One lesson Africa forgot to teach me

Live Below the Line – click on the image to sponsor me

When I couldn’t finish my meals as a child, my mother would often tell me there were “lots of hungry children in this world”.

I always thought of this as a bit of a crude analogy; was she imploring me to finish my meal or send it off in the mail?

Regardless, two facts are undeniable.

First of all, I have access to far too much food.

Secondly, there are thousands of people out there – millions in fact – who don’t eat nearly enough.

In 2009, I flew over to Africa to test out this theory for myself.

I expected to see undernourished children, begging me to spare them my lunch. I expected to see hopeless families, lamenting over an empty dinner bowl.

But poverty was far more subtle than that.

Early in my trip, I spent my weekends visiting aid-dependant Tanzanian villages. The communities here would greet me with joyous singing and over-enthusiastic dances. They would then show off their generosity, offering me servings of their delicious local produce.

Ironic as it sounds, the locals considered my gluttony a compliment to both their cooking and hospitality. On the other hand, I considered this a free meal and used such opportunities to cross off “cultural experience” from my African wishlist.

After visiting a few more of these villages I began to subconsciously compare them against one other. Indeed, by the time I reached the final one on my itinerary I remember complaining to a fellow volunteer that this community hadn’t given us anything.

I might have looked philanthropic, but these Tanzanian village people were far more generous than I.

They didn’t dance for us. They didn’t sing. They didn’t even offer us a drink.

They just accepted our gifts and thanked us. I felt a little ripped off.

Only later did it register to me that this had nothing to do with their lack of generosity and more to do with their poverty.

I’d be lying if I said these village experiences didn’t challenge my perceptions about the developing world. What they failed to do was change my behaviour – I could see their poverty with my own two eyes, but was too busy enjoying myself to contemplate it.

As paradoxical as this might sound, my daily food intake actually increased over the following eight months of my trip. During my East African tour, for instance, I was always the first person to accept a third helping. At my boarding school placement, meanwhile, I set a volunteer record by consuming 16 pieces of bread in a single day.

It was a habit that made a mockery of my initial intentions to diet before leaving Australia, in order to prepare myself for a continent renowned for chronic food security.

For the most part my dietary patterns were probably good for the local economy. Yet it led me into a false sense of security. I came home from Africa with a full stomach, but little empathy.

Over the next five days, I’m going to subject myself to a challenge that my colonialist attitude didn’t let me attempt during my time abroad.

I have just $10 – or $2 a day – to spend on my meals between Monday 7 May and Friday 11 May. That figure includes breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.

The $2-a-day mantra is based on figures from the World Bank, which suggest that people living in extreme poverty survive on less than US$1.25. The Australian equivalent is actually more like $1.23 than $2, so it looks like I’m already spoiling myself.

Furthermore, once you factor in transport, accommodation, utilities, etc. my daily costs will far exceed my daily $2 allowance. It’d thus be dishonest for me to claim to actually be living below the poverty line.

Nevertheless, the next five days will be a struggle. I love food as much as anybody, so this small sacrifice may in fact feel monumental.

Participating in Live Below the Line is not about changing the world. For me, it’s about shaping my behaviour in a way that my African trip failed to do. While that journey might have opened my eyes up to what poverty looks like, I hope the next five days gives me an impression of what poverty potentially feels like.

That might sound a pretty self-indulgent motivation, but don’t worry; I won’t be the only beneficiary from this social experiment. All the money I raise will be going towards the Oaktree Foundation and their work in Papua New Guinea. To find out more about this work, head here, here or here.

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I will be documenting my experiences over the next five days on my blog.