Politics & Media
Jul 23, 2008, 05:39AM

Five Foot Three

As American vegetable prices creep up, we should look to the third world for perspective on the actual food crisis.

Food crisis.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo by Keith Bacongco

Vegetables have gotten so expensive. Fruit too. Not too long ago I could go to the grocery store and pick up some green beans for $.99 a pound, but the rising price of food has sent them skyrocketing to $2.99. I don’t eat them anymore, which is a shame because I really like green beans. Same goes for asparagus, and broccoli’s making a solid push to be added to the list. It’s a petty concern really, especially for someone who just spent $40 on a pair of shoes that I didn’t really need. It’s all a bit petty, the hemming and hawing over rising gas prices, the cost of food, the fact that the price of an airline ticket rules out a family vacation this summer. That’s not to say that we are not all feeling the effects of a struggling economy and a depreciating dollar. I have rent, student loan bills and car payments; I need to be a bit discriminating when it comes to vegetable expenditures. But when I read an article like Kevin Sullivan’s “Africa’s Last and Least” (from Sunday’s Washington Post) I’m left feeling more than a little selfish.

Sullivan tells the story of Fanta Lingani, a 50-something woman living in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation in West Africa. Lingani gets up as early as four a.m., pulling herself up from a concrete floor where her children and grandchildren sleep around her. Her half hour walk to work takes her past her husband’s two-room hut where he sleeps, alone, in a double bed, and through the darkened streets of the city. She spends two mornings each week sweeping the city streets, earning less than $10 a month. Sullivan details an instance where “a tanker truck sped down the street, kicking up a cloud of dust into [Lingani’s] face and blowing away her little piles. She coughed, pulled her pink head scarf across her face and swept the same dust all over again…By 7 a.m., she’d finished her section. But she had to wait an hour for a male supervisor to show up and check her work.” It is back-breaking work for Lingani, “bent over at the waist, so far that her bottom [sticks up] higher than her head,” but necessary, as her wages combined with those of one of her co-wives make up the bulk of the family’s food budget; a budget that’s stretching too thin as the global food crisis continues to escalate.

Lingani’s husband, Hamado Zorome, is a 68-year-old retired police officer. His pension serves as the family’s main income, but in a country where “the United Nations says nearly 72 percent of the country’s 15 million people live on less than $2 a day,” this income is minimal, and Zorome likely keeps most of it for himself, refusing to tell his wives how much he receives. In the story Sullivan tells, Lingani receives $2.50 from her husband to spend on groceries, with instructions to spend only $.75 during her visit to the market and save the rest for later. Whereas a year ago such a nominal amount could buy meat, vegetables and peanut sauce for her 25-person family, she now goes over a budget when purchasing $.30 worth of baobab leaves (tough leaves from trees that populate this region of Africa), “four small onions…a bag of dried fish, a small plastic bag of salt, two small cubes of beef bouillon and a bag of potash,” a paste that is made by straining water through ashes. It is less nutritious, less filling and never enough to make three meals in a day.

It’s a sad story, made sadder by a cultural disparity in gender expectations. Men do not help with shopping or cooking. When jobs are scarce, as they are now in Burkina, men do not work, leaving women to earn what little money they can for their hungry families. Even when food is scarce, husbands are served first and get to eat from their own bowls. Children eat next, sharing a single bowl of food between as many as 11 people. Only when everyone else has eaten does Lingani serve herself, often taking only a few bites and giving the rest to her hungry children. “When the children ask for food, we have to give it to them…We’re mothers,” Lingani explains. She says, “Men and women should fight together for the children…But if men won’t do that, the women have to fight alone.”

But it is a fight that may cost them their lives. In a culture where gender roles are so rigid that even in times of economic and health crisis women are expected to be the sole caretakers of children and homes, they are forced to sacrifice too much, work too hard and suffer more greatly than those around them. According to the U.N. World Food Program, as reported by The Washington Post, rising food prices have forced “more than 130 million poor people,” deeper into poverty throughout the world. That means more hungry men and children and, especially in Africa, even hungrier and skinnier women, who suffer from increasing malnutrition. Even pregnant women and nursing mothers are forced to sacrifice medical care. Children, mostly girls, are being pulled out of school to save money for food. And more and more women are turning to prostitution to help subsidize the increasing cost of feeding their families. In nations where safe sex remains a rarity and the risk of contracting HIV is incredibly high, more prostitution means more women literally risking their lives in an effort to save their families.

This story puts everything in perspective, right? Sure it might cost me a little more to drive to and from work each day. As the price of food continues to climb, there will be more and more items that are edged out of my level of affordability. But that’s fine for now. I’ve never been a frivolous person, but I’m hardly frugal either, because I’ve never had to be, and even now a difference of $2 per pound on green beans isn’t going to make or break me for the future. It’s time to stop all the whining and complaining, to accept that we don’t always get to take the vacation we wanted. There are people in this world who work their whole lives without ever taking a break. There are people, women, who, no matter how hard they work, still struggle to survive. Just ask Fanta Lingani.

  • In the abstract, I agree with Ms. Taylor's points. But frankly, I don't live in Africa and there's not a thing I can do to alleviate the extreme poverty there. That's up to Bono and Bill Gates. Meanwhile, the cost of gas is murder, and basic food's not far behind. My dad says it's all part of an economic cycle, but that doesn't help me, or him, right now. So sorry for seeming selfish, but I've got my own problems without worrying about Africa.

    Responses to this comment
  • Really LegoGirl? Have things gotten so bad that we are relying entirely on Bill Gate and Bono to solve the world's problems? The whole reason nothing happens over there is because everybody here is too concerned with their own problems to worry about africa--and they're just left to their own economic woes while we initiate non-sensical stimulus packages and make two-faced claims of changing our own consumption while proposing to reduce gas taxes. I agree that things in the US are bad, especially for those who have lost their jobs or live in poverty here, but maybe we could all benefit from a little perspective by knowing that we could be in a powerless situation where, no matter what we do, we wouldn't be able to eat at night. If mothers in Africa are dying because of rigid gender traditions, then I don't know how that continent will ever turn itself around.

    Responses to this comment
  • LegoGirl has apparently missed the entire point of Taylor's article, which is to put things in perspective. Aside from being laughably wrong about her personal efficacy in aiding poverty-stricken nations (see $0.27cent/day ads etc.) she, at the same time, has aptly surmised the me-first, gluttonous attitude that gives the US its increasingly poor image around the world. I honestly marvel that there are people who could harbor such ignorant, narcissistic thoughts. Ms. Taylor's certainly right. Everyone needs a reality check now and again. Hearing stories falls far short of actually witnessing the conditions in these third world countries, but something is certainly better than nothing.

    Responses to this comment
  • Frankly what Legogirl says is ridiculous. Fact: 90% of malaria cases and malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Fact: malaria can be treated at a cost of $3/person. Fact: The U.S. GDP per capita is $45,000, while it is around $3,000 in Congo. Fact: The world simply DOES NOT HAVE the resources to support the lifestyle of the average American. Legogirl, it sucks that American lives are getting harder to live. It's happening to me too. But to suggest that there is "not a thing I can do" about Africa when the cost to us is miniscule and the difference to be made is astronomically vast is basically immoral. We shouldn't act like we deserve to live the same lives we've lived for the past 50 years. Some kind of redistribution of resources has to happen, before the world descends into economic-political crisis. Drive less. Buy cheaper food. Move into a smaller house. Then, once you've figured out how to live with less, write your congressperson and tell them that you support aid to Africa. You can do it for selfish reasons, if that's all that makes sense to you. Let Representative Smith know that you're willing to pay fractionally more in taxes so that more human beings can become doctors and engineers, so that maybe some kid in Cameroon or Mali or Burkina Faso figures out how to make hydrogen power affordable for your children, or discovers a new way to treat the cancer you might get in 30 years. Honestly, it's 2008, don't people realize that globalization affects humanity in more ways than cheap corporate driven economics?

    Responses to this comment
  • Okay, kfay, you've thought about Africa, now what? Are you going to join the Peace Corps? That would be a career change worthy of real dedication. Have you thought about the impoverished in Asia, Latin America and places like Latvia, or the South Bronx or El Paso? Only the most cold-hearted person could read Taylor's story and not, at least for a minute, give thanks for better living conditions, but at least LegoGirl is being honest in saying she can't realistically do anything about it.

    Responses to this comment
  • Can we please stop with the "can't do anything" nonsense? It's just ignorant. Beyond the many charities one could give money to (OXFAM is the best), every single American citizen already does do something indirectly. One of the only things President Bush has done that's made me proud of my President is vastly increasing economic aid to Africa, something around $9 billion. (Of course he's attached all sorts of messed up strings relating to religion and abstinence.) But it's still not enough, considering what we give to a country like Colombia. So if you want to do something (which you clearly, obviously, unarguably can do) try asking your government to commit more of your tax dollars to Africa. If you don't trust them, again, I highly recommend Oxfam for your charitable donations.

    Responses to this comment
  • Hi Tim- What's 'realistic'? Can an average person solve the AIDS epidemic in Africa/Asia? No. I suppose blockhead is right in that regard and we should leave it to Gates. But people can do SOMETHING. I've spent time in Nicaragua working in clinics for homeless women and children. I've visited the landfills where people live walking barefoot though mountains of trash every day to salvage rubbish they might be able to sell. All this while I was a poor student in college, no less. Organizations make these trips very affordable and FUN for people to do but most people don't; not because they can't but because they are ignorant of the possibilities and too lazy to look for them. Anyone who says otherwise is just making a poor excuse for being the poor man's Paris Hilton.

    Responses to this comment
  • Kfay: Your work as a college student is without question admirable and unusual. However, the point remains that unless you become a missionary and dedicate your life to helping alleviate misery in other parts of the world, there really isn't much one American individual can do, save, as Doing Deities says and contribute money to an organization like OXFAM. I don't have the faith that Deities does that pressuring the government--no matter what party's in power--will work. As for being a "poor man's Paris Hilton," that's a gratuitous slam at middle-class citizens who worry about supporting themselves and their families.

    Responses to this comment
  • Having recently left a typical American college, I don't think that kfay's attitude and deeds are all that unusual. More and more students are studying abroad, many to third-world countries, and the students making those trips are remarkably well attuned to the worldwide connectedness that causes and perpetuates poverty. Perhaps, Timothy, even a 30 year-old like yourself is too far removed from these trends among younger people, but they exist, and in greater numbers than previous generations. Globalization and inter-cultural relationships are becoming too big to ignore, and I think there will be a gradual erosion in the idea that middle class Americans can live in the bubble you describe. That's no knock against "average Americans" (to borrow a NYTimes sentiment that you echo in your comment), just a realization that such an attitude is necessarily becoming extinct. It's not for nothing that Obama has whipped up record numbers of young voters with ideas/catch phrases like Change and Hope. Thankfully, people like kfay and Doing Deities are well-represented among today's younger work force and college students. And as an editor, I'm glad that Claire's characteristically engaging article can spark such a discussion and illuminate Timothy to the promising state of today's youth!

    Responses to this comment
  • Thanks a lot: you've aged me by two years. I agree that Claire Taylor's article was, as usual, thought-provoking and thorough. Perhaps you're just more optimistic than me about the "change" and "hope" not only among young adults today but the nation as a whole. College students and recent graduates have, since JFK instituted the Peace Corps, and later on when VISTA was strong domestically, been idealistic and curious and helpful in at least learning about the world. Whether that translates into real action is the question; and whether the elusive youth vote helps Obama win the presidency remains to be seen. I suspect it will help, but so did George McGovern. As it happens, I believe globalization is positive, as are inter-cultural relationships, which goes against the protectionism that so many Democrats promote, and the fear of immigrants that is more characteristic of many Republicans.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment