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When the errands run you

When the errands run you

In Nairobi life-admin is a job in itself. The Economist’s Africa correspondent argues that it helps to keep poor countries poor

In Nairobi life-admin is a job in itself. The Economist’s Africa correspondent argues that it helps to keep poor countries poor

Daniel Knowles | December 6th 2016

If you’ve ever complained about something small on Twitter – a bus being late, or your WiFi being down – you might have been mocked for having a “first-world problem”. In the rich world, the logic goes, we worry about small stuff: traffic, slow internet, whether the avocados you just bought will be ripe in time for the brunch you have planned at the weekend. In poor countries, by contrast, people have real worries: being bombed or raped or starving to death under a burning Sahelian sun. And it is a fair point. Even with Donald Trump at the helm, America probably will not become a lawless kleptocracy like Congo. Even after Brexit, Britain won’t collapse into Eritrean isolation.

But the problem with the idea of “first-world problems” is that, actually, they’re a lot more common in what we used to call the “third world”. Indeed, it is one of the things nobody tells you about working in Africa. Before I moved to Kenya, I had no idea that errands could consume so much of my life.

Take, for example, getting around. Recently I had to apply for a new Congolese visa, which meant going into Nairobi’s city centre. Getting there means enduring some of the worst traffic in the world. According to local rumour, the police deliberately block up the roads in exchange for bribes from the street hawkers who sell everything from newspapers to maps and picnic hampers. The reality is, I suspect, more simple: there are just too many vehicles for the roads. And so a journey that should take 15 minutes in smooth traffic can take several hours.

Not wanting to drive in and out myself, I hopped into a matatu – a minibus taxi – and headed in, crammed in with 12 other passengers. Matatus are not the transport of the poor. My journey cost me 50 Kenyan shillings each way: about 50 cents, more than a lot of Nairobians can afford. They are the transport of the urban middle class. And so the other passengers on this battered bus shamed me with their smart suits and ties and polished shoes which they lifted carefully through the mud at the bus stop. Most Nairobians walk to get around.

Roughly an hour later we arrived, and I walked to the embassy. But first I had to deposit cash at a local bank. In American dollars. So I had to find somewhere to buy dollars, then go to the bank and stand in a queue to deposit them. Then I had to sort out my paperwork. And gosh do African bureaucrats love paperwork. Applying for a Nigerian visa once, I had to supply details of my hair colour, height, eye colour and whether my parents were married or not. With Congo, only a letter from the ministry of communication spared me from having to get a letter “legalised by a lawyer from the commission of oaths” (whatever that means) to submit with everything else.

This simple task – handing over some paperwork, including all of the photocopying, money moving and waiting – ended up consuming the best part of a day. And another couple of hours the next day picking the visa up. But in this it is typical of a lot of life in Africa. You might expect visas to be bureaucratic. But even more mundane things take time. Despite the advent of mobile money, paying bills far too often involves handing over physical cash. Without a proper postal system, if you need to send something to somebody, you have to deliver it yourself. Online shopping hasn’t really taken off, so when you need groceries you have to go and get them. And everything involves driving around, and so getting stuck in traffic jams.

Fortunately, there is a solution. For me, his name is Johnny. Johnny is a motorbike courier – but much more than that. He is a personal postal system, an editorial assistant and a general dogsbody. For a small fee, he will go to the shops and bring you a bottle of wine when you run out at a dinner party. He will happily wait in line at an embassy, if you know what paperwork to submit (a problem I had with the Congolese). He will efficiently take a forgotten key back to a friend. Spending a lot of time anywhere in Africa, you quickly pick up phone numbers for people like Johnny.

But hiring people to do your dirty work is only possible if you have some money. Most Africans cannot afford to hire people to do their errands – they have to do them themselves, travelling tortuous routes by matatu or on foot. Being so dependent on the help of others helps you to understand why rich countries are rich. It is precisely because people don’t need to spend hours on simple tasks. Whether it is washing machines or the London Underground, life in the West is full of time-saving conveniences that free us up to do our jobs. In most of Africa, by contrast, few people have salaried jobs, but everybody is working, all of the time, painstakingly doing work that in rich countries we have worked out how to rid ourselves of.

And so when I see articles in Western newspapers wondering about algorithms and robots abolishing people’s jobs, I can’t help but think that this is excellent news. Yes it will be disruptive. Yes the gains will not benefit everybody equally. But it is the abolition of needless work that makes us rich. And I will continue to think that right up until somebody invents a machine that writes newspaper articles.

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