Surviving Hard Times: 8 Wise Lessons From The World’s Poorest

Today I’d like to discuss eight very practical lessons for surviving hard times that I’ve learned from nearly two decades of living and working alongside some of the poorest people on earth in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I’ve read a lot of advice on how to survive severe economic depressions, but it has mostly been written from a western perspective by authors with essentially zero experience living through economic collapse and societal upheaval. I’m not sure about you, but I prefer to take my advice from people who have actually lived through hyperinflation, crumbled infrastructure, corruption, and chronic food shortages.

I’ve lived and worked for more than 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa where $110 USD/month is considered a good-paying salary. By western standards, these people have been living post-apocalyptic society for generations. They know a thing or two about it.

Let’s take a break from all the “prepper gurus” and take a page from the true survival experts: Sub-Saharan Africans.

1. You Are Not an Island!

This is the single greatest lesson that westerners need to learn when it comes to surviving hard times.

People in developed countries are ferociously independent. As such, they focus almost entirely on self-reliance. It’s a serious blind spot. “It all depends on me,” they say, so they start hoarding resources, isolating themselves from society, then start getting all nutty and paranoid.

History easily proves that the most effective system to survive hard times is to live as part of a generous community of trustworthy people.

The one-man prepper idea is quite short-sighted and naive.

There is a reason the Amish don’t skip a beat when hard times come.

Communities are the single greatest survival mechanism there is. I fear that the next great depression will be far worse than that the Great Depression simply because we no longer have the strong social fabric and moral baseline that our great grandparents when they faced the financial collapse.

Be Generous and Helpful to Honest People

Build relationships with honest, hard-working people who are also community-minded and reciprocate generosity. Help folks out with whatever skills you have on Saturday mornings but at some point, its good to see if they reciprocate when you ask them for help. Stay away from people who are only “takers.” Each person in a community brings a skill set- one is good an electrician, another a carpentry, and another is an ER nurse.

In hard times, these combined skill sets are invaluable for solving problems that would otherwise require large amounts of money to solve. I find the best place to find a trustworthy community is at a healthy church. Of course, I hope that isn’t the sole reason to attend a church.

With time you will learn who the trustworthy people in your community are. Lend your tools, help them with DIY projects, do airport drop-offs/pickups, carpool, watch their pets and plow their driveway when they are away etc. Start now. If you wait for a crisis before trying to build a community support network its already to late.

2. Simple Living is Happy Living

You need a lot less than you think you do to be content. Minimalists already know this.

Despite extreme poverty, depression is very rare in developing countries compared to western nations. This is largely due to a higher emphasis on quality relationships with friends and family.

In poorer countries, most folks, old or young, have a real sense of belonging within their community. They bring a valued contribution.

Having a complex life with “too many irons in the fire” is a massive source of stress.

Learn to value simplicity and relationships.

3. Reduce Foreseeable Risk

Tough financial times are unpredictable enough. Stabilize your life by eliminating as many easily foreseeable risks as possible.

For example:

  • Pay off the car, house or credit card now because it’s not really yours until the bank has their money back.
  • Replace unreliable appliances and get a 10 year parts & labor warranty too.
  • Take care of that medical procedure you’ve put off taken care of while you have health coverage
  • Do preventative maintenance on your vehicle to mitigate surprise repairs.
  • Build a “rainy day fund.” This is classic Dave Ramsey advice, but it qualifies within the category of mitigating risks.

4. Risk More

This may seem contradictory to the previous point, however there is a distinction between “ticking-time bomb” risks compared to calculated risks based with a strong likelihood of a financial reward . If you try to avoid all risk you won’t accomplish or succeed in much either. If ever there is a time to shake things up, its when times are tough.

The poorest people on earth generally are willing to risk much more in order to change or improve their lives. I notice this same characteristic among immigrants who come to western nations. They are not bound by status-quo and are willing to go “all-in” as entrepreneurs to persue the dream of one day making it big- which they very often do.

In other words, “Nothing ventured, Nothing gained.”

One of my neighbors in a West African village was very poor immigrant from a neighboring country who settled in the village. They had virtually nothing and received very little help from the locals. The first year they managed to build a mud hut and glean the leftover peanuts from the surrounding fields for nutrition. The next year they set up a roadside stand and sold gas to motorcylists from 1-liter whiskey bottles. By the third year, they had expanded to become the busiest roadside grain dealer in the village! Within 3 years they had gone from virtually nothing to being more successful than the locals who had been living there all their lives.

What made them different?

They accepted calculated risk, had little to lose, didn’t care what people thought, and worked harder than everyone else.

Don’t be afraid of failure when you attempt something new. Do your homework then go for it! Stay focused, and refuse to give up like your life depended on it.

5. Knowledge and Skills are Better Than Money

Image by Emir Krasnić from Pixabay

In the developing world, knowledge applied is as good as money and the more you know the more you can make. Basically, people pay you to fix problems that they otherwise could not fix or don’t have the time to fix.

This is why expert tradesmen often keep their there skills, connections and tricks a closely guarded secret.

The internet and Youtube have largely blown that paradigm out of the water. Use the internet to teach yourself a marketable skill that would be infrequent demand during a hard economy.

6. Wean Yourself Off Your Employer

Image by Michael Gehlert from Pixabay

Many folks in poorer nations have one or two side gigs to supplement their income and as a contingency in case their main employment falls through.

Imagine if your future self visited you one day with a message that within three years you would be making way more money than your daily job if you implemented a long-term self-employment plan and worked hard at it. What would you do?

I recently heard of an airline pilot who worked on his days off doing test flights and ferrying aircraft from place to place. Within a few years, he left the airline industry for his “side gig” because it was making fistfuls of cash. That’s a smart move especially since airlines lay off a lot of pilots during economic downturns.

Why not plant a seed toward a self-sufficient income now and keep pecking at it?

  • Monetize your hobby– take it to the next level, sell online, brand and market your products etc..
  • Monetize your vehicle– start a grocery delivery business
  • Start a simple business– Get a good ride-on mower, line trimmer and trailer and mow a few lawns as a side gig- it would be very easy to scale up a business like this if need be.
  • Monetize your knowledge- Create a course, start a blog, sell your own software or IT services.
  • Monetize our skills: Sell home-baked goods, wood work etc at the farmers market

7. Secure Cheap, Reliable Transportation

All you really need is something to get you reliably from point A to B. In the developing world, that’s usually a bike or motorcycle, but whatever it is, make sure it is reliable(and cheap.) Transportation is often the key to steady employment and greater productivity.

Mobility opens up possibilities and in hard times you need as many possible.

In fact, your vehicle could be the very means of your income(delivery driving, Uber etc.)

Here’s a great article with excellent tips for finding a reliable used car.

8. Have More Kids!

Sure, raising kids costs money, but if you raise them right and teach them responsibility early, a large healthy family makes a very strong survival mechanism for hard times.

From a very young age, African children are already drawing drinking water for the family, sweeping the courtyard, or guarding livestock. From responsibilities, they learn the pride of being genuine contributors to their household. Each member of the family adds stability in what is an otherwise very uncertain world for them.

A big strong family is like gold.

Most Africans have essentially zero social security. The government will not give them a pension, take care of them in their old age, or pay for medical bills. Their only social security is their family.

Don’t assume that the government will always be there for you. Nothing is farther from the truth during a true financial collapse.

The west has forgotten the collective strength of large households. Once the kids get a bit older, the true strength of larger family units kicks into high gear. They are capable of bringing in more resources and income while distributing workloads to make everyone’s life easier and more economical.

More importantly, healthy families have an unmatched level of trust and commitment that increased overall security, and satisfaction in life.


While I appreciate the advice of many preppers. I much prefer to learn from two schools:

  • The School of History
  • The School of Hard Knocks– preferrable not myself but other graduates

Both sources do a great job of sifting out the theoretical BS and leaving me truly usable practical advice. I hope this article has been just that: usable and practical.

For more I highly suggest reading How to Survive Hard times: 8 Unique Traits of Survivors.

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Don Longworth

Don was born and raised in sub-saharan Africa. Now based in Canada, his extensive experience in non-profit work has served him well over multiple deployments in Africa. Don's experiences have made him a practical "to-the-point" type person. He is a no-frills, low-key guy who appreciates quality and simplicity.

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