Thursday, April 14, 2011

Veggie Might: Eating Thoughtfully and Gratefully

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

Y’all, I’m still thinking about how eagerly and joyfully you came toAline’s aid last week. You proved that it takes very little to make a real and tangible difference in someone's life. Often, when we see ads on TV for starving children or sick animals, we turn off because the situations seem hopeless. But Aline is a real girl with a real need and your $5 and $10 donations were plenty to change her life for the better. Betsy recommends Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World for more on giving small to make a difference.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aline and the girls at the Ubushobozi Project lately in regards to food too. My dear friends Betsy and Dolinda have been volunteering at the Ubushobozi Project in Ruhengeri, Rwanda for several years, and this summer I’m riding their coattails to Africa to teach knitting, crochet, writing, and English to the girls. (Fingers crossed they’ll teach me to dance.)

As a vegetarian, one of my primary travel concerns is what I will eat away from home. I admit it’s a little crazy, but that was my first question for Betsy about going to Rwanda—not Is it safe? or What kind of shots do I need?, but What can I eat there?

I think about food a lot: because it’s my job as a food blogger, because I’m a vegetarian, because I’m frugal and always looking for ways to save, and because I love to eat. Sometimes I worry that all this thinking about food borders on psychosis. You’ll often find me planning supper while eating lunch or discussing one meal while partaking in another. My boyfriend laughs, “I don’t know what I’ll want to eat later; I’m not hungry now.” But I can always think and talk and plan and drool about food.

When I asked what they eat in Rwanda, Betsy took my query seriously and told me I’d be fine: that they eat primarily a starch-based diet of potatoes, rice, beans, fresh vegetables, and very little meat; and that no one would be offended if I passed on the stewed goat. There is also a contingent of Seventh Day Adventists, which means vegetarians are common. “You may get invited to church,” she added with a laugh.

Then I started worrying. Maybe I should pack granola bars. I need to eat every few hours or I get headaches. Then Betsy told Kristen and me about Aline and her backyard kitchen.

In case you missed it, Aline’s only means of cooking is a backyard charcoal stove; when it rains, she has three options: cook in the rain, take her pot over to the elderly neighbor, or, if it’s raining too hard, not cook at all. As Betsy reported, “[Last night it rained] So Aline took the only money she had and bought two pieces of bread for Diane and Olive [her sisters] and they ate bread and avocado. Lola asked her why she didn't eat with them and she said, ‘Aline eat Ubushobozi, no fear.’ So she didn't eat dinner. She ate lunch at Ubushobozi around 2 p.m. and that's it.”

This young woman works to support her two sisters and doesn’t eat when it rains. I can’t go three hours without shoving something in my face. My family didn’t have much when I was growing up, but I do not know what it’s like to truly go hungry. I felt like a world-class jerk.

Betsy agreed that "the guilt is overwhelming sometimes. Every day and night I know I will eat. My biggest problem is deciding what to eat, order, buy, shovel in my mouth for instant gratification. Not survival. Aline and all the girls (and all the girls everywhere in impoverished nations) have to purchase their foods every day, since there's no fridge/storage options, and cook it on the spot. This can take hours, purchasing charcoal, getting the fire going, blah, blah. It's like a part time job."

Kris, who traveled to India, shared a story from her trip that is equally humbling.
"One night, S. and I stayed in a converted haveli in the middle of rural Rajasthan, just outside of a small, poorest-village-I've-ever-seen called Perharsar, where most of the haveli staff was from.

"The next morning, we wandered into town to check things out. The people were super nice, and all the kids followed us shouting "Hello!", even when we left.

"About halfway through the jaunt, we made our way to the roof of one of the homes, where a very, very old man was making small clay pots on a wheel/kiln. His family was there, as well, except one woman who was climbing the stairs with two plates of lentils and chapati. When she saw the two of us, she immediately offered us the plates. We refused and thanked her, having already eaten breakfast.

"Then, she gave the plates to her two small children and one or two other women standing around them. SHE OFFERED US HER KIDS' BREAKFASTS. I've never experienced hospitality like that. The kids, of course, wolfed it. Lentils and all."
How do we—wealthy, well-fed, clothed-and-sheltered we—handle stories like this?

We can feel bad about all that we have, about the excess our country produces and wastes. Or we can be grateful and embrace our abundance as the very thing that allows us to give what we can to girls like Aline and know that we're making a direct difference.

And personally, I could learn to go four hours without eating.

Readers, what is your take? Any stories from your world travels? Advice on dealing with conflicting feelings of guilt/gratitude? I'd love to hear your thoughts. The comments are open for you to let 'er rip!


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