A TABOO SUBJECT

5 01 2006

Imagine you are traveling to a town about the size of Goodletsville or Shelbyville, Tennessee—about 14,000 people, for those of you not familiar with Tennessee. Now, imagine that the only way into that town is a rutted dirt track. And imagine that, for whatever reason, you or your companion are in need of what they call “feminine hygiene products,” and that you find there are none for sale in the stores of this town of 14,000 people—that town is Guma, Ethiopia, and not only are there no sanitary napkins, there are no bathrooms in which to privately take care of that or other bodily functions, and no running water to wash with after you go out behind a bush and do what you need to do. That’s Africa, folks, and it ain’t Kansas. The ladies make do with rags, and they stay home so they don’t have to deal with “it” in public.

This isn’t just an inconvenience—it’s something that helps keep women out of school and public life. It’s not just a religious and social taboo, it’s a lack of simple technology—a latrine with a wall around it and a handwashing sink. These things are not rocket science, and if we were not burning money in Iraq (which we had no more right to invade than the Nazis did Poland), we could be helping build toilets in Africa, which would probably do a lot more to combat terror and spread democracy than all the Marines and smart bombs we can muster. Yeah, I know, it wouldn’t make much of a video game.

I am serious when I say this lack of sanitary facilities and privacy keeps girls from staying in school. New York Times reporter Sharon LaFreniere recently visited Guma and other towns in Ethiopia, talking with families, women, and young girls, and that’s what she found. A hundred and seventy boys in school past the third grade, but only three girls.

Well, no, it’s not JUST that. The Ethiopian people have a domestic economy that requires a lot of help at home—hauling water, preparing food from basic raw ingredients, herding animals—and these are traditionally women’s jobs, and moreover they are jobs that must get done or people go hungry. This is something that we Westerners, who have spent our entire lives in a money-based economy, have lost touch with. When you take kids completely out of their traditional home economies and put them in school full-time, the kids fail to learn basic cultural survival skills. Then the traditional economy, which is relatively sustainable compared to our money-burning hot rod, sputters and goes out, leaving people stuck on the hungry fringes of a money economy in which they have no hope of success.

Furthermore, I think that one of the major psychological failings of our global money economy is that it expects people to be consistent cogs for its gears. What I am about to say may sound horribly patronizing to some of my readers, (I’m a man, not a woman, after all!) but let it land where it may: without falling into superstitious taboos, we need to give women the opportunity to have some quiet time once a month—a respite from work, family obligations, whatever material responsibilities they have, they should be able to bail out of them for a few days a month if that’s what they’d like to do. I think this simple, basic step would radically and positively change the world we live in.

But back to the dusty streets and latrine-less schools of Ethiopia. These children need to be educated in a way that does not alienate them from their culture, that blends reading, writing, arithmetic and a global perspective seamlessly with the ability to take care of themselves. Across the border in Kenya, a group is doing just that. With help from England’s Children in Crisis Foundation, the Kenyan group Action in the Community Environment is promoting small-scale vegetable gardening as a way to improve both nutrition and the local economy. ACE makes small-scale loans to individuals and community groups—we’re talking $150-500 dollars here—to get them started doing what their ancestors did before the global economy turned Kenyan farming into an export business which has enriched a few landlords and turned many Kenyans into penniless, hungry peasants.

I think there’s an exciting link between the lack of latrines in Africa and this gardening project. Latrines are a traditional source of fertilizer, and with what we now know about microbiology and the life cycles of parasites, it is possible to compost this human manure long enough to safely apply it to vegetable gardens. One simple, low-tech link helps solve both the food and the sanitation questions. We should only be that smart in this country, eh?

music: Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”

Comments

My thoughts exactly! It’s a taboo subject here too, where ‘education’ is the supposedly magic word. But there are too many qualified people for the few jobs here already. Every single Indian kid doesn’t need a diploma in computers. There is a growing disgruntled over-educated populace, not willing to go back to the village farm because of “modern” notions of success, but with no future in the cities they’ve moved to.
Posted by sirensongs on 01/10/2006 04:50:15 PM

Oh BTW, I love your music “soundtrack” idea for each post. I think I’m stealing it…or at least borrowing. Love, Caroline
Posted by sirensongs on 01/10/2006 04:51:47 PM

I don’t think people should go back to peasant life, I think they should go forward to a more cosmic peasant life–educated, not ignorant, something taken up and walked with rather than something begrudgingly accepted because there’s no other way, although I think there isn’t any “other way” for most of us–humanity would be much better served if most of us spent most of our time providing food, shelter, clothing, entertainment and inspiration for each other at a very local neighborhood level, rather than busting our chops (and our planet) shipping shit all over the place to ramp up the gnp and keep a few clever people rich and/or famous.
Posted by brothermartin on 01/11/2006 03:03:47 PM

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