I was looking up financial therapists online earlier today in Nairobi. To say the numbers are lean is to do what Trump used to do to facts. I’ve been curious about financial therapy since I was in Kibera two months ago, hunting for stories with my friend Don, (because juicy stories don’t come to you unless you go to them). We were skipping over mounds of rubbish when I saw a Gentleman’s Jack bottle nestled among the trash. It stood out like a black soldier would in a military parade in Pyongyang. What made me stop and stare was that it looked new, like someone had just tossed it in the trash that day or the day before, and staggered back to their house. Someone was drinking Gentleman’s Jack, a premium $45 whisky in the middle of a financially-draining pandemic.
In Kibera nonetheless.
What’s a Gentleman’s Jack bottle doing in one of the poorest neighborhoods of a developing country though?
The makers of Cadillac, the American luxury vehicle brand, might have part of the answer for us. In the American Depression in the 1930s, a combination of the gold standard, a stock market crash in 1929, and a panicky banking industry that raised interest rates meant basic commodities were hard to come by. Obviously now, luxury carmaker salesmen were seeing dust, as they tried to sell $5,000 cars ($76,000 in 2021) to people who faced evictions, repossessions, and food insecurity. The existing Jim Crow laws meant that black people had for long been overlooked as a prospective market, as wanting to appear exclusive, Cadillac dealership didn’t sell their cars to blacks. An emerging social class of wealthy black people; lawyers, politicians, boxers, and businessmen were paying middlemen up to $300 to buy the cars for them, ($4,000 in today’s currency). In a country where segregation was law, successful black men couldn’t access political or social power. Symbols of success, like the expensive car named after a French explorer, were the closest they’d come to prove to themselves and others that they too could mix it with the best of them.
A smart salesman leaked this info to the Cadillac honchos, who immediately changed their racist policy, and an emerging market was born, which potentially saved the Cadillac brand. A 70% spike in sales, coupled with reduced production costs (the salesman, Dreystadt, questioned why parts worth $5 had to be sourced for triple the amount on account of Cadillac being a premier brand and the company resorted to market prices) and an extremely high markup meant that Cadillac’s growth graph was on an upward trajectory.
Another reason a Gentleman Jack bottle lies in a rubbish heap in Kibera is because of the Cognac phenomenon among black people in America. Rémy Martin, D’usse, Hennessy, Martell, and Courvoisier, the four main French cognac makers export 90% of their product. The American market, and especially the black American market, holds the key to their most successful sales divisions. The fascination with cognac, which is even immortalized in song, Busta Rhymes’ 2001 smash hit ‘Pass The Courvoisier’ which drove up the brand sales by 30% by the way, (and created an iconic video shoot). Cognac, which we drink in Kenya as Konyagi, (a colloquialism of ‘Cognac’) can be traced back to Black American soldiers who discovered the drink while stationed in France. The cognac makers benefitted from the French population, who appreciated jazz and black art more than the Americans, and therefore posted better sales than American whiskey manufacturers, (something along the lines of Mohammed Ali questioning why he had to fight the Vietnamese on behalf of those who had called him a nigger, enslaved his people, and denied them basic rights). Through the decades, as oppression in America intensified, and Black Americans realized that actual power lay too far away, the only things that lay within reach were symbols of power; expensive clothes, drinks, accessories, and vehicles. The obsession with luxurious items among the black community can be traced back to this period as more negroes were financially able to, but were refused access to certain locations, products, and services. A culture of association with expensive locations, products, and services served as an overt act of rebellion and to an extent, proof of one’s success and self-worth. This habit, carried on by descendants, morphed into what can be considered as culture, and deviation from it carries quizzical looks or accusations of being snooty.
Back to Kibera. And a lonely whisky bottle laying in trash.
Kenya’s oppressive state; culturally, socially and most importantly, economically, mean that most people are stuck, or perched (depending on your outlook) in their respective cocoons for a lifetime. Depending on the card that life deals you; your tribe, parentage, financial ability, and physical address, it is the difference between needing financial therapy, or being in a position to offer it. A Gentleman Jack bottle for a resident in Kibera, is a middle class resident who is struggling under the financial weight of an expensive but unnecessary house rent or school fee, or a newly employed youth that ‘has to be seen’ at expensive eateries and establishments. Do I mean that poor people don’t deserve good things? No. I am just explaining that research reveals that depravation in childhood, or culturally over the years means that overcompensation, both individually and collectively is likelier regardless of financial ability. This might explain why people will afford expensive nights out, clothes and vehicles but will go home to an uninsured and borderline food-secure household; acquiring symbols of power when actual power seems unattainable.
A Gentleman Jack bottle does for that resident what a financial therapist should. Heal, temporarily at least, the financial and psychological trauma of an oppressive state that takes, violently and ruthlessly, while offering little or nothing in return. The likelihood that the man, or woman, that sparked this blog post will key in ‘financial therapists in Nairobi’ into their search engine is lower than them searching for liquor stores that offer delivery services. Sad for their family and the general Kenyan society, but great news for Brown–Forman Corporation which owns the Jack Daniels Distillery.
PS/ If you are struggling with expenditure control, seek financial therapy here