Monday, January 25, 2010

Trying to Make Ends Meet

An employee (let’s call him Elie) came into my office the other day to outline a problem he was facing. As in most cases, it concerned money. It seems that some time back, Elie’s older brother from the village called him to say that he was sending Elie his son. He wanted Elie (as the boy’s uncle) to look after him and put him in school in Ouaga. This is a fairly common request from people in the villages to their relatives in the big city, not only because educational opportunities in the villages are limited, but because relatives living in the city are assumed to be better off than their village brethren.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The cost of living in the city is considerably higher than in the village, and most people, like our employee, are barely scraping by. However, a request like this from a parent or older brother cannot be refused. So the boy came to Ouaga to live with Elie and his family, and Elie managed to scrape up enough money to get the boy started in school here. But now another payment was due, 40,000 francs to be exact (about $80), which is easily more than half a month’s net wage for him.

Elie was now between a rock and a hard place. He did not have the money. But if he did not manage to keep the boy in school, his older brother and family back in the village would accuse him of discrimination, of not having made an effort to keep his nephew in school because he wasn’t Elie’s own son. What in the world was he going to do?

So he asked his supervisor if he could have the upcoming month of February off for his annual paid vacation time. That way, he could collect his salary at the beginning of the month (rather than having to wait for it at the end of the month) and use that money to pay his nephew’s next instalment of school fees. But his supervisor said no. February was scheduled to be an extremely busy month for meetings, workshops, and conferences on our Centre, and Elie was needed to help keep things functioning properly. He would have to take another, less busy month as his holiday time.

So Elie came to my office to explain his situation, and to ask me to overrule his supervisor’s decision. However, his supervisor was right. February was and extremely busy month and we could not arrange the operation of our entire Centre just to help resolve one employee’s financial problem. Instead, with the help of my Burkinabè colleague in the Services department, I began to explore other possibilities for resolving the issue.

In the end, we suggested that he try talking with the school administration to see if they would accept payment for this next instalment in the form of three smaller instalments. We gave him a small advance on his February salary for the first of these. In the middle of February, he could take another small advance. And at the end of February, he could make the final payment from what was left of his salary.

So what would he have left to live on for the month of March? His salary for that month. It’ll be his month off.

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