I am an African immigrant and writer from Ottawa. I arrived in Canada four years ago, emigrating from Zimbabwe (with a three-month layover in South Africa). Escaping my country’s murderous politics, I found safety, and ultimately established firm roots in Canada.
Being Black and an immigrant, life in Ottawa has not been easy financially. Before COVID-19, life was manageable on my salary as a school guard, freelance journalist, and sometimes fabric warehouse worker. A haircut was $15, vegetables were under $2, my tea cuppa of Tim Horton’s was $1.20, and my monthly rent was under $450 in Heatherington, arguably the poorest suburb in Ottawa and filled with people of colour from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia — folks that look like me.
My myriad of jobs over the years kept the lights on.
Then came the pandemic outbreak in March 2020, and work ground to a halt for many, including me. I was completely thrown off balance. Swiftly, I was left with no choice. I got by on the wage replacements from the federal government until early 2021, when the warnings bells of inflation got louder. Right now, Canada’s inflation has shot to 6.7 per cent, a 31-year high. Conventional explanations from prime-time TV economists on CBC or CTV say that supply chains are clogged, ships are jammed at ports in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Shanghai and Amsterdam, and few truck drivers are turning up for work — hence the torturous rise in prices of everything from baby powder to bundles of spinach.
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But on a more personal level, in my life, inflation meant in Ottawa, haircuts jumped to $30 and my rent increased by $200 to $630. At the same time, my freelance journalism gigs dried up.
In the end, I couldn’t keep my head above water anymore in Canada.
I have a traumatic relationship with inflation. I was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, a country where inflation rose a historic 231,000,000 per cent in 2008 amid economic collapse. Life got ugly. I remember using a wheelbarrow to carry bricks of worthless currency, totalling an equivalent of $10, to buy a bag of cement. Back then, in Zimbabwe, the price of bread would change several times in just a single day — at 6 a.m., later at noon, and finally at 5 p.m.
Canada’s latest round of inflation brought back grim memories of my past.
Completely broke, it was a matter of survival when I packed my bags for Johannesburg, South Africa, in September last year, 13,000 kilometres away.
Life is not a paradise here in South Africa, a country I left four years ago. But financially it is certainly more manageable than in Canada.
Here in Johannesburg, cereal costs $1, a haircut is $1, a fully furnished Airbnb with complimentary internet and free laundry is just $250 a month, a kilogram of the choicest rib steak or pork sirloin is $8, and the cheapest UberGo trip is just 80 cents.
Crucially, writing work as a journalist is plentiful because Africa is full of informal economies: fruit vendors, dancers, magicians, and singers. This gives a journalist a rich reservoir in which to bump into interesting story ideas in the streets, unlike in Canada where the media is led by white-privileged gatekeepers, and stories must fit the lens of the white middle-class readers.
Settling back in South Africa, I have struck a rich stream of work reporting for Rest of World, The Africa Report, The New Arab, China Radio International, UN Africa Renewal magazine, and a lot of others. Because the fabulous South African summer weather allows for it, weekly I jet out into the streets, notebook in hand talking to taxi drivers, vegetable sellers, policewomen, and corporate managers, fleshing out plentiful African journalism stories.
On my freelance journalism earnings of roughly $2,500 a month in South Africa, I’m living in a brand new, fully furnished three-bedroom apartment. To put it into context, my standard of life here in South Africa is comparable to that of a resident in Kanata, the “Silicon Valley of Ottawa,” and the poshest suburb in Ottawa. In Canada, on comparable earnings, I would be saving just $100 a month after expenses while living in a cramped one-room flat with dirty curtains and a wooden floor that hasn’t been repaired in a decade.
Living here in South Africa as a returnee, something has grabbed my attention. I am sharing accommodation with a handful of Westerners of colour (British; Dutch; German) fleeing punitive inflation in their countries, and who are in no hurry to go back home. When the Omicron COVID-19 variant broke out in November, many of them suddenly couldn’t find a way back to their home countries. For one Briton, return tickets from Johannesburg to London shot to $3,000 from $600. “I’m in no hurry to be back in cold, expensive London. I’d rather use the flight money to live a respectable life here in Johannesburg, South Africa,” he told me.
We laughed, and I was relieved I’m not alone.
What frustrates me is that, in Canada, inflation is being reported as a middle-class phenomenon — as if it only impacts white middle-class families who worry about mortgages, the cost of gas to the family countryside ski cabin, the cost of a postgraduate degree at the University of Toronto, or the impact on their pensions.
But for Black immigrants like me living in Canada, who struggle to enter the job market or hold wages above the poverty level, inflation is an existential threat. Inflation means the McDonald’s cup of hot coffee that we rely on to see us through dinner because factory jobs leave little time for cooking, has suddenly spiked in price from $1.70 to $2.20. That’s a tiny jump for the upper-middle class but for many of us immigrants, the figures quickly add up because we carry two families: the one with us in the diaspora in New York, London or Toronto, and the dependent family back home in Harare, Johannesburg or Lagos.
Inflation, it is often forgotten, is a gendered burden on women of colour. Even the ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal released a poll that shows Black women and Hispanic men reported the highest levels of inflation worry among different demographic groups. It seems, unknown to TV economists, that inflation is a mental-health danger for folks of colour — especially women of colour.
So, for Black immigrants in Canada like me who face structural barriers to steady jobs, inflation is really, as they say, “a tax on the poor.” For many immigrants of colour, inflation is a harsh lived experience.
Hence my brief migration from Canada, one of the wealthiest Western countries, back to South Africa. At least, for a while.
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