of school we, as staff, were given committee assignments to coordinate year-end reports.
Guess who was on my committee?
Now, it was the last day of school, everyone was grumpy, there was a lot to do, etc. Because I am an American, with the Protestant work ethic and task-oriented, I was ready to get our work done and get out of there.
Not all of my colleagues shared my desire to take care of this business, so I had kind of latched on to a person somewhat-willing to work (not the lioness) so we could get out of there.
Well, our supervisor came by, saw what was going on (that the lioness wasn't working) and asked me, in front of everyone, if I would make the lioness work.
Both of us, the lioness and I, at the same time, reared up both growling in our own ways:
me: I'm not telling her to do anything.
she: She's not telling me to do anything.
I'm certain my adventures with the lioness will continue, that I will learn ways to better cope with this constant onslaught of requests for money, and that everything will work out.
As of now, we are all on "holiday" (the break in the school year) and hopefully everyone is resting, relaxing, and readying ourselves for the new school year.
I wonder if I "make" enough money to buy her a bucket of KFC as a way of truce? :-)
Soon, Karen



  1. I think your figure of R150,000 per month is a bit high. That works out to about $240,000 per year.

    I saw my principal's pay stub and it was R17,498 per month, or a little over R200,000 per year. Course he blows most of it on random crap, but it's still a lot of money.

    Nice post, by the way.

  2. You're right! After I went home I was thinking about the post and the figures... I remembered that while I had been "talking" about monthly income for volunteers and pensioners, I accidentally put a yearly figure in for the educators.

    So yes, if I ball-park a low-end annual range for educators at R150,000, it would come out to R12,500 per month and your educator's range is closer to R18,000, so yeah, they're "making" a bit more than we are!

    Thanks for the help (and I'll edit my original post now). k

    ps. Is this Ryan, btw? :-)