Living fat, dying poor

February 21, 2004

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SANA’A, YEMEN – One of the more startling things to see here is how dogs come out at night. Yes, in this capital city, the dogs rule. Especially the bony-ribbed ones at the neighbourhood dump, around the corner from where Jean and I live.

They look for food scraps, as do the goats and cats that also visit the smelly depot. What really hits, though, are the people who patiently wait for our, or anyone else’s, garbage, then scrounge through it for anything to ease their own gnawing hunger.

It’s something to think about when the price of your gasoline rises. Oil-rich OPEC countries will soon trim production, which will raise gas prices worldwide, to various degrees, so the barons don’t lose profit.

Yemen, which produces little oil, has bigger worries. Consumers here are about to see major hikes in commodity prices, part of an ongoing economic recovery program led by its government and the World Bank.

Some Yemeni fear the price of their gas, diesel produced domestically, will rise 50 per cent. It will boost government coffers. But business costs will rise, and higher prices will then trickle down to many goods and services. More people at dumps. No wonder the Yanks are doubling their yearly food aid to $15 million.

Remember, unlike in Canada, the only social safety net here is begging. I can’t tell how often the poor, usually women and children, ask for handouts on the street or at our door. Several million Yemenis are also migrant workers, mostly in Asia, sending money home to their needy families.

It’s something to watch, because while politics in Palestine and Iraq is predictably upsetting, nothing boils Yemeni blood like what they believe — rightly or not — is the bombing of their economy by policies that aren’t working. Yemen’s last major price hikes, seven years ago, led to plenty of demonstrators killed on the streets.

And the Middle East can’t afford this quasidemocracy to become undone. Yemen, poor orphan that it is, may have a few terrorist insurgents.

But it’s also a bellwether. In fact, 800 delegates from dozens of countries, including UN chief Kofi Annan, recently met in Sana’a to explore democracy and human rights in the region.

Sana’a, interestingly, is also the Arab Cultural Capital for 2004. Tourists, who haven’t been scared off by largely unfounded fears, know the value of Old Sana’a, a UN World Heritage Site. This historic quarter — with ancient, mud-brick buildings and bustling, traditional souks (markets) — is a live, open-air museum.

But back to hunger. It kills 24,000 people worldwide. Every day. It’s increasing in the poorest countries. But, incredibly, in some developing countries, obesity is also a problem. For example, world health officials say one in four kids in African countries like Morocco, Zambia and Egypt are significantly overweight.

Getting fat, while the hungry beg, and die, beside your table. What a loss, since there’s plenty to go around for everyone if distributed fairly. What does this say to the rich West, where obesity is now very much in front of us, all over the news, not to mention our mirrors? How then shall we live?

A slim build, I personally don’t consider myself immune from the gluttony in our time. I’ve put on 50 pounds in the past 20 years. (In my late teens, I had just 140 pounds on my 6-foot-1 frame.) But this is about more than body weight.

It’s a reminder that we’re all poor: if not materially, then spiritually, or emotionally, or intellectually, or in ways we each know privately. So, in my family, we make a point of skipping a meal or two regularly, because there’s nothing like a hunger pang to remind us of these truths.

It doesn’t put food on anyone’s plate. But it helps us identify in a small way with the hungry, and remember, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

And it helps shine the light on this other poverty of spirit: the one that knows no racial or cultural or geographic borders, the one that says, as humans, we’re all starving beggars in need of the same piece of bread.

What do you think about that? Care to join us sometime?

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February 21, 2004 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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