$523 Billion by 2002 “Not my debt?”

The ground was hard, hot and dusty. I didn’t quite understand why I had to take my shoes off, everyone else had (of those who had shoes). It was going to be us against them; the boys from the built up estate versus the boys from the nearby slum.

I remember one red nose day, watching Lenny Henry, trailed by a BBC camera, trudging through the small alleyways scented by the makeshift drainage system that ran through the middle of the footpath. It seemed like such a world away. Even now, narrating the beginning of this football game, I still feel the mix of pity and disgust at the thought of walking in the slums. My feet had been there once, but that was a world away from Charring Cross Road with its regularly cleaned concrete paving, and the allure of the nearby galleries and theaters. The slum’s smells, and the people, had already been forgotten by the time my earlobes greeted the cold at Heathrow. I was fourteen then. Ten years on my mind is turned back to that game; and the shoes.

We had come from different quarters: us from the recently developed flats, them from the mud uprights that peppered the gap between the school and the dam. We were no different from each other bar the tattered clothes they wore and possibly the tougher skin on the palms of their hands. It was evident, in their eyes and mannerisms, that life was tougher on that side of the railway line – There was a railway line- a steel bar of commerce – that virtually separated the slums from the suburbs. Each morning you could catch the half drowsy commuters jumping aboard the hourly trains that coasted by and never stopped. If the train was missed then the final option was to squeeze through an alley between the school fence and the estate walls; the busses only ran on the pothole filled tarmac on the estate side of life. I took my shoes off and after a few minutes during which the team selections were finalized, we kicked off.

Watching Lenny Henry, I also remember being ambivalent about the huge figures being quoted. It was interesting to think that the appeal being made was also toward me. I had lived next to the people needing the help and had played, and studied, with their children. Yet here was the BBC throwing terms such as Third World debt and figures such as $523 billion in between me – sitting on a soft sofa in a warm three bed house – and the memories I had. Funny enough, I couldn’t watch the whole program as I had to go for football training.

I find it worth more than a passing thought and am amazed at the far reaching effects of those somewhat innocuous numbers. For instance: between 1970 and 2002, a space of 32 years and less than my lifetime, the amount of debt owed by developing countries had risen by an astonishing 2100%. Thats an annual increase of approximately 65% per year. How can a country whose annual GNI (Gross National Income per person) is less than half of my monthly wage cope with such demands?

Each one of the twenty two who played that game owed approximately £225 at the time: thats a total of £4950 which is my current annual disposable income, and I’m a student. It seems trivial. Consider however, that – factoring in Aid grants and not considering interest gained on the debt owed – each African ends the year on a £46 pound deficit, meaning that after six years the amount we each owed would have doubled.

Sweaty, tired, and hungry we stopped with the sun in center of the sky. Feet turned homeward and the shoes, though tattered, were clutched on to. I’m unaware of the fate of all but three boys (my own brothers) who played that game. There is now a huge gulf of time and space between us. I suppose as soon as I landed in Heathrow at the turn of the millennium, that growing $523 billion stopped being my debt.

The Facts

16% of the worlds population live on $1 a day.

The richest 358 people have more wealth than the wages of 45% of the world’s population.

When a child is born in the Republic of Congo, it already owes $2,278.

Africa ends each year on a $2 billion deficit. And that is increasing.

To cancel the debt wouldn’t affect the IMF’s capacity to function as an organization.

Is it that difficult to take our shoes off?


Ps: Many thanks to Alex Adide for the inspiration.

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