What comes after Africa?
We’ve left Africa and are now back in ‘civilization’. Being here raises the question – how do you live back in Western society after you’ve lived for a short time in Africa?
How do you go out for a nice dinner, when you know you’ve just eaten two months salary for one of the African teachers who so openly welcomed you into their school?
How do you leave food on your plate, when you’ve held the hands of the smiling children who only receive two meals at school and nothing else, meaning no dinner, and no food at all on weekends?
How do you invest in a piece of art, when you’ve volunteered with kids that have never seen paint before, and never even used a coloured texta?
Faced with varying degrees of poverty in Tanzania, where like all societies there are different income levels and some have more than others, how do you live when you return to the Western world, where poverty appears to be quite relative and most have so much in abundance?
How do you benchmark what is enough and what is excess? Two shirts or five shirts – or as one colleague I worked with once said “five suits in my wardrobe – one for each day of the week”.
There are no ‘preachy’ answers to my mind. To make people feel guilty about what they have because others have so astonishingly little does not produce much more than guilt . . . and then guilty anger.
But the facts of the matter cannot really be avoided.
As Clive Hamilton, Richard Dennis and David Barker documented some years ago (Wasteful Consumption in Australia, 2005), Australians are becoming addicted to consumption. And not for the pleasure of owning and using an item, but for the thrill of the purchase – actually consuming goods bought is secondary and may not take place at all. Despite this, most Australians believe that they don’t have enough money to meet all of their needs, including half of those on the highest incomes.
Wasteful consumption (funds spent on goods and services that are never or very rarely used) in Australia amounts to over $10.5 billion dollars annually (not including wasted consumption on excessively large houses, rarely used holiday homes, caravans and second cars). By way of comparison, this amount exceeds spending by Australian governments on universities and roads.
In 2004 Australians threw away $2.9 billion of fresh food, $630 million of uneaten take-away food, $876 million of leftovers, $596 million of unfinished drinks and $241 million of frozen food, a total of $5.3 billion on all forms of food. This represents more than 13 times the $386 million donated by Australian households to overseas aid agencies in 2003.
When you visit Africa and see first hand how little people have, these facts become quite disgusting. Especially when you’ve met some of the people and seen their gratitude and the joy they take in the simple things.
We were out at a local school in Tanzania helping distribute one new set of clothes to each of the kids (which the school does twice a year). The clothes were a hotch potch of second hand items, some a little wrinkled, some not quite the right size. And every single child accepted what they were offered with absolute joy. Some would look up at you with a shy smile and say “thank you teacher”.
Compare this to the Western world, where a child can throw a tantrum because they want to wear the yellow dress instead of the pink one, or because they like their sister’s shoes better than their own.
There is no spitting out your vegetables in Africa. At school meal times, plates are licked clean, even though the meal is same rice and beans every day. And in Africa, children know that education is a privilege not everyone gets. Here children cry when they can’t go to school, not the other way around.
While making people feel guilty really does not motivate people to long-term commitment and sustainable action over the long-haul, that should not deter us from naming greed where there is clear evidence it exists.
Is Australia more the ‘greedy’ country than the ‘lucky country’? For some it is way more lucky than for others obviously. Not every one gets to enjoy fine dining at Vue de Mond – which interestingly is French for ‘view of the world’. What worldview does it generate up there on the top of the Rialto Centre in Melbourne? (Disclaimer: we have dined at Vue de Mond and its reputation for excellence is well deserved – luckily we were not paying!).
This is precisely the dilemma we need to grapple with. What view of the world do we have? In the face of so much opulence and consumer driven materialism – how does one live back in western society when one has experienced a little of life in Tanzania?
Perhaps a start is to seriously consider the facts about consumption in Australia and maybe live with a view of the world that includes generosity, regulates greed and moderates wasteful consumption. To live mindfully not mindlessly.