07 April 2014

five ironic observations about life in the global south.

What is irony? 

How about Samsung and Blackberry paying Ellen Degeneres and Alicia Keys top dollar, respectively, to promote their phones in social media, yet the two celebrities both did so via their iPhone. Whoops.

Well that may be irony, but it's irony of the Global North. I am here to talk about irony of the Global South.

Wait a minute.

What's this Global North and South thing? Basically it is a socio-economic and political divide across our planet. Below are some fast facts to bring this concept to life.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Global North
  • Includes the West and the First World, along with much of the Second World
  • 25% of the world's population yet controls 80% of the world's income
  • 95% of it has a functioning education system
  • 90% of the manufacturing industries are owned and located here
  • All members of the G8 can be found here

Global South
  • Consists of the so-called Third World or developing nations
  • 75% of the world's population yet has access to 20% of the world's income
  • 5% of the population has enough food and shelter
  • Lacks appropriate technology, political stability, or a clearly articulated economy

With that, let's look at five ironic observations about life in the Global South. Oh, and let's just be clear about something upfront. The perspective of this post comes from me, an American living in Tanzania, but I suspect the merit of these observations extends beyond East Africa. Disagree? Have more to add? That's cool. Just drop a note in the comments section below.

1. Leading producer of goods they will never taste.

Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world (after oil). All of the coffee in the world is grown in the Global South, yet nearly every bit of it is consumed by the Global North. Europe is the leading consumer at about 40% of all coffee, with the United States accounting for 24% of all coffee consumption.

Chocolate business is bigger than the GDP of 130 countries on earth. Africa produces 75% of the world's cocoa but consumes only 3%. Europe consumes 50% of the world's cocoa followed by the United States at 20%, but neither is a cocoa producer.

Get my drift? The Global South produces all of the coffee and chocolate that those in the North love to consume, yet hardly anyone in the South has even tasted these delights.

do you know where your chocolate comes from?

2. Home to some of the most beautiful places on earth they will never see.

Ever heard of the Serengeti National Park? Mount Kilimanjaro? Do you know where to find the oldest evidence of mankind's evolution? Ever heard of Jane Goodall? Have you seen a pink lake before? When's the last time you saw lions, African elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards and rhinoceros in the wild? What about zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, hyenas and baboons in their natural habitat?

Well look no further than Tanzania, because it's all here folks. And it will blow your freakin' mind...if you have the distinct privilege of seeing it.

Unfortunately, these national parks and scenic beauties are enjoyed mostly by tourists from the Global North. Locals hardly get to see them. I have yet to meet one that has (and I have asked a lot of people). Are the park fees high? Yes, for tourists. But while the price may be low-ish for locals, we're forgetting one thing: transportation. Getting to any of the aforementioned places is by no means easy, even for those living within a two hour drive. But that's just it - a two-hour drive. How many Tanzanians own a car? Less than 2%.

zebras grazing in the serengeti national park. can anyone tell me why zebras have stripes?

3. Life reliant on land cultivation yet trash is everywhere.

Agriculture employs 65% of Africa's workforce and accounts for 32% of GDP, and is absolutely essential in helping sub-Saharan Africa's growth and achieving the Millenium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 - that's next year people!

Yet, government estimates suggest that, more than 50% of the solid waste (garbage) in Tanzania is not collected by local authorities. From my observations, the actual statistic may be even higher. I have already written about the frequent smell of burning trash, but there's more.

While riding the bus, I have seen Tanzanians throw empty plastic bottles out the window without hesitation. In town, instead of enjoying the view of a cascading stream of water, I see a river of garbage. Tanzania even has a bird that they call "Mr. Health" because it eats the garbage piled up along the streets.

How can a country or a continent so reliant on land cultivation treat that very land with seemingly such little respect? I suspect education and infrastructure have something to do with it. But the environmental troubles are far from subsiding. In fact, a recent study estimated that Africa will be responsible for half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Wow.

4. Women are the backbone of family and economic life yet are entirely mistreated.

Make no mistake about it: women get sh@t done in Africa. They do virtually all of the "domestic" duties: cooking, cleaning, collecting water, caring for the elderly, and raising children. That is a lot, especially when you consider there are an average of five children born per woman.

But on top of that, African women really work it. Roughly 50% of African farmers are women, but my talks with Tanzanian men suggest that number may be even higher here. They also make home crafts (e.g. jewelry, fabrics) and prepare food for sale as supplemental income.

Yet, despite the enormity of their contribution to society, these women are often mistreated and lacking rights (heck this is fairly true the world over). In Tanzania alone, there is a steady history of violence against women, be it domestic violence from their husbands or female genital mutilation from their community. It is completely common for Tanzanian men to joke about beating their wives daily (even though much of it is just an act).

Photo Credit: David Derrick

5. Every right to be deflated yet live with joy and faith.

How do you react when life gets you down? Maybe traffic was really terrible during your commute. You missed your favorite TV show and forgot to set the DVR. That food you ordered at the restaurant took way too long to arrive, and when it did it tasted just okay. You went to the store to buy something but they were out so you had to drive to another location to get it. It's frustrating.

Now let's pretend you make less than $2 per day, have five children, are responsible for caring for your parents and maybe even some of your extended family, live in a mud-brick thatched-roof house without electricity or running water, your livelihood depends entirely upon the weather, a plethora of insect and waterborne diseases threaten your daily health, and there are zero structures in place to bail you out when life comes crashing down. Yikes.

Yet despite all of that, you greet each day with joy because you see each day as a precious gift from God. You have life. You have a family. You ate otherwise crummy food once or twice in the last twenty-four hours. And for you, that is enough. You thank and praise God for the blessings in your life, of which the Global North may see few, but you - a child of the Global South - see many.

North-South Divide
Coffee as a Global Commodity
Who consumes the most chocolate?
(Not) On the Move: Road Transport in Tanzania
Poor Solid Waste Management to Blame for Tanzania's Filthiness Problem
Fact Sheet: The World Bank and Agriculture in Africa
Africa: Land of Opportunity for Global Pollution
The World Factbook: Total Fertility Rate


  1. Thanks Michael and Ashley for this post! I lived in Uganda for a summer and witnessed the same irony of the global south, but never articulated it quite so eloquently. Love your posts...keep 'em coming!

    -Rachel DeDeyn

    1. Thanks Rachel! Our eyes have been opened to many things in such a short time already here in Tanzania.

  2. Wait, did my chocolate bar make the blog??

    1. Guess that makes you famous.

    2. When someone sends us chocolate, OF COURSE it makes the blog!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.