According to the CIA World Fact Book, approximately 36% of the Tanzanian population is said to fall below the poverty line -- a statistic that is particularly striking given that per capita income in 2008 stood at $442 (and presumably has remained just as low in the subsequent years). With average annual income so low, it seems difficult to imagine the conditions for those who fall below this so called poverty "line". On the opposite end of the spectrum, wealth in Tanzania confers a great deal of status and respect. "Mzee" is a Kiswahili term of endearment, not only reserved for use when describing elders, but also very respected and dignified men, or those presumed to have great wealth. While there are a number of international organizations focused on measuring poverty, I have recently learned of some very interesting cultural measures of wealth. Below I share a few examples of both historical and present-day measures of wealth from around the world.
Within the Tanzanian Maasai tribes, the extent of a man's wealth is measured in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man without plenty of either is considered to be "poor." Similarly, within most tribes in Tanzania, there continues to be a tradition of a dowry, or rather, the money, property, or goods a woman brings as a gift to her husband in marriage, where cattle are often used as the "currency" for negotiations between the families of the two promised to be married (the bride and groom do not take part in these negotiations).
When cattle do not apply, there are a variety of creative measures to assess one's wealth applied around the world. In polygamous cultures, the number of brides one can “afford” indicates wealth and status. Islamic law allows for up to four formal wives, provided the man can afford to support that number of wives and the number of children that may imply. In Zanzibar, under the rule of the Omani Arab Sultans, while it was unusual for a man to have more than one formal wife, there were no limits placed on the number of concubines and slaves a man could purchase and keep. Until 1911, it was the practice of the Sultan to maintain a harem of around 100 concubines and sleep with five concubines per night in strict order of rotation. The wealth of the Sultans allowed them to exercise this privilege and father many children. In Thailand, until the practice of polygamy was outlawed by King Rama VI, it was expected of monarchs to maintain a harem of women consisting of numerous “major” and “minor” wives, as well as the fruits of these relationships, aka children. Demonstrating their wealth, previous Kings created some truly prodigious families. Rama I had 42 children by 28 mothers; Rama II had 73 children by 40 mothers; Rama III had 51 children by 37 mothers, eventually accumulating a total of 242 wives and consorts, Rama IV had 82 children by 35 mothers, and Rama V had 77 children by 40 mothers.
In India, there is a great cultural value placed on gold as a measure of wealth. Gold is considered as a status symbol, signifying great wealth. For a bride, it is believed, wearing 24 karat gold on her wedding day, will render luck and happiness throughout the married life. In all Indian weddings the amount of gold the bride brings in shows her family’s status and wealth and forms part of the dowry that is given to the bride (quite distinct from most dowries in Tanzania which are given instead to the groom). Accordingly, gold is the bride’s “insurance,” as it can quickly be turned into cash for use if an emergency arises.
So how then are wealth and success measured in America? Perhaps the measure of one’s wealth and success centers around the staples of the American dream – a house? a car? a college education? 2.5 children? Maybe even, a diamond ring and other jewels? Perhaps at the end of the day, culturally relative perceptions of wealth and success render comparisons of wealth and success between here and there mute.
Northern Tanzania with Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar by Phillip Briggs (2006), page 200. ISBN 1 84162 146 3
Footprint: Tanzania Handbook, 2nd edition
Lonely Planet: Bangkok City Guide