University City

February 22, 2013

Seeking world news? Try talking with people at Walmart

Employees, customers at Walmart – a globalized ‘village green’ – come from all over the world

Walmart means different things to different people. It’s the world’s biggest seller of handguns – and the largest seller of organic food. One thing’s for sure: Walmart is big. With annual sales of more than $4 billion, Walmart would place 23rd on the international list of GDP, ahead of Sweden (eat your heart out, IKEA).

The University City Walmart offers a case study in a global firm’s local impacts. Their new super-store on North Tryon Street is ridiculously busy, 24/7. Meanwhile, the old Walmart site now sits empty, ghost-anchoring a largely abandoned mall only about one mile away, near I-85 and W.T. Harris Boulevard

Yudo Anggoro, a doctoral student at UNC Charlotte’s Public Policy Program, has looked Charlotte’s place in the global economy. He concludes we’re not a global city like New York, London or Los Angeles – not yet, anyway. He analyzed Fortune 100 and 500 companies (including Walmart) and air traffic at Charlotte-Douglas International airport to draw his conclusions.

Make no mistake, Anggoro continues. Charlotte is “globalizing,” even if we aren’t yet “global”. Our area Walmart (the one’s that’s open for business) recently contributed a data point with grass-roots support for Anggroro’s findings.

A Walmart, it turns out, can be the latest version of the village green – where locals find out what’s going on in the global village. In this case, Charlotte’s best source for African news was University City’s Walmart’s checkout line.

In spite of bright spots, notably Ghanaian journalist Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who reports for NPR (including WFAE, our University City-based NPR station), Americans hear little about Africa. A major story – the tragic situation in Mali comes to mind – may sometimes steal headlines. But most of the time, this vast continent – cradle of humankind, with its cultural and human ties to the U.S. – remains shrouded in neglect.

At the University City Walmart last week, the cashier in the checkout line was wearing a name tag reading “Ama.” I’d seen that name before, when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African nation of Togo, so I greeted her in Ewe, one of Togo’s national languages. (The Ewes know how to say “Hello”. It’s a back-and-forth ritual that can go on for several minutes).

Ama was delighted and surprised (and fortunately – and atypically for Walmart – there weren’t people lined up behind me at the register). We chatted a minute, laughing, then she looked troubled.

“Have you heard the terrible news?” she asked me. “The Grand Marche (Great Market) burned to the ground last weekend.”

Her sister had just texted her, and then called with the details.

The Grand Marche, in Togo’s capital, Lome, was a remarkable and endlessly fascinating place. Peace Corps trainees were sent on a “trial” activity that involved going to the Grand Marche to buy a list of such everyday items as soap, matches and a towel. This could easily take half a day, and rumor had it that a few recruits never returned, something trainers liked to point out. (The rumor wasn’t true, as it happens, but it was no trip to Walmart, either).

Sprawling over several blocks, and three stories tall, with mysterious passageways colorfully jumbled with rickety tables piled high with exotic fruits and strange goods, the open-air Grand Marche was the heart of the city. Especially famous were woman selling colorful bolts of cloth for making graceful African dresses and suits. They might have looked like simple villagers, but some were business geniuses who had become very wealthy. They reportedly arrived early in the morning in chauffeured Mercedes-Benz limos, giving them their nickname “Nana Benz” (“Momma Benz”).

It is hard to explain the impact of the Lome fire in a society where face-to-face contact and the marketplace are fundamental to the fabric of life. Though no lives were lost, the economic and cultural damage was devastating. Worse, Togo’s authoritarian ruler, son of the former authoritarian ruler, used the fire as an excuse to arrest members of the political opposition. At this writing, the perpetrators remain a mystery.

One bright spot: Togo and its neighbor Ghana are traditional rivals, but the Ghanaians were quick to mobilize firefighters and get the blaze under control, after Lome’s fire crews were unable to respond effectively.

My source of news for this story was not NPR, nor the BBC nor the New York Times. It was the Walmart checkout line.

From a corporate perspective, Anggoro is probably right: Charlotte has a ways to go before we become a “global city”. In the meantime, global firms like Walmart will continue to set up shop in our midst, sometimes having a major impact on the way our community looks, the way we live and the way we set policy.

On a personal level, it’s another story. A young woman from Togo can find her way to University City, get a job at Walmart, and share the latest news from Lome, Togo with a guy in the checkout line. In our individual lives, globalization is reality. We are all neighbors in our global village.

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