Monday, November 24, 2008

Unforseen Consequences of the Current Financial Crisis

In Cross Lanes, we have Kroger's; in Chicago we have Dominick's; in Wisconsin it's Piggly Wiggly. Ugandan grocery shopping beats to a different drum, one bereft of apostrophe.  Largely my shopping is done in Mukura trading center, a ten minute walk from my house.  The trading center is the commercial center of our sub-county, the only place around with electricity.  It is also blessed with tomatos, onions, and occasionally green peppers and certain tubers.  This makes up about 60% of my diet.

The rest of it comes from that ubiquitous Ugandan phenomenon, the Indian Supermarket.  As many know, there is a substantial population of Indian immigrants in Uganda, most of whom are entrepeneurs.  As industry in Uganda is hardly diversified or even specialized, the bulk of spending is on consumer goods.  Thus, the supermarket industry is dominated by enterprising Indians.

Now, don't imagine these supermarkets to be similar to those in the states.  There are a couple of those in the capital city of Kampala, but they are overpriced and cater to the wealthiest 2-3% of Ugandans and foreign ex-pats.  No, the local supermarkets are quite a different beast.  Imagine your average 7-11, cut its size in half, and double the amount of products inside. Your average 7-11 however, tends to focus on snacks and auto accessories. We don't have beef jerky or slushies, we don't have rear-view mirror adhesive or rain-x.  What we do have is buckets and brooms, laundry detergent (for hand-washing of course) and surge protectors (a tease to those of us without electricity).  We have pirated DVDs, toilet paper (oh blessed toilet paper), blueband (something akin to margarine), candles (the good Taiwanese ones in a blue box, not the Chinese crap you get in the village), and a tacky and flimsy version of many things that you would certainly buy if only they were less tacky and flimsy.

(side note: the one thing that Ugandan supermarkets do have in common with America is an overwhelming assortment of Pringles chips.  Seriously, in my nearest supermarket 40k away, there are 11 different types of Pringles! I mean, I've never even seen a Ugandan eating Pringles! Where are the hidden Pringles connosieurs of Uganda! I want to meet you! I want to shake your sour cream and onion residued hand!)

Since our consumer goods are limited, and our opportunities to collect them are few and far between, Peace Corps Volunteers tend to be quite brand conscious.  There is a fervent rivalry between users of the two laundry powders, omo and nomi (the latter being dolts and derelicts). I have high fived many over their preference for pepsi over coke.  When I walk out of a supermarket to rejoin a waiting PCV friend, she may look at the color of my axion grease stripper tub quizically and ask "really? you buy yellow axion?" (I have since switched to green). We grow up in ultra-consumerist America and have a hard time reconnecting with those roots in our East African villages.
The most amusing change however, is where my brand loyalties actually lie.  Back at home, I would passively attempt to buy products from the companies that I felt served the local community better.  No, I didn't shop at Whole Foods, and probably wouldn't have even if I could afford to.  I did however take mild satisfaction in buying RC cola rather than Coke (although RC is owned by the only slightly smaller behemoth Carbury plc). I would buy the tortillas at Dominick's whose label was written in Spanish because it felt more authentic. I would try to eat at local restaurants rather than fast food chains (Taco Bell excepted).  Many would say that these behaviors would make me the worst type of consumer, one who is willing to modify his spending habits to buy products that offer more than just low prices, but one who is so uninformed in his erratic choices that he is actually working against the creation of new market trends.  These people are right.  I take great satisfaction in buying local, but since I don't know what is and isn't local, I probably don't buy local often.  What's worse is that I don't really care about this discrepancy.  I should either accept that I am not doing anyone any good and buy from the big boxes, or decide to get to work and figure out where my money would actually make a difference. Eh, whatever.
This has manifested itself oddly in Uganda.  The attitudes and ideas of my fellow PCVs, as well as recent election results, has rekindled my sense of patriotism.  But my spending habits (however feeble) are hardly good for Uncle Sam.  I am essentially taking money from American taxpayers (a group which my paltry salary prevents me from joining) and putting it into a relatively closed economic system in Uganda. Lets be honest, Opio George from the duka down the street is not going to be investing my candle money into a mutual fund.  My entire salary contributes to our obscene current account deficit! Everything I buy is an import! And none of it is going to come back to America!
So, in a desparate attempt to aid our flailing economy (charity begins at home you know...) I find myself choosing American products whenever possible.  This is the antithesis of my passive and self-defeating brand consumerism from America.  Instead of helping the local community, I have a great sense of pride in buying American products.  For instance, there is a thriving local industry for bottled water.  Of the brands available in our villages, all of them are based on Uganda.  But these colors don't run.  When I'm in Kampala, I find myself relishing the opportunity to go to the one store where I can buy Dasani, run by the oh-so-horrid Coca Cola company.  It's American!  I buy pepsi instead of fresh squeezed passion juice (the first gives a profit of 100 shillings to the guy I bought it from, the second around 600.  I'm awful.)
How has this happened? I'm supposed to love the little guy right? I joined the Peace Corps! Isn't buying Coke products in Uganda like rooting for the Yankees! What has happened to me!?
Alas, the great human struggle between patriotism and altruism - do I act for my American brethren who have done so much for me, or do I act for the development of our brothers and sisters of the world who need me more?

The answer lies in that other great American trait: unbridled capitalist zeal. I'll buy whatever is cheaper.