Sunday, September 6, 2009

As Green As It Gets

Green is a fad in America. People in other countries don’t think of not wasting and not being selfish as being green. Waste and selfishness is the American way. We seem to need a fad, another movement, to help us do that which common practice elsewhere. Why is that? In America, we tend to waste more than some people have to begin with. Out of necessity, I lived a frugal, energy efficient life in Liberia yet once I returned to the United States, over time, I find myself guilty of being as wasteful as some people who have never had the opportunity to see how efficient it is to recycle. Therefore, my question to myself is, why does where we live effect what we do? My guess is that the answers are necessity and culture.

A couple of weeks ago I culled through my clothes closet and pulled out clothes that I hadn’t worn in a year and donated them to my local resale store. As I write this passage there is a large full black plastic garbage can behind my home. I live alone but the amount of trash I discard is tremendous, especially after junk mail deliveries, parties and gift giving holidays.

Here in America, we spend billions of dollars a year on garbage disposal. We have a vast sanitation industry that picks up our waste and hauls it away. In some instances, trash is taken to recycling centers, in other cases to landfill or to be incinerated.

In Liberia, the situation is much different. In Liberia, as in many developing countries, there is often really no centralized system available or needed for the country people. In fact, while I was in Liberia I only remember one garbage disposal company. An African American woman, Betty Carter, who had formerly been a popular jazz singer here in the US, owned it. Her customers were in the more affluent sector of Liberia. Her company had contracts to pull garbage from the American embassy. However, the common folk, the clerical workers, the marketers, persons struggling to make a living did not have garbage pickup. In some instances people took their trash to garbage dumps that sprang up in every area, some people dug pits and buried garbage in their yards.

All sturdy containers are recycled and many of those containers store locally produced palm oil or vegetable oil for sale in the Market. Palm oil and vegetable oil are resold in plastic or glass bottles that are gathered off garbage dumps, washed with soap and water and placed in the sun to dry.
The containers, once refilled with oil are closed with a banana leaf stopper or folded paper.

Food is sold in paper cones or wrapped in newspapers or any paper discarded from offices and homes. Again, someone’s job is to gather the paper and provide it to the market women. Plastic sandwich bags hold ground pea butter, which is a staple in the Liberian diet, and a few other commodities that would not transport well in paper.

Plastic bags, the kind we get at supermarkets, are the lighter fluid for coal pot fires. Reusable market bags are fashioned from sacks that formerly held 100 lbs of rice. Handles are sewn on the cloth-like are sold and each customer brings their own market bag into the market with them.

Nothing is just routinely tossed out, food is no exception. I learned about real kindness and generosity by observing and finally participating in the way that the Liberian people share food. A bowl of food is served and everyone that wants to eat comes to the bowl with a spoon. Folks sit together and talk while they eat until the food is gone; the emphasis is on eating with someone else and sharing the camaraderie. Whenever food is not needed, it is offered to someone else and more often than not, if no one wants the food it is saved and eaten later as ‘cold bowl.’

If you are eating, ‘mean’ not to offer food to others and in Liberia, no one wants to be called ‘mean.’ The custom is that if someone visits your home and you don’t have enough to offer an individual serving you give that visitor a spoon or fork and they eat from your plate. If your guest is hungry, they eat and if they aren’t they politely eat a spoon or forkful and place the utensil down, signifying that the other diner is free to continue eating the rest of the meal. At a time when we place a lot of emphasis on germs, no one gives it a thought. The concern is for the visitor. That is the essence of a mentality that in so-called “civilized” or modern societies sometimes gets completely lost.

Restaurants save the food that people leave on their plates for disabled or insane people that come to the back door for charity. In addition, if you attend some of the more lavish parties that were given in Liberia, whether the host is aware or not, the staff either packs up the leftovers from the guests plates or hands it out the backdoor to others. Food is just not thrown away.

At the Red Cross Daycare Center, daily we prepared lunch for between 50 and 80 children. Our fees stayed low because we served local foods. Several times a week we bought fresh fish and greens from the Rally Time market only purchasing chicken or beef a couple of times a month. The protein was combined with vegetables, typically cassava leaves, palava greens, potato greens, okra, eggplant, bitter ball or pumpkin squash and served over parboiled rice.

Noon was lunchtime. Children sat with their caregivers and practiced their table manners while eating. After the children were put down for their naps, a couple of cups of rice and a little of, the stew was stirred into a bowl for the staff and they sat together and ate communally. The children’s plates were scraped before washing in hot water but the table scraps weren’t thrown in the garbage, they were placed in plastic bags or covered bowls. Staff requested the table scraps to take home to their pets. Packs of dogs roamed the market grounds and dumping sites ripping through garbage for food but the average Liberian couldn’t afford to feed a dog. Certainly not my staff that were paid $100 a month. I came to understand that asking for food for pets was a way to save face, which I respected.

We also used table scraps to feed starving men released from Central Prison on Tuesday. The prison was several blocks away from Red Cross Headquarters. There was no prison kitchen, no mess hall. If you had a relative in jail and you wanted them to survive the experience, it was your responsibility to feed them and other prisoners nearby and to bring either food or money for the guards. That is, if you expected them to get the food. One of the other Red Cross directors that had himself been imprisoned during the April 12th coup shared with me that the rice for prisoners was cooked outside in a 55 gallon metal drum over an open fire and that a couple of gallons of palm oil was added to help increase the calories. This rice was distributed to the prisoners, no matter how many prisoners there were. When the food was gone, it was gone. Weaker prisoners routinely became ill and died in custody.

Tuesday was the day that prisoners that were the frailest were released from prison. In the early afternoon, they would stagger over to the Red Cross begging for food. The only food prepared on the premises was in the daycare center kitchen so on that day the prisoners were given the scraps from the children’s lunch. The food was dumped onto serving trays from which the men ate with their hands. Often because they were starving, they became ill and vomited from the richness of the food.

One tragic experience comes to mind. A man, who appeared to be Fula, stumbled to the backyard of the Red Cross during the children’s naptime. My janitor, Saah, had finished mopping the lunch area and was about to sit and eat his bowl of food alone on the back steps. When he saw the released prisoner, he felt sorry for him, knew all the food was gone and gave up his plate. He left the man hungrily devouring the food but later when Saah came back to retrieve his plate he found that the man had died. We were all shaken up but Saah said he was glad that the man had received some human kindness before he died.

I am grateful for the experience of living in the midst of people with such generosity of spirit. I believe that when people who have a little share what they have, it has more significance than when people, who have a lot, share a little. Generosity in the face of what appears to be lack indicates a fearless trust in the Universe to provide.