fat cats and shattered mice

I am considering adding ‘percentage body fat’ into my survey questions, since it seems a quite reliable indicator of business sustainability here. Today I met the guy who until recently had a monopoly on all the district’s school registrations at his internet cafe. He was easily the size of all the other cafe owners put together. The average cafe so far seems to run on such a narrow profit margin that a couple of bad months can shut it down, so it’s a cutthroat business. I also met the cafe owner responsible for starting the ‘no browsing pornography’ rule in all the cafes here. He used to run 5 cafes, but the consumers here are mainly young men under 24, and he found that gradually most of his business consisted of them browsing porn. His business got a rep among local primary school boys as a place to go to see other people doing this, so he banned the activity altogether, and lost 60% of his clientele, along with his means of paying back the $50,000 bank loan he had taken out at 30% interest to finance the business. Luckily he has other ventures – as I was talking to him, at 4.30 on a Friday, the managers of the other enterprises were coming to him with wads of cash from the week. This is standard here – constantly changing regulations, the cost of capital and dodgy governance means you need to diversify to survive, so the people I’m interviewing run up to five or so businesses at a time, often involving consulting, contracting, an internet cafe, sometimes a farm, and work as a teacher. I’d be exhausted.

Time was always meaningless, but today space started to be as well. A guy I was chasing to interview was, according to our repeated conversations by cellphone, at the polytechnic outside Tamale, at his internet cafe in the centre of town, at his other business a kilometre away, and at the mosque in a different part of town. (It has taken me all Friday to discover that ‘mosque’ is not a collection of consonants that people here can pronounce – I got blank stares until I found out it was pronounced ‘moks’ instead. like ‘ask’ in Brooklyn, which is ‘ax’.)

I’m having some trouble with the fact that they redenominated the currency here in 2007 snd people still haven’t got their heads around it. When you ask how much a business makes, you may get an answer in the millions, the hundreds, or dollars, and they may all mean roughly the same thing. Then there are the people whose aritmetic skills have just been addled by the change in currency, and who have lost their ability to handle numbers altogether. Unfortunately, this group includes many of the businesspeople I am dealing with. They will give an answer about their revenue or expenditure that is so far off the mark that I just keep asking them in different ways to try to get to the real figure, but they just pick a number and stick to it resolutely, even if it is clearly a thousand cedis or more off the mark. As we say in musical theatre: ‘sing it loud, sing it wrong.’

The weekend looms. I am meeting my temporary research assistant tomorrow at 7am to start finding the cafes on the outskirts of town. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish Tamale by Monday, then start making trips to the outlying districts. I hear there’s a swimming pool in town, and am hoping to get sidetracked by that if there is time on Sunday.

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