I’ve lived on $2 a day in Mali, West Africa. I confess, I simply can not live on $1 a day. I know, because I tried.
The grand experiment was partially a personal test, and partially a financial reality. Our agency needed to get setup work accomplished in Mali, but consistently had few funds for a new country launch. I was asked if we would consider going in January 2011 to do the four week setup phase for a full Man of Peace Development launch scheduled for October of the same year; but do it on the cheap.
As an experienced person, having launched new grassroots works before, I informed them that it realistically required three months for this job. I would go, but I could not settle for anything less than six weeks, or I would not get on the plane. They handed my wife and I plane tickets for a three month stay, warning we would probably have to return at the half way point. We accepted the challenge, agreeing to pinch, scrimp, and get the job done.
At the airport, on a Monday in early January, I was handed 400 euros in cash, all they had, and mounted a flight from Charlottetown, Prince Edward island, that would eventually land us in Bamako, and then bus us a further 400 km into Eastern Mali.
My wife and I were functioning on about $60 cdn a week each. That included a local room rent, internet (ahem) cafe stops, phone, transportation each day and food. We had no place to cook in those first few weeks, so we had to eat at the street side cook vendors, or in basic roadside restaurants. We had to pay for a lot of taxi transport and travel in the first few weeks to make the contacts, connects, and pull together the information we had to gather.
Then an emergency came about three weeks in. Around midnight we received a call informing us that my wife’s mom suddenly passed away from an aneurysm. In the Middle of the night I was calling people in Sikasso I barely knew, like Alu, for example, at the Bani bus stop, trying to find bus tickets to Bamako in the hopes we could get my wife on a flight home to Canada the next evening. Alu simply said, “Come we will get you there.” Malian People we barely knew assisted us over the next 20 hours, without them, she would never have made it home on time. But that is a story to tell another day.
I was now unexpectedly left alone for the task at hand for the next nine weeks. This is when the experiment began. I arrived back in Sikasso the following day, and over the next month or more, I was living on fumes, emotionally and financially as I tracked my expenses each day.
I know I made mention of it in my personal journals at the time, so a few knew I was doing this, but I don’t think they realized the full extent of the reality. Four years later, it seems time to tell the story now. But, frankly, the story might impress some, making for a great yarn, but for me it was really no big deal at the time. I was not trying to make a scene or make a point for anyone other than myself. So the story has not been told until now.
Anyway, I was living on about $2 CDN a day for a little over four weeks. That included food, cooking gas, market, street food, even the gas for the motorcycle I was now driving to get around (about $4 a week for gas). This $2 included everything except room rent. I had to exclude my room rent from the equation because I did not have a hut of my own to live cheaply in like the poorer locals. Having simply showed up needing a room in under an hour, we had few options and had to settle to renting an over priced room in Sikasso, with power and water, that was costing us about $3-4 a day. We eventually took a monthly rental situation that worked for us into the next year. $120 a month, with water, power, and a outhouse – outdoor bucket shower stall included. I needed power for my computer reports and communication.
Anyway, for the next four weeks, I ate, drove, made coffee and cooked on a single burner camp stove we bought, did the market, washed dishes, ate street food, showered, did “omo” laundry, had my meetings, and traveled to where I needed to be, on $2 a day. When I was finished with this test, and I relaxed my standards (like eating a pre-ordered Steak, or chicken and fries at a local dive for $4) my highest weeks expenses until I left was $38 a week or about $5 a day.
How I missed sugar in those days. But, having been off sugar for so long, when I miraculously discovered a melted and date expired Snickers bar, which I ate anyway, I was puking sick from the sugar rush. For the record, expired chocolate bars and nutella (showed up in town a few years later) is safe to eat.
What I learned was that anyone can live much more simply than we ever imagined. However, most of us westerners can not sustain this long term and stay emotionally healthy. Therefore, we all have to find a balance between what works for us, and enables us to do our job well. No since going and living in a way that stresses us out, we get cranky, or even pack up and leave.
The best advice I received on this subject is to begin as simply as you can, and then slowly add what we must to keep healthy. It surprises many to discover what we can do without for a time, then we can easily add more creature comforts as needed to where it works for us individually. If we begin at a higher level first, it is not often we will begin slashing much.