- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings. ~ Franklin D Roosevelt
I am a westerner. It is a painful admittance. I work diligently each day to fight against the privilege that accompanies this qualifier. Sometimes I fail, actually often I do, but my efforts make the reality of who I am no less real. My first true reckoning with my “westerness” was my travel to East Africa for a study abroad program where I studied mostly at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. I was so excited about visiting Africa, about visiting the birthplace of my ancestors (regardless of what region they were born), that I couldn’t eat or sleep much of the week before my departure. It was all the beautiful things that I had imagined. The sun shined with a unique and powerful brightness there, so did the people. I cried when I touched the soil. It was my Hajj and I tried to treat it with all of the respect that one should treat her visit to Mecca.
While visiting a market one day, looking for souvenirs for those not lucky enough to accompany me on my pilgrimage, I ran into a few women who were trying to haggle the price of fabric with me. I was good at it, so good that many of my friends would ask me to negotiate prices for them. I’m a country girl who grew up in the hood, my bartering skills are impeccable. One woman grew tired of the back and forth and called me a Mzungu, which in Kiswahili means white person or westerner. I don’t know that she knew I spoke Kiswahili, since I had been negotiating with her in English, but her response broke my heart. I mean if ever there was a way to kill the spirit of a sojourner, she did it in that moment. She had solidified what I had never considered, that many (non western) foreigners associate ethnicity and culture with where one is from and what one has access to- complexion doesn’t fit into that equation. I felt lower than the red clay dirt that had accumulated on my sandles. I’m tender hearted.
In the following days and years, I have grown to understand the privilege of my outrage. Me being called an Mzungu while shopping for gifts by a woman who was working in the market to feed her family was not that big a deal, and I quickly learned to get over it and myself. My hurt feelings were “first world” problems. Humility, respect and empathy taught me the difference between our lives. I am forever grateful for that lesson, because I believe in learning it I am closer to becoming the world citizen I desire to be.
We have to be mindful that when we travel the world, via plane or published article, that we keep in mind that the places we quickly visit (and the struggles we find there) fully encompass the lives of the indigenous or native people living in those areas. What for some of us is a head shake and a “that’s too bad” is how others live and die. This was my thought when I read about the recent uprisings and associated deaths, injuries and arrests in Mozambique because of inflated food prices. I’ve lived a life where I’ve never once had to worry about if I would eat when I am hungry. Actually, I can’t imagine, although I try, having to sacrifice two-thirds of my income just buy food. This was the reality in Mozambique before climate changes and accompanying fires in Russia served to triple the cost of wheat in the world market. In the US we have seen little of the effects of this change. Actually, I’m not a huge bread, pasta, etc. eater so I barely noticed the change in the prices of these items. What I failed to consider is that, for many developing nations, staples like bread and rice, are a means of survival.
While one can certainly witness the effects of global warming and other ecological issues on what is happening in places like Mozambique today, the bigger issue is, as FDR stated in the above mentioned quote, an economic system the denies people of the world a very basic human right. Raj Patel, in his post at the Guardian asserts, “…global commodity speculators continue to treat food as if it were the same as television sets, with little end in sight to what the World Development Movement has called “gambling on hunger in financial markets”.” We, because I’m certain somehow I contribute to this and denying it does not take that truth away, are indeed playing with peoples lives. In Mozambique, not only did the price of bread increase, but so also did the prices of electricity and water. We create the economic models that force underdeveloped countries to rely on the international market for food and other necessities, then turn our noses up at the people who riot in the streets, or commit “crimes” because they can’t support themselves. It is redundant, actually cyclical, and as always those in power to set the economic tone of our every day lives win again.
Patel ends his post with the following words from a Mozambican human rights activist:
Yesterday, I reached Diamantino Nhampossa, the co-ordinator of Mozambique’s União Nacional de Camponeses (National Peasants Union of Mozambique). “These protests are going to end,” he told me. “But they will always come back. This is the gift that the development model we are following has to offer.” Like many Mozambicans, he knows full well which way the wind blows.
A commenter later wrote, “Hard to imagine over here where the biggest problem is obesity.” There must, somewhere, be a middle ground, and we must work to find it.