Our misrepresentation of life in the West

My father once said that his doctoral research supervisor, Dr. Ron Williams, a Senior Lecturer at The University of Wales in the 1980s, told him he did not have a TV at home because he could not afford it. I did not understand why Dr. Williams could not afford a TV until many years later when I returned to the UK as an adult who owned a TV. In 2015, I bought a TV on sales for £200 (its price before sales was £300 or slightly more). Unknown to me, that was the beginning of problems.

First, to use the TV in viewing live programs, I was told to pay £145.50 every year lest I will be watching the TV illegally which could incur a fine of up to £1000. I obliged and paid £290 for the first two years. In the third year, I opted for monthly payments because I thought there was no reason to make a full year payment since I do not have one more year to live in the UK. I opted to pay in instalments.

The minimum instalment payment required that I pay £29.4 monthly for a period of five or six months, so that, according to the licensing agency, I will be able to ‘rest’ (meaning I will be free from further payments) until the end of the year. To the licensing agency, you cannot do otherwise, but pay for a period of one year (and request for a refund if you leave the UK before the completion of the subscription period). On getting a call from the TV license office requesting for money, I told the caller that I may have to rethink if I still needed the TV whose running cost had since overwhelmed its price, making it a liability for me than an asset.

Therefore, I understood why my father’s supervisor could not afford a TV. Affordability here does not mean the ability to buy it, it means being unable to accommodate its add-on problems. Amongst the add-on problems you are likely to face may also include receiving calls from insurance companies persuading you to initiate a monthly direct debit from your account to insure the TV. I received these calls three times persuading me to sign up for insurance.

Also, in capitalist countries, you will pay for those services you have used as well as those you have not used. When I lived in the West, I had the option of using either gas or electricity for my energy needs at home. At some point, I decided not to use gas for the entire billing period of 3 months. I then switched off my boiler (the gas facility as they call it) for 3 months. I looked forward to paying for electricity only. Then the gas bills came (for the period I did not use it) and it totalled £107.97 (inclusive of VAT).

I was not shocked because I thought it was a mistake. I quickly sent an email to the property managers, thinking “I got them” this time. And then their reply came: “Although you didn’t use any gas for the period from 1/4/16 to 30/6/16 there is still a daily standing charge which has to be paid to the supplier and that is what has created the bill for that period. The Laser pricing structure is such that it has a higher daily standing charge than British Gas, but a considerably lower charge per kWh of gas used. Unfortunately, at this time of year that does make the Laser charges seem relatively high, but in autumn and winter they will seem very much lower.

According to our calculations, using OFGEMs (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) official figures for Low, Medium and High gas users, Laser will be cheaper than British Gas by between £117 and £266 per year for Medium and High gas users and just marginally more expensive by only £4 per year for low gas users (based on a British Gas price of 4.1 p/kWh). These calculations can’t be exact because BG change their tariff across the year, typically being higher in autumn and winter when gas use is highest. Laser prices are fixed for 6 months at a time.

We are also negotiating with Laser to see if the daily standing charge can be reduced at all and in your case, it does seem likely that from 1st October (when all the Laser pricing is next set) there will be a reduction, although I appreciate that doesn’t help with this bill.” I had to pay £107.97 for a service that was not rendered to me, and after that payment, I then remembered Nigeria and how great a country it is. Now, I am reminded of another narrative about America.

Sometimes the understanding of life in the West is not easily understood by Africans when stories of the West are related to them back home in Africa. I was once told by a Nigerian who travels to America frequently that in that country, you may see a car dumped by the roadside because the owner does not want it. When such narrative about America is related to you in Africa, you would think that the note in that narrative is that America is so prosperous a country that people throw away their cars! But that is not correct. People throw away cars in the West because they cannot afford to repair it or to keep it running.

For example, you can buy a very decently used car for $500 for example, then it breaks down after some time because its timing belt (or other mechanical component) is worn out, and fixing it may require more money than the cost of the car because the mechanic charges you for every hour that it takes him to fix the car plus the cost of the components which are most times replaced with a new one as opposed to refurbishment or improvisation. When you are faced with that situation, the only sensible thing to do is to abandon the car, and arrange to buy another one, if you still are interested in being a car owner.

So, that car in America was so dumped by its owner not because America is a prosperous country where people want to dump their cars at the slightest provocation, but because America is a hard country in which to get a car fixed. Therefore, it is not true that owning a car in the West is not as much a luxury as it is in Africa. The difference here is simple to understand. In the West, price of the car is not the issue, keeping the car is, while in Africa, keeping the car is not the issue, the price is. Taking narratives about the West from Africa at face value could thus be misleading, until you either experience it yourself or you are critical about it.

Daily Trust News

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