I feel like I’m always busy. My “To Do” list never seems to get any shorter, and sometimes I feel like a chicken with its head cut off. (Sorry… file that under “Grandma’s Words of Wisdom.”)
Yesterday was a particularly rough day. I was cleaning the house, putting away seemingly endless piles of crap, doing laundry, writing my grocery list, thinking about my knee-high stack of grading, and generally stressed…. And then it hit me. A moment of clarity, that for a brief moment, put my “problems” into perspective.
Let me explain.
Over the last couple of years, Hubby and I have had the privilege of traveling to over a dozen countries, including some of the world’s poorest. Intellectually, I understood absolute poverty, and I even taught about its causes and effects in my Environmental Science courses. But seeing it was a whole new ballgame. From rural Vanuatu to Africa’s largest urban slum in Kenya, the people who took us into their homes and shared their stories with us taught me a powerful lesson: Be grateful for the many basic “luxuries” I had always overlooked.
After seeing malnourished children without shoes and clean water, my “first world problems” seemed so superficial as to be laughable. I needed the shock to awaken me from my selfish worldview. I’m so privileged that my entire life I’ve taken so many of the following “luxuries” for granted.
1. Clean Water
Clean water is a necessity. Unfortunately, 780 million people do not have access to safe water, resulting in the deaths of two million people, including over 800,000 children under five, from diarrhea each year. To put this into perspective, this would be like crashing four Airbus 380s full of children, every day!
Not having clean water keeps poor people poor. Water is required for all economic activities, from farming to factories. And for running households. When there isn’t sufficient access to water, women and girls bear the heaviest burden, who spend a combined 200 million hours each day (or 12,800 years) walking long distances to collect water. The process is physically exhausting, as each five gallon jerry can weighs 40 pounds, and puts them at risk of assault. It’s also time they can’t spend getting an education or working.
By contrast, I have four faucets in my house, each of which deliver, with a simple turn of the faucet, unlimited (and extremely inexpensive) safe drinking water.
And not just water…hot water. It never occurred to me that a hot shower is a luxury until I heard a child from rural Uganda describe his first experience taking a shower as “fire coming out of the wall.” In fact, I’m so privileged I can water my lawn with drinking water, or even choose to spend up to a thousand times more to drink water bottled in plastic and shipped across the country.
2. Flushing Toilet
Poo can carry deadly pathogens, and is responsible for the diarrhea deaths discussed above. The ability to safely dispose of human waste is good for everyone, as clean drinking water is mute if pathogens from poo contaminate the environment.
The ability to flush a toilet is a “luxury” that still eludes 2.5 billion people. For example, almost 60% of India’s population lacks access to a toilet, resulting in 732 million people defecating in the open, spreading deadly pathogens that kill 321 children each day. Again, women and girls are disproportionately impacted. Whereas its acceptable for men to relieve themselves in public, women are shamed. Therefore, many women “hold it” all day, waiting until its dark to visit a secluded, private spot, making them vulnerable to rape and even death. Now imagine you’re a young girl in school, trying to help your family out of poverty by getting an education. Unfortunately, your school doesn’t have a toilet, or running water. And then you start menstruating, itself a “shameful” taboo, and you don’t have sanitary products. So you stop attending school for a week a month, and eventually drop out, along with many of your female classmates.
I had no idea a toilet was so valuable.
Together with clean water and sanitation, the humble bar of soap has the power to prevent illnesses and death. While soap can be too expensive for those in extreme poverty, here in the U.S., hotels alone throw away over a million bars every day.It seems so simple, but imagine never learning to wash your hands. Why would you? Hardly anyone around you does, as few are aware of the power of soap to keep people healthy.
Who knew hand-washing is a privilege?
Over 800 million people don’t have enough food. The effects of hunger are especially serious in children, and can range from blindness, to a depressed immune system, to long-term cognitive impairment. And it’s deadly: Malnutrition contributes to the deaths of three million children under five die each year.
Americans spend less of their income on food than any other country in history. Industrialized farms, like those in Iowa, efficiently produce large quantities of “food” by using fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels. And because the monocultures are planted and harvested using huge machines, very few people are needed to farm. One could argue we have too much food in the U.S. We throw away 40% of it, enough to feed the world’s starving. And we overeat to the point that for the first time in history, more people are overweight than underweight.
In contrast, most of the world’s poorest people are subsistence farmers. Each family’s small plot has to grow nearly everything the family eats, and the “excess” is sold for income. The work is done by hand, probably with hand-made tools, and without advanced technology, the yield per acre is very low. And due to rapid population growth, there are more and more mouths to feed.
Yeah. Food. I apparently take a lot for granted.
Think of all the ways we use electricity. Really, stop and look around you for a second.
While we in the wealthy world use power for electric can openers and singing wall fish, approximately 1.3 billion people in poor countries don’t have electricity for basic tasks, like cooking or storing food. Or heating and cooling. Or washing clothes. (Recommended: Hans Rosling’s “Magic Washing Machine” TED Talk) To put these inequities into perspective, a freezer in the U.S. uses ten times more energy than the average Liberian.
Now imagine night without lights. Most of the world’s poorest live in tropical areas that have a constant twelve hours of night all year. While I found that much darkness disconcerting, its impacts go far beyond comfort. Not being able to flip on a light means limited time for chores and studying, and can make simple outdoor tasks dangerous for women.
Living without electricity goes far beyond inconvenience. It keeps people poor. As I’m writing these words on my laptop, listening to Pandora by the light of my Christmas tree, and enjoying the warmth of my space heater, a poor woman somewhere is sewing clothes by hand, by candlelight, and breathing in air pollution from the fire she’s using to cook dinner.My life is almost embarrassingly easy by comparison.
I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I remember how proud my grandmother was when I started graduate school. Her eighth grade education helped her move from the farm to custodial work. A child of the Great Depression, she used to tell me that education was the only thing that could never be taken from me. She was incredibly wise.
Throughout our travels, we’ve witnessed how families struggle to send their children to school. The costs of uniforms and books may be more than they can afford. And when families have limited resources, they may choose to only send boys to school. Meanwhile, girls end up spending twice as much time as boys on child care and household chores, like cooking and collecting water. So unfortunately, of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, two-thirds of them are female.
Education is powerful. But educating girls can be transformative. Educated girls marry later and have fewer children, lowering fertility rates. Educated girls are better able to make informed healthcare decisions, reducing maternal and infant mortality rates. And not only does each year of primary schooling increase a girl’s wages by 10-20%, and each year of secondary schooling by 15-25%, women invest 90% of their income into their families, compared to 35% for men. The result? Educating girls turns out to be key in breaking the cycle of poverty.
Education helped me climb the socioeconomic ladder, and teaching at a community college allows me to help others do the same. While many of my students understand the value of an education, some are apathetic and lack the motivation required to succeed. I wish that, instead of taking education for granted, they would understand just how lucky they are to have the opportunity.
7. Birth Control
After education, birth control is one of the best ways to improve women’s lives.
Birth control gives women the power to choose how many children they have, when they start having children, and the spacing between children. Unfortunately, there are 222 million women worldwide who want contraceptives but don’t have access. Imagine being married at 14, or having several young kids, or having HIV/AIDS…and not having access to birth control.What’s the big deal about birth control? First, it saves lives. Satisfying unmet need could prevent 79,000 maternal deaths and 570,000 infant deaths each year. Second, it increases overall quality of life. Women who can prevent unwanted pregnancies and plan and space births have healthier families, earn more money, and better educate their children. It’s truly a win-win.
I am fortunate that I have had the ability to make my own reproductive choices. Birth control allowed me to go to school, build a rewarding career, and travel the world. And for that I am truly grateful.
We travel a lot, and I’m pretty clumsy, so we’ve experienced medical care in more countries than I care to admit.
One particular experience opened my eyes to the extreme inequities in access to health care. After rafting on the Nile in Uganda, Hubby and I became violently ill. Vomiting, diarrhea, high fever, sweating/chills, body aches…. It was awful. While seeking medical attention at a pharmacy, Hubby passed out and had to be carried to a back-room mattress where he was given fluids, medicine, and a malaria test. I’m not gonna lie……it was scary.
But here’s the thing. In preparing for our trip, we took every available precaution, arming ourselves with knowledge and modern medicine.
For example, we carried antibiotics, soap, and hand sanitizer to protect ourselves against the dangerous pathogens found in areas without sanitation or clean water.
We also had antimalarials, bug spray, and mosquito nets to protect against malaria, a disease that kills over 490,000 people each year.
Finally, we received all vaccinations recommended by the CDC for the countries we would be visiting, which included booster shots for measles and tetanus, the latest flu shot, and even typhoid, yellow fever, and hepatitis A and B. The impact of vaccines on public health cannot be overstated. In the developed world, vaccines have been so successful that many of us have never seen the diseases they protect against, which may help to explain the current trend of parents under-vaccinating their children (or not at all). So while parents in wealthy countries choose to not vaccinate their child, 254 children die from measles every day. I wonder how many of those parents wish they could’ve had their child vaccinated?
We spent about a week in a hotel room, sick as dogs, yet wondering how many around us were less fortunate. Modern medicine may have saved our lives.
We spent about a week in a hotel room, sick as dogs, yet wondering how many around us were less fortunate. Modern medicine may have saved our lives.
9. Waste Disposal
Think of all the trash you throw “away”. Have you ever wondered where “away” is?
Those of us in the world’s wealthy nations produce a lot of trash. The average American, for example, throws away over 5.5 pounds of trash each day, from plastic to clothing to paper to electronics to food. After throwing something into the trash can we likely don’t think about it again, unless, perhaps, you have to haul the bin out on trash day, when garbage collectors send our waste to landfills.Out of sight, out of mind. (Which is probably part of the problem.)
As people in developing countries grow wealthier, they, too, generate more trash. Today’s 1.3 billion tons of waste will likely grow to 4 billion tons by 2100.But half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to regular trash collection. With no “away” to throw trash, it sits in piles in ditches, streets, and fields, with serious health implications. Pollution, from bacteria to heavy metals, contaminates rivers and seeps into groundwater. Burning garbage pollutes the air…. And smells awful.
So, while Americans generate way too much garbage, we really should be thankful for it going “away”.
While visiting friends in Uganda, Hubby and I had an absolutely eye-opening experience. We were on our way back to Kampala after spending the day by Lake Victoria, avoiding traffic by taking unpaved back roads. The driving was slow, as the dirt road was heavily rutted, and there were no street lights, or even house lights, so it was very dark. The seven of us were packed into the car, and, being choral nerds, we were singing at the tops of our lungs.That’s when we heard the screaming. We stopped, unsure about what was happening. We couldn’t see anything, but the screams kept getting louder and louder.And then we saw them. A group of about ten men were dragging another man down the street, punching and kicking him. The screams were coming from the women at the sides of the road.I had never seen anything like it. It was disconcerting, to say the least. Our friends clearly wanted to be as far from the situation as possible, so we quietly inched our way around them and quickly moved on.
Then our friends explained what we had witnessed: Mob justice. Apparently, the alleged perpetrator had been caught doing something, and the mob was administering “justice”. The ultimate punishment would depend on the alleged infraction. For example, petty theft might result in a good beating, while rape might end in death.I was horrified. I wanted to stop and do something (not sure what that would’ve been), but how could we just drive away? Our friends, though, were aware of the potential dangers of getting involved, so we left. It still haunts me.
I spoke the next day to an American woman who lives in Kampala, and was shocked to hear her stories about actually breaking up mobs, on four separate occasions, and taking the alleged perpetrator to the police. I can’t imagine how brave one has to be to break up an angry mob intent on burning someone alive. But apparently her white skin helps, as it’s an indicator that she’s foreign and not involved in the crime or assisting the perpetrator.
But I still couldn’t understand…. Why would mob justice be a thing?
And then it clicked. There’s no trust in the police or criminal justice system.
First, there aren’t enough police officers to enforce the law on the streets. Uganda has a population of 34 million, but only 45,000 cops. (To put that into perspective, the police to people ratio in Uganda is 1:900, and in the U.S. is 1:350.) Second, Ugandans don’t trust the cops they have. Only 4% of people in Kampala think the police are effective, and over half don’t feel safe on the streets, even when police are around. I can see why….a recent study found that 80% of the police in Kampala were incompetent, and lack basic knowledge about how to analyze investigations. Third, the police force in Uganda consistently ranks as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, due to bribery, fraud, and extortion. And finally, the court system itself is so incredibly backlogged that it would take 30 years to deal with all the cases currently in the justice system.
Which leads back to mob justice. Without effective cops or a court system, the only way to make sure justice is served is to do it yourself.
(Recommended: Gary Haugen’s “The hidden reason for poverty the world needs to address now” TED Talk.)
11. Clean Air
Here’s a shocking statistic: Approximately one in eight deaths globally are due to air pollution. Yep, seven million people die each year from the air they breathe.
Many of us have seen photos of China’s cities blanketed in smog, but the story is the same in many rapidly developing countries. The causes vary, from coal-fired power plants and traffic in China, to peat fires for palm oil in Indonesia, to burning crop stubble in India, but the health implications are the same.
At least toxic smog makes the news.
My first real experience with air pollution was in Uganda. Hubby and I stayed in a hotel near the country’s main university in Kampala, Uganda’s capitol. I vividly remember the smell and haze in the air. It came from a variety of sources: Dust from unpaved streets; Smoke from fires used to cook food; Emissions from the astronomically high numbers of vehicles and boda bodas. Oh, and free-roaming goats and chickens.
I remember “driving” through Kampala with friends, barely able to move, as the city’s limited infrastructure was unable to accommodate the high numbers of vehicles. Our friends explained that many in Kampala are unable to afford a vehicle, and there is no public transportation to speak of, so buses, cars, and boda bodas taxi people around the rapidly growing city. There are no pollution regulations on vehicles, and the air literally hurt to breathe. I asked our friends what they thought would happen to Kampala’s traffic and air as Uganda’s population grows from approximately 43 million today to almost 96 million by 2050. The looks of disbelief on their face said it all.
But here’s the thing. Of the seven million that die from air pollution each year, four million of the deaths are due to indoor air pollution.
Approximately three billion people still cook food and heat their homes with solid fuels, like wood, dung, charcoal, and coal. (In some areas the major cause of deforestation is for cooking and heating.) Burning fuels indoors without proper ventilation traps pollutants, like particulates and carbon monoxide, and primarily affects women and childr
Our friends in Uganda also took us to visit family in the country, where we enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked meal. On the property was a two-room house, a “kitchen”, and a garden that produced most of the food eaten by the family. There was no running water or electricity, and the toilet was a long-drop in the garden. While a few of us harvested and cooked vegetables over a fire in the yard, the grandmother built a fire and cooked the rice inside the “kitchen”, as she’s probably done for most of her life. I couldn’t help but wonder about the long-term impacts on her health.
Learning to Be Grateful
If privileges are unearned benefits granted to certain groups of people, then here’s what I’ve learned: I. Am. Privileged.
I have done nothing to earn these privileges. In fact, I’ve been blind to them entirely. I hadn’t even recognized that many of the world’s people lack access to life’s so-called “luxuries”.
Traveling was the shock I needed to open my eyes. It put my “problems” into perspective. It reminded me how rich I am, and how easy my life is. And I did nothing to deserve it.
Unfortunately, even after spending significant amounts of time in poor countries, it’s really easy to fall back into the same mind-set after returning home. Habits die hard. Life goes on, and I’m surrounded by a culture that is blind to many of the world’s problems. Ignorance is bliss, I guess.
My goal is to keep this perspective. And to be grateful for the simple things.
Like having a car…..
What do you think? What things are you grateful for? Leave them in the comments below!