This is my latest column for The Capital Journal.
One of my fantasies takes place in a grocery story.
I walk into the bustling shop and roam the aisles. Yes, I would like some cheese, maybe even some bakery-made bread to go with it. Need conditioner? No problem, there are at least 50 options to chose from. And how about a pair of leggings to replace mine with a hole?
The main idea behind this daydream is that there is never a worry about if the money for these purchases is in the bank or not.
A founding concept of Peace Corps was that volunteers would live at the local level.
John F. Kennedy, in 1961, suggested that this new organization would send Americans to work and live in villages and do just as the people they are helping do. We would eat the same food, take the same transportation, wear the same clothes and speak the same language.
In Lesotho, our host organization – mine is the school – provides a living space and then Peace Corps gives us a very modest monthly living allowance for daily needs, plus a little extra for fun. Each month, about $250 is deposited into my Lesotho bank account and that’s all I have to feed, clothe and transport myself.
Most months, I have barely get by. I try to be careful with my living allowance and rarely buy, what I consider, luxury items: cheese, new clothes, more than two sets of dishes.
Living on the cheap isn’t new for me, but it is hard, especially at 27 when I feel like I should be beyond living like a college student.
It doesn’t help that, because of my race and nationality, I am looked at as a dollar sign. What my villagers know about America is what they see on movies or from the aid organizations that are meant to give money to the developing world.
I make considerably less than my teachers, so when they tease me about buying them gifts I tell them as much. They have respect for that. I am a foreigner from a Westerner country, so I should have money. When they see that I don’t, the barriers betweens us are lowered.
Still, I have more than most in my village. According to 2002 stat from the CIA, Lesotho’s unemployment rate is 45 percent and most of my villagers must scour for small coins to buy flour and oil to feed their families. They can never afford the occasional movie ticket or lunch at a hotel like I can. They could likely do a lot with my 2,220 Maluti living allowance.
Sure, I dream about the day when I have an actual income, but for now I am OK with living a life without. It forces me to prioritize and to remember that, as along I can cover my basic needs, there isn’t much that I need. It also allows me to see life from a different point of view, one where nearly everything is a luxury. But the best consequence of little money is how it brings my villagers and I closer together. They see money as the biggest thing that separates their country and ours, so when that is gone, we can just be humans.