To say there’s a lot going on in New York would be an understatement. There are the actual events, places to go, art, music, movies, and there are the millions of bits of information that attack us from all sides, popping out of computers, newspapers, TVs and cell phones. It’s a landslide of information and activity, and it’s fun. But there’s one thing many of us are missing, and that’s an accurate idea of how most of the rest of the world lives.
Sure, The Times runs articles every day detailing lives in the “third world, ” and the news (sometimes) updates us on natural disasters, famines, and civil wars. But these monumental or catastrophic events pass before our eyes and then disappear, to be replaced by other events, or, more likely, another twist in the ongoing saga of Paris M.F. Hilton.
I’ve just spent a week in Haiti. In that week I made one phone call, saw no TV, and read no newspapers. I didn’t listen to any recorded music (though there was a parade with an amazing marching band), walk on a paved sidewalk, go shopping, wear make up, or any shoes except flip-flops, drive a car, get drunk, rent a movie, go to a bar, or ride a bicycle. I had one meal at a restaurant. There is no public transportation here. There are no televisions. After dark most of the people burn oil lamps or candles. The kids who are lucky enough to go to school (literacy rate in this region: four percent) congregate around the few streetlights at the hospital up the road (Hôpital Albert Schweitzer) to study, swatting mosquitoes as they read.
In short, I’ve seen a lifestyle many of us simply cannot imagine. School fees for children are two to six dollars a semester, and that’s out of reach for all but the most prosperous. Women spend as much money on charcoal or wood to cook as they do on the food itself. And I keep thinking about the money, the resources that slip through my fingers every minute of every day that I live my life in the city.
Maybe we could all cut back, just a little bit, and try to spread those resources around. A new flat-screen TV is great, but wouldn’t you rather put up with the TV you have and send ten kids to school for 12 years? What if you could eat one less dinner out a month and feed a family of four FOR A MONTH? While I was here we did a test run of a solar cooker, which could reduce fuel consumption, deforestation, air pollution, and erosion in these parts while increasing dramatically the amount of money a household is able to spend on food (because they’re not spending it on fuel). The solar cooker costs $25, retail. That’s what? Five Starbucks lattes? A pedicure? A DVD you’ll watch twice and then file away?
I am down here in part to work (pro bono) with Belizaire and Mellon, a company that makes cotton rugs entirely by hand. From seed to cotton to yarn to rug there’s not a single machine used except their manual looms. They employ 42 people. Fifteen of those are senior citizens who make around a dollar a week de-seeding bags of cotton, and are able thereby to contribute to their families rather than being liabilities. If the company can sell more rugs, they can employ more people. More employees means more children in school, more preventative medicine, and more food purchased. More food purchased means more prosperous food-sellers and growers. More preventative medicine means less disease, healthier babies, and better family planning. More educated children means more minds able to tackle the very problems I’m talking about.
Simplify. Please. I know that’s been the theme of perhaps too many of these columns, but I’ve finally seen how little it takes to make a difference, for people and the environment, in places that aren’t the U.S. Send a check for $25 and I’ll bring a solar oven down to Haiti next time I come. Or donate to the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, which provides medical care to an area populated by more than a quarter of a million people. Or send me an email if you’d like a beautiful, environmentally and socially sound carpet: we’ve got plenty in stock.