Friday, September 18, 2009

What I learned in Africa (well, just a few things)

This is a guest post from the friend I wrote about on Wednesday, Brad Roberson, who spent his summer in Africa building a 400 square meter garden for an orphanage in Kogma, South Africa. His story is a wonderful inspiration on the difference we can make in lives all over the world (and how they change ours as well).

The best part is that there are opportunities for others to volunteer, exchanging room and board for volunteer work. For more information, see the note at the bottom of the post.


South Africa is one of Africa's biggest economies. Even though it's still technically “third world,” it's much more developed than most of Africa. As such, what's the biggest health problem facing the poorest people in the poorest region of South Africa (besides HIV/AIDS)? Not hunger. It's obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. The last 100 years of scientific advancements in food production have saved billions from starvation & empowered the rural poor to make money through agriculture; I won't discount that. However, those same advancements helped spawn worldwide obesity, even down to the region I was in, because mealie-meal & samp (Google those) are cheap to buy and don't satiate hunger completely – kind of like the problems here with fast food. Samp = french fries in that respect.

I come from a family of vegetable producers in west Phoenix, Arizona – they farm about 200 acres of carrots/radishes/parsnips that sell here in Texas ... internationally too because I saw them in Barbados! They also farm 2 acres of a variety of organic produce set up in a CSA format (Google that, too) by my cousin about 7 years ago. There is a growing organics market for those that can afford it, and my cousin fully believes in the movement, even though he is a “conventional” agriculturalist … interesting. From my experiences in Africa, however, I've found that it's just not practical on a large scale, particularly in the poorest areas of the world, where people don't have the luxury to complain about how their food was produced. On that topic: many people in wealthy nations are quick to blame farmers for their terrible diets, and they fail to realize that it's their own choices that literally feed the cycle with every trip to the drive-thru. Their wallets have spoken: people wanted convenience through quick, cheap, carb-heavy foods & now they're looking for someone to blame for their health problems. I don't think “all organic” is the answer: I think that a diet heavy in fresh vegetables is (help my family business, ha!) No really: better yet, grow it yourself in the backyard. At least it will get you out in the sun; at best it will make you realize how much we take our food system for granted when the rabbits, aphids, and blight attack your cabbage saplings & you're forced to give up & go to the grocery.

But there must be a way to combine the two ideologies … my cousin has inspired that in me. I've found that through my desire to grow my own vegetables & eat the accomplishments, it made me think about how to better manage my diet – understand what I'm eating & why. Go visit a developing country and then come back here – the portion sizes in western restaurants are sickening: but people eat it all … or even worse: they throw half away. Why? Because they order it & pay for it. We must accept responsibility for what we eat in order to save ourselves from senseless gluttony. That framework of thinking should be applied to all areas of life, really.

I'm grateful that this journey turned out to be so successful, in multiple ways. I learned so many things ... I didn't even talk about the children at the orphanage in this note; of course they are the reason for this project in the first place. Some of them have been through such unspeakable evils that you pray to God they don't remember it; my heart goes out to them ... of course, they carry on every day: laughing, playing, screaming, crying, punching, kicking, etc. etc. just like any other child. They don't ask for sympathy or apologies: they would rather play soccer or jump rope or do something fun. I owe my thanks to them, as well, for teaching me that nothing "bad" has ever really happened to me. I've been protected by my cocoon of luxury from some of the very real evils in this world. To complain about, well, anything in my life would truly be an insult to these children.

I miss Africa (stop complaining, Brad, haha)! I'm glad to be back, thankful for the blessings of amazing friends and family, and ready for the next chapter in my crazy life. Thanks, y'all, for reading this.
For more information on the orphanage or volunteering, please visit the orphanage website or email Brad. Thanks for sharing your story, Brad!


Beany said...

Thanks for posting this Brad. And for giving me a dose of least from the African angle.

HumbleVegan said...

Excellent post! As a personal fitness trainer, I run into the situation of TOO MUCH FOOD all the time... especially with new clients. In my cooking classes, I teach my students portion sizes on smaller plates and they eat with chopsticks! Now, they're getting less calories, the smaller plates gives the illusion of more food and the chopsticks slows them down. By the time they finish the plate of food.. they are full and satisfied :-) Thank you for sharing your experience.