Journey to Africa’s Middle Class

The Western media’s picture of Africa is characterised by two extremes: usually depicted are either the very poor masses who cannot feed themselves and who are all allegedly knocking on the door of Fortress Europe or the very rich who make their money at the expense of those poor people. The middle segment of society, however, is ignored in foreign depictions of the continent.

The German journalist Bettina Gaus went on a journey visiting 16 different sub-Saharan countries to let the “forgotten” middle class in Africa tell its own story. “Foreign workers are not the ones who keep Africa together; it’s the African middle class who does that,” writes Gaus in her non-fictional book “Der unterschätzte Kontinent – Reise zur Mittelschicht Afrikas” (The Underestimated Continent – A Journey to Africa’s Middle Class). She makes clear from the very beginning that professionals commonly referred to as the middle class also play a pivotal role in their respective societies.

The author’s extensive knowledge of Africa comes from her experience of living in and reporting on Africa for a number of years: from 1989 until 1996 she lived in Kenya with her former Kenyan husband and covered East and Central Africa for a German newspaper. 

The proclaimed aim of Gaus’s book is to do away with the ignorance that is implied in the question of whether there is a middle class in Africa in the first place. But if you expect a scientific analysis of the conditions and impact of the middle class, you’ll be disappointed. Rather, this book is an account of real-life examples. There is a married couple – a gynaecologist and a paediatrician – who have had to live separately for a long time in Tanzania because they could not find appropriate jobs close to each other in their native Kenya to be able to afford the living standard they wanted.

Many more examples are cited of people who belong to the middle class, such as that of a businessman or a secretary in South Africa, a Tanzanian civil servant-turned-lawyer, a Zambian social worker and so on. But what are the characteristics of a member of the middle class? Bettina Gaus’s own definition is: “[It’s the part of society] that is neither too well-off nor too powerful to easily turn its back on the country, nor that poor or powerless that it seems anyway unpromising for them to try to stabilise their own environment.” But that is the view of a Western-educated and socialised person.

Bettina Gaus takes the right step in asking Africans themselves what belonging to the middle class means. Income, of course, is the decisive factor, according to the answers of the respondents. However, a most striking definition given of a member of the middle class is being able to earn a good living with a job for which a person is trained.

In her book, Bettina Gaus interweaves the people’s stories with her journey through the different countries and their respective historical, geographical and political contexts. Some stories unfortunately fade away a little in the dramatic and gripping context, be it a dictator’s brutal warfare against his own people, the privatisation of nearly the whole of a country’s mining industry, or the foreign influence on a country’s coffee plantations and so on. These broader circumstances are no doubt important because they set the stage on which the middle class has to struggle to exist.

The book is nevertheless a good read because it gives a good idea of how life is for the middle class in Africa and, moreover, it offers, especially for people not too familiar with the (political) history of Africa, numerous starting points for further reading.

Melanie Scheuenstuhl

Der Unterschätzte Kontinent – Reise zur Mittelschicht Afrikas By Bettina Gaus, Eichborn Verlag, ISBN 978-3-8218-6517-1

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