Saturday, March 14, 2009


As western societies have become prosperous and the poor are pushed to the margins, we forget what a life of scarcity looks like. You can, however, visit communities in which the location of these two groups is reversed. Where the life of scarcity is central and the rich are at the margins. These communities can easily be found in developing nations. What does life look like in such an environment?

It may be as simple as going to a small store and buying a single cigarette or a single bandaid for your blister. Or discovering ads for viagra with a single tablet to the box; being able to purchase 4 antacids rather than a whole bottle. It means being almost entirely dependent on what is grown locally and being aware of seasonal availability. It is being aware that many of your neighbors open their front gates to reveal a table selling a few candies to children or a few vegetables or a few handmade objects. Where everyone is a vendor or has a trade useful in the local neighborhood. The man who will sharpen your knives, the person who sets up a small stand in the evening to sell fresh fruit or bread from a bakery two blocks away, the woman selling handmade hats, those selling clay cooking pots, children selling gum, the many local stands selling prepared foods in the early afternoon or evening, the person on a mule selling a few sticks of firewood or a bag of leaves (used like compost). Or it may be noticing that not everyone has a private telephone but many go to a local shop to use a phone. Or where there are internet shops in every neighborhood and a few where children can play computer games. Where people will walk for miles with their children rather than take an inexpensive bus. Or seeing that many things, including inexpensive plastic toys , are sold on a lay away plan or that a pair of jeans can be brought on credit.

Or if you get to know your neighbors well you learn that they cook over an open fire in the back of their yard, and that they have no water storage system so only use the water for 2-3 hours a day when it is piped into their house from the street. Many people will burn all of their garbage in the back yards rather than pay the 10 to 20 cents to the local garbage truck. They have no heating system although the night temperature frequently drops to 40-45 degrees. Young people take their courtship to the street or the plaza as there is little privacy in the home. Many homes will have a few chickens in the backyard, even if they live a few doors from city hall. Those a little to the edge of town may have cows or pigs. Other may have garden variety fruit trees. All of this assists in feeding the family and may provide a few goods for the market. When a member of the family dies you don’t put their cloths in a box and drop it at a impersonal pick-up station, destined for the consignment store or a charity. Rather you take it directly to the local flea market and sell it yourself.

Festivities are not the domain of the commercial sector (this parade brought to you by coca cola, or, these fire works are paid for by a distant government). Rather they are organized by the neighborhood, often centered around the church, or by individuals from the community appointed to the festival committee on an annual basis. Many life events are expensive - illness, death, baptism, marriage - and a well developed scheme of borrowing money from a group of friends exist, thus tying everyone into a necessary and strong set of relationships. Much different than seeing your local loans officer.

Those who are disabled may drag themselves through the market asking for money or those in wheelchairs may place themselves in the middle of the road asking motorists for donations. In more urban areas those in need of money may sell newspapers, maps, lottery tickets, or novelty items at intersections so you can shop from the car window. Or the enterprising may enter the intersection during the red light and perform acts of fire breathing or juggling, often atop a ladder to maximize the audience, and with perfect timing appear to ask for a donation before the light turns.

While this reduction in options may appear to the outsider as onerous it does present many advantages. Citizens have a stronger connection to the land and a much stronger connection to their neighborhood as they may purchase goods from them or even eat food they provide in the neighborhood. Without the burden of choosing from 25 different toothpaste or from attending to the constant appearance of new products, market decisions are fewer and shopping time is reduced and become immeasurably less stressful. The lack of separation between commercial and residential life makes for a more interesting community.

While life is certainly more difficult for people there is a sense of community which is hard to create in more developed societies.

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