Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Out of Africa (with apologies to Isak Dinesen)

One of the challenges that I have had since returning from Africa almost 5 years ago is adapting to the fact that it is really hard to believe that Africa and America can co-exist on the same planet. You may be thinking that I am just about to reaffirm all the bad things you may have heard about Africa. When people find out that I lived there, they often want to know about the war and violence I saw there, because that is all they know about it. That is all the media tells us. In this and in many other ways, we are victims of our media.

The truth is, I didn't see much violence in Cameroon, the country where I was living. I have seen and heard more about violence on the streets of Philadelphia since moving here than I ever did in Cameroon.

What I did see, and what I continue to think about, is a very distorted distribution of the world's food and economic resources. It is odd to me that Americans have a lot of money and things and are a part of a society that tells us that more is better. And yet, few of us are really happy. On the other hand, Cameroonians have very little in the way of material goods or money. Despite their problems with poverty, hunger, and corruption, many Cameroonians lead very happy lives. The simplicity of life almost seems to be a part of what makes them happy. I think that Americans can learn a lot from Africans in this regard.

We Americans spend a lot of money on stuff. Have you ever really thought about how much money you spend on things you really don't need? We have no problem dropping a couple hundred dollars on one item we think we really want or need. Yet, many Africans live on less than $250 dollars a year. That's less than $1 a day. And they have to take care of themselves and their families on that amount.

This year for Easter, my husband and I sent some money to a family we know in Cameroon so that they could have an Easter dinner. The mother of this family was also supposed to give 2,000FCFA (Central African Francs) of that money to each child in the house. 2,000FCFA is the equivalent of about 4 U.S. dollars. It was more money than some of these children had ever seen. We called the house after Easter and spoke with the children. In talking to one of the girls who is in middle school, I asked her what she did with the money. I, being an American, and having been out of Africa for some time now, have forgotten what life is like there. I expected her to say what any normal American child would have said--"I'm saving it," or "I bought ____ toy I've been wanting," or, "I bought new clothes," or... something. But do you know what she said??? She replied, "I ate." I said, "You ate?" and she said, "Yes."

2,000FCFA, the equivalent of 4 U.S. dollars, would buy breakfast for a little girl in Cameroon for almost 3 weeks. Most days, she probably goes without breakfast. She also probably goes without lunch. She will eat one meal a day, in the evenings before going to bed. Some days, she may not eat anything.

I spend more than 4 U.S. dollars on one meal when I eat fast food. That fast food meal probably contains more calories than many African children consume in 2-3 days.

Think about that! I am wondering what we can do as a society to fix this problem. I am also wondering what we need to be doing about it as Christians. We can not say it is not our problem--in fact, much of this problem has been caused by us and our capitalist system and colonialist ways. In addition, Jesus told us and modeled for us that as followers of Christ, it is our problem.

I am not saying that we need to feel bad about eating fast food every now and then. I am just wondering what our responsibility is and should be to these people. I am also asking that we think about the ways in which we spend money and how that literally "buys into" a very warped system and a much larger problem.

I am sad about this because I do not know how to change it. It is a problem that is bigger than you or me. It is a problem that "sending money" will not solve--when the money is gone, once that little girl has eaten her 3 weeks worth of breakfasts, the problem will still be there. What are we going to do?


Van O'Linda said...

Taking off from your post, I read recently "Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal." Now it doesn't solve the problem of giving more to people in other countries or helping to make sure they have food everyday, but it does make suggestions on living a life here in the US that isn't one of extravagance or gluttony or selfishness. It asks the question "What is necessary?"
The journal is written by Anne Basye who works for the ELCA and the book is supported in part by ELCA World Hunger.
It is her journal spanning a year from age 49-50. Yes, she is older than we are, but there are lessons we can learn from her.
To put it into perspective she lives in Chicago so participates in a urban life. For those of us living in suburbia we may have to be a little more creative.
First, she got rid of her car. She uses public transportation and when there is a need for a vehicle she either tags along with a friend or rents one through an area car sharing company. What a concept - saving the environment, getting exercise - being good stewards.
Second, she participates in a Community Supported Agriculture farm. During the late spring and summer, she receives a box of vegetables every week. The idea behind this is "as a shareholder, you share the risk of farming with the farmer. If weather ruins a crop, "Farmer Joe" doesn't lost any money. And you don't lose any money either because he plants such a variety of crops that something is always thriving." So you receive good locally grown food and you are supporting the local farmer. Another plus...Leftovers can be canned, given away and shared with local food pantries/kitchens. God's blessings of nourishment are given to many.
Third, is living in your community. It is becoming part of a true neighborhood. Sitting out on a front porch. Stopping to talk with your neighbors of all ages. Checking in on those who do not have someone. If nothing else it is as simply as being in relationship with one another. For that is how we are blessed, being in relationship with God.
There are many suggestions, thought provokers in this book. It is a journal, not everything can apply in our life, but if nothing else - can we live our lives by asking the question "What is necessary?"

bob sitze said...

Thanks for the comments on Sustaining Simplicity. I'm an ELCA hunger guy, and appreciate your thoughtful summary. If you want to get into the book's possibilities more deeply, we're about ready to launch the actual Web site noted in the book -- the one there now is a temporary place holder.

At a personal level, your comments are heartening to an ELCA worker even older than Anne, and as passionate about the subject as her.

God keep you joyful!

Bob Sitze, Director
Hunger Education

P.S. Say hi to Eric Shafer!