When we moved to Africa (Nairobi, Kenya to be exact) four years ago, I took my first real trip through the grocery store to look for items that I actually needed for our home. The Nakumatt Mega near our house was an amazing store with a variety like Walmart in the US. You could buy everything from a loaf of bread to a new kitchen table and everything in between. There were some familiar brands, but so many new ones I had never heard of. I remember little things like how different I thought the carts (trolleys) were because they had four wheels that all turned independently (which I’ve since noticed in some other countries, too).
One difference that I didn’t anticipate was prices. I guess I always thought that someone somewhere just magically set some objective pricing system that would determine the cost of goods sold…well…everywhere. My first trip to the grocery store, amongst other things, turned into a lesson in cultural economics.
Price tag surprises
What did I find that surprised me so much? I remember picking up a medium box of corn flakes, doing the currency conversion, and discovering that it would cost me almost $10USD! At that time at home that same box might have been $3USD–maybe even less with a coupon. On the other hand, I remember visiting the butcher and discovering that we could buy a nice piece of beef filet pretty inexpensively. Chicken breast, however, tended to be costly.
We began to see this with all kinds of other things, too. Familiar dairy products were priced higher than we were used to, but some of Kenya’s really nice fruits and vegetables were far cheaper than we would ever pay for the same things at home. Clothes and home goods from stores in the mall felt extremely expensive (how could that fleece throw blanket cost $50?!?). Then again, going out to eat was often less than it would be at home, and even a visit to the local wildlife reserve was pretty cheap (about $10USD for foreign residents).
Economies are cross-cultural, too
Everything felt upside-down. Money and expenses were just another part of cross-cultural learning. I had to throw out all those presuppositions about how much something should cost. The overall buying power of the country based on wealth and population, cultural values, available local products versus imports, taxes – all of these impact local prices.
I guess before living in an African country, I also had the idea that if a country had less wealth, then products would be cheaper. What I learned was that while labor for services was often cheaper, products (especially those requiring some kind of processing or manufacturing) were usually more expensive because fewer people want or can afford those items. The supply is less because the demand is less, so the price is higher.
The 2012 results from an annual survey of the cost of living for some of the world’s cities included 13 African cities in the top 50 most expensive cities in the world! Luanda, Angola, in Southern Africa, was listed at number two with one of the highest housing costs in the world (higher than Paris and New York City). Learn more.
Explaining differences can be a challenge
Maybe you’ve had some of these same thoughts, and perhaps this information comes as a surprise to you as it was to me. When missionaries travel abroad, it can sometimes be difficult for them to adequately explain these differences in expenses between the country where they serve and the country where they are from to their financial support team. Maybe some supporters feel that the missionary needs to raise too much money for the location they are going to, or for a particular budget item. Or maybe something that is very inexpensive where a missionary serves seems extravagant because it is expensive in the missionary’s home country.
A colleague once shared with us about a how difficult he thought it would be to base some staff in a new strategic location – a country that had previously not allowed any missionaries. While it was an economically poor country, he said that the cost of a simple, secure and unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in the capital city could be more than $2000USD/month. He shared that the struggle he saw would be that it would be very difficult for someone to raise the amount funds they needed. Potential donors might not believe that the expenses to live in an economically poor country could really be that high.
It’s important to remember that every economy functions differently. Each needs to be evaluated from within it’s own context. Thankfully, many missionaries have financial advisors that help them construct budgets to compensate for these differences. However, even with advice the reality of the finances of a new place can still seem very strange at first.
If you’ve ever travel abroad, what expenses have surprised you? What has been more or less than you expected?