One of the many embarrassing moments in my life was at a supermarket checkout in Hamburg a few years back. A teenage girl finished scanning all my items, and then asked me where I was from. Weird, I thought. I answered “Ich bin von Irland.” She looked at me like I had zwei Kopfs. She had actually said “how are you paying?”, but my poor comprehension failed me again. My face quickly matched my name.
As of this week, I can now start making a list of embarrassing experiences at checkouts.
This time, I got to the same point in the transaction, only to find I had nowhere near enough cash for my shopping (very few businesses accept credit cards here). That had never happened to me before. Not even as a student. But it happened to me in Sierra Leone – one of the world’s poorest countries.
Whenever I see someone else hand back items at a supermarket checkout, I can’t help but feel bad for them. I wonder what hardships they face every day, just to pay the bills. Now, other people were looking at me. But I’m pretty sure they weren’t worried about my bank balance. I am sure they guessed I was new in town – getting used to the high cost of food and juggling banknotes covered in zeros ($233 makes you a millionaire in Leones).
Many non-staple food items cost around double of what they do in the developed world. And it’s easy to compare, because many of them are imported with U.K. prices, printed on the packaging.
Let me walk you down the aisles with a calculator.
Part of the problem is that Sierra Leone produces very little food itself. Margarine comes from The Netherlands, cookies from Turkey, UHT milk from Germany. The price you pay at the till includes the hefty cost of shipping the food to the small market of Sierra Leone.
It’s part of the cycle of poverty. Most people can’t afford fancy foods because they’re too expensive. They are too expensive because only small amounts are shipped here. Only small amounts are shipped here because people can’t afford them.
According to the IMF, the average Sierra Leonean lives on less than $2 a day, so most, or all, of people’s income goes toward food – basic food, like rice, beans, cassava leaves and safe drinking water. On an average wage, those six slices of cheese would need to last about a week. In other words, shopping in a supermarket is like a night at Trump Tower. Forget about it.
So yes, I did feel embarrassed to hand back my cornflakes. But cornflakes are for breakfast, a meal many people here rarely enjoy. How lucky I am to feel so stupid.