Sunday, March 15, 2009

Entertainment Economics

If you venture into a larger village or town in Malawi there are a number of things you will inevitably see. There will be a market, usually a bustling dusty road lined with a smattering of small stands selling anything from maize to cell phones. What exactly people choose to sell in their shops is sometimes comical. The other day I saw a shop specializing in fabric and bicycle parts right next to a payphone which had a sign that read, “Praise the almighty GOD phone booth.” A section of the marked usually focuses on food, but as should be apparent from the previous examples, there is no hard-fast rule dictating where food should be sold. There is also usually a hardware section of the market which has a remarkable variety of merchandise if you are prepared to search for it.
The standard size shop is around 10ft2, filled from floor to ceiling with shelving on which a prodigious amount of “stuff” is stored. The amount of products stored in just one of these shops could easily fill a large convenience store. The efficiency of not stocking 20 iterations of the same product is huge. Not only can you usually find what you need after visiting two adjacent shops (people always refer you to their neighbor if they do not have what you are looking for), but the simplicity of the supply chain allows for considerable reuse.
For example, in Malawi there are four main bottled drinks: Fanta, Carlsburge Beer, Sprite, and Coca-Cola. Each has a distinct bottle, which after use, can be returned to be washed and refilled. Because the bottles are reused instead of recycled, a generous deposit of 25 cents is possible, and insures that all bottles are returned. Some bottled are so old that they are partly ghosted and resemble beach glass.
At first glance most shops appear to be selling locally grown/produced products, and have hand tied baggies of oil, or mounds of salt and flour heaped high on woven mats. Closer inspection, however, reveals a curious economy. Most people in Malawi are so poor that a bottle of oil, or a box of salt, the kinds of which Americans regularly buy on a visit to the grocery store, are prohibitively expensive. As such, small shops buy these commodities, break open the container, and sell the contents in smaller proportions after a modest markup. Some products the shop owners are able to get at bulk rates and thus sell at good prices. One must be weary though, since often times the shops are just reselling something they bought from the nearest brick and mortar grocery store at hiked up prices. I recently saw a shop owner opening a can of powered milk (the exact brand Jes and I just bought) and adding it to a large heap. The price was nearly double. Many poor Malawians are either to poor to buy the proportions at the grocery store, or as is often the case, live too far away. Since larger stores are located in larger towns, rural Malawians get hosed.
On a quick jaunt through a local market you will also find a plethora of video theaters. At first I was very surprised that movie theaters could be found in such abundance. However, after venturing into one such, “theater,” my confusion was resolved. I was met with a dark room, at the end of which was a wooden crate with an old 29inch television on top. For 40 kwatcha (25 cents), you can sit on the floor and watch a South African soap or a football game. The fee pays for the electricity, the satellite dish (very limited broadcast offerings in Malawai), and the darkened venue. Very few Malawians own televisions, so just as businesses exist to share cars, businesses exist to share televisions. Seeing these movie theaters gave me an idea. I had noticed several weeks ago that MCV has an old inFocus projector they use in the computer lab. I brought several movies on my computer, and after a little searching, easily procured a speaker setup.
I announced the showing of the movie during a school assembly on vandalism. Students seemed confused, and I was swamped with questions after students had been told, using several comical stories, why writing bad things on the wall of the toilet was wrong. The biggest concern of students was that they lived too far away. Many students walk several miles to and from school, so a return trip at 6:30 for a movie requires considerable conviction. I made it clear I didn’t want students traveling after dark, and that the movie was for students who lived, “close by.” At 5:30 while I was preparing dinner, Jes returned to the school to lock up. She came across a class room full of students studying hard. She asked why the students had not returned home for dinner. The response was a jumble of murmurs explaining how they weren’t really hungry and seeing as how they, for some reason, weren’t hungry today it seemed sensible to stick around and study until, oh, 6:30 there abouts.
After spending an hour walking around the MCV campus rounding up spare power converters and extension chords, I had successfully geri rigged a passable theater. The only concern at this point was electricity. Power usually fails around six o’clock because of “technical faults” at the power-station. Once I expressed disbelief that the irregularity of electricity could be caused by just one power station, to which a Malawian friend of mine conceded, “they do have lots of technical faults.” Seeing as how it had been raining most of the day (nearly a guarantee for a power outage), Jes pegged the chances of us making it through the movie as a little above her class passing their genetics test.
At six o’clock the power is still on but there was a group of students conspicuously loitering around our house. The spokesman for the group approached me and said, “Sir, if we are doing a movie tonight can we help you set up, sir?” One thing I love about Malawian students is that they are always quick to help with anything. I barely carry my own books anymore. I started Jurassic Park at 6:30 sharp, to cheers from an audience of about 15 students. By 6:45, the group and burgeoned to about 50 students who were spilling out the door and jockeying for the limited seating in the studio. Every few minutes a student would try to sit on the chair blocking the projector and would get a thorough telling off by the audience. Eventually, the doors and windows were packed with peering pupils. The students got really into the movie and would cheer and clap during exciting moments. The clapping seemed to coincide with narrow escapes and with disembowelments by dinosaurs, so it was hard to tell whose side the students were on.
Halfway through the movie, a sophomore turned to me and asked, “Is this a true story?” I replyed that it wasn’t, but that dinosaurs really did exist millions of years ago. This response was met by a mixture of awe and disbelief, as though the student thought dinosaurs were undeniable cool, but was skeptical as to their existence during any epoch.
About a half hour in the speakers cut out. I had been warned of this by Jonathan, one of the computer specialists at MCV. The amp’s fan was broken and as such could easily overheat. Seeing as how the temperature was likely well above a hundred degrees in the cramped and sweaty studio, I was personally surprised the amp lasted as long as it did. After a short hiatus, during which time the amp was moved outside and cooled by swinging it through the air, we were back in action. By assigning students to fan the amp by hand we made it through the movie without any further hiccups.
On my way back to our hut many students approached me and said, “again tomorrow sir?” One student even made a logical argument about how it made sense to show a movie the next night because it was a holiday. Seeing as I have only 7 movies on my computer, the showings may have to be more spread out. Next I think I will show Star Wars.

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