Thursday, January 10, 2008

Zimbabwe experience by André Carrel

Comment from The Nelson Daily News (Canada), 21 December

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage - John Kenneth Galbraith

On our way to the Eastern Highlands in the morning after my arrival in Zimbabwe, we stopped at the general store in a small town south of Harare. My friend had delivered a few crates of produce from his garden on his way to the airport the day before, and he wanted to pick up the empties. A queue, mostly women, many with babies on their backs, had formed in front of the store. I did not pay much attention to the queue; I wanted to see the store’s empty shelves, empty coolers, and empty freezers. My inspection was interrupted by the sudden sound of yelling and screaming coming from outside. I went to see what the commotion was all about. The women in the queue were visibly upset about something. The yelling grew louder and the gesticulating more agitated when a man wielding a bull whip appeared. A few well-aimed lashes into the throng of protesting women restored order and silence in the queue. I had never seen anything like it! As the women were being bullwhipped, a uniformed police officer walked by clutching two loaves of bread under his arm. He walked past the scene as if the mini-riot and bullwhipping of women and their babies was of no concern to him. The scene was surreal. Shortly afterwards my friend returned with his empty crates. As we stashed them in the pickup, he pointed to two loaves of bread hidden in one of the crates. "That’s all I could get," he said, half apologetically.

As we drove away, I asked him what the commotion had been all about. The women had learned that there would be bread in the store, and they had been queuing since before 6:00 a.m. There was no bread on the shelves; the bread was "walking" out the back door. "It’s how the black market works," my friend explained. The commotion was triggered when one of the women discovered what was happening with the bread. Several days later, sitting at the breakfast table eating the last of the bread and not knowing if there would be bread tomorrow or where it would come from, I reflected on what I had witnessed. The bread I had been eating for the past few days should have been eaten by a child. The only reason that bread had ended up on my table was that I had connections and money. I have read reports about the disproportionate share of the world’s resources consumed by the developed world. I have heard arguments that one world is not enough to support 6.6 billion people in the style to which the wealthiest 2 billion are accustomed. There are not enough of all the things the developed world takes for granted to allow everybody on earth to consume resources at the pace and rate of the wealthiest 2 billion. As I sat in relative comfort in the midst of Zimbabwe’s misery, I understood the bullwhipping of the women and their babies that I had witnessed as the embodiment of the global reality of the disparity in resource consumption. I talked to my friend about this disparity and about my feelings of guilt for having eaten the bread. He tried to console me: "You have to be practical about such things."

Our First World lifestyle is sustained by millions and millions of people in Africa and Asia who work for peanuts, literally, and sometimes for much less than peanuts. I spent a month living in the home of people who work hard for long hours and are paid not just less than $1 per day, but much less than $1 per day. I am a bit over-weight, but I did not lose one pound during my month in Zimbabwe because I had money in my pocket, hard currency, and friends with connections to convert my hard currency into food, fuel, and other necessities to which I am accustomed. As a member of the First World, I am at the front of the queue; I get what I want; I consume what I want, and if "they" get unruly, somebody will whip them back into line. I don’t have to lift a finger; I can simply drive away. It is not my responsibility. My position in life allows me to be practical about such things. How do I live with the image of hungry women and babies being bullwhipped? Can I assuage my feelings of guilt by looking the other way? What is the humanitarian response? Selling everything I own and giving it to them would ease their plight for a moment, but it would not change the harshness of life under Mugabe-style regimes. If I want to make a change to the lives of people living under intolerable conditions, I have to start here - at home, in my town, in my province, and in my country - and work to change the focus of our political ethics from "me" to "us."

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