One enormous cultural difference that I cannot really get used to is that I
come from a culture where "time is money" and here in Cameroon time is free
and worth nothing. One implication of this is that when someone produces a
product, the tendency is to sell it for slightly more than the raw materials
cost the producer and consider the rest "profit." A corollary is that
service work — where you are essentially paying for someone's time — is
paid virtually nothing. And sometimes nothing at all, a condition that we in
the West consider slavery, but I can see why it does not necessarily occur
in Africa as slavery.
For instance, food is incredibly cheap. In fact, it is usually cheaper for
me to eat out than it is to buy food and cook it myself. In large part this
is because I have to pay money for food and often when I eat from someone on
the street, they did not pay for the food, the grew it themselves, and so
they sell it very, very cheaply (like a bowl of black beans, fried plantains
and a small piece of fish for 150 CFA or 30 cents US).
The part I cannot adjust to, and do not think I actually want to adjust to,
is that people's time and effort is not worth anything.
I took my pants to the cleaner the other day. I had done this a month ago
when I got overwhelmed by the amount of dirt and laundry that had built up
and thought it would be a one shot deal. However, with the pants it really
makes an enormous difference because a) they get the dirtiest, particularly
now that we are in the rainy season and b) I cannot get them as clean as the
service does. Not even close.
Now, I can wash my own clothes and I have been doing it. And the cleaners
charge a lot of money — $2 per pair of pants. (An exception to the rule
that services are cheap!) But I am happy to pay $10-12 a month for them to
clean my pants because it is a lot of effort and even then I do not have
what it takes (skill? Tools? Know how?) to do the work at the standard of
quality they do. This is exactly the sort of thing I am happy to pay for —
someone's effort, skill and time.But I will argue vehemently if someone is
charging me $2 for something that should cost $1. And I reallized that this
is very cultural. I value time and effort and skill and expertise much more
than I value stuff.