Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A piece of cake

This is a special posting courtesy of joint blogging by Heba A and Erin M:

It all started on a cold Egyptian day in Cairo. Erin was in a taxi on her way to Heba’s aunt’s apartment in the flashy residential district of Mohandisseen. She was eating koshari from a plastic cup and frantically trying to bring her taxi driver into contact with Heba on her cell phone in order that she would actually arrive at her desired destination and not in the hands of someone like the spry young buck in Aswan who grabbed her at the market and said, “How about Egyptian boyfriend?” The day was crisp, and she thought to herself how nice it would be to meet up with Heba and head over to the local Cilantro’s (Egyptian version of Second Cup coffee chain) for a triple-cream caramel apple cinnamon mocha-lattecchino. Everything is available in Egypt, all the time, from pizzas to shawarma to sushi, so why not?

Heba greeted Erin sporting fashionable new kicks in the form of pointy suede evening boots, recently purchased at a Spanish luxury footwear outlet called Scarpa. “Nice buy,” Erin said, “you needed those.” “And only forty bucks,” Hebs answered. “What a deal!” they exclaimed in unison. At Heba’s aunt’s place came the usual debate over what to do: how could money be spent and some form of nourishment be consumed this time? They drew a blank, and found themselves back in Kanata during their high school days, when “hanging out” with a friend inevitably resulted in cardboard cups of hot chocolate in the parking lot of the closest Tim Horton’s. There was really NOTHING to do, was there, unless they went somewhere and ate something, right?

“Stop!” Heba cried, “Something…doesn’t feel right about this!”


In total darkness, Heba lay on the slab of concrete considered a floor at a home in her friend’s natal village in western Senegal. In the same room, ten other girls lay on thin mattresses on the floor, protecting themselves from mosquitoes in their sleep by wrapping their thin sheets over their heads. The room was bare, but for a TV and some cockroaches. It served as the bedroom, the living room, the dining room and every room. As she lay there, Heba thought to herself: “Look at what these people have. How different their lives are.” The next morning, she awoke to the four-inch piece of bread for breakfast and the faucet outside the house with which to wash her hands – without soap. She spent the day meeting family, laughing, cooking, cleaning – a typical example of simple life in rural Senegal. There was no coffee shop, no restaurant, no Mac’s Milk or MacDonalds. Yet it was a beautiful day without boredom or unfulfilled desires. And when she left the village the next day, she left with longing in her heart to return to these people, live among them and leave behind all that she didn’t need in her homeland.

On the day of the Fire Festival among the Muslim communities in the region, Erin found herself baking in the oven that is the village of Larabanga in northern Ghana. Her “guide” and host, a young orphan by the name of Oli, showed her the small room she would stay in that night: a bare shack with faulty wires and a mosquito net draped over the straw mattress lying on the dusty floor. Outside, his grandmother, also the caretaker of him and his siblings, prepared their afternoon meal (rice with tomato sauce) over the fire. As Oli and Erin headed for the main street of the village, he indicated to her where the toilet was: she was free to use any in the row of outhouses built for the school across the road, which was what he and his family also used as their latrine, if you will. (Yes, I will.) “We’re trying to raise money to buy desks for the school,” Oli explained, adding that the primary school students were required to carry their chairs or stools to and from class with them every day, and that those who had nothing just sat on splintery boards on the floor. There was one food stall in the main village area, and over Erin’s time in Larabanga she quickly realized that it only served rice with sauce and either antelope or grasscutter (a large rat-like rodent) meat. That was it. There was one guest-house with similarly faulty electricity and a primitive bathroom, and almost no water – the residents of Larabanga walked 12km several times a day during the dry season to get water from the pumps in the nearby national park. Most of Larabanga’s residents lived, effectively, with nothing. Or do they only live with “nothing” in comparison with what I normally have? Erin wondered… (dun, dun, dun….)


“We can’t do this,” Heba said. “We said we wouldn’t do this!”

“This” referred to the horrible gutless tendency Western people have to fill their empty time with activities that are based on gratuitous consumption. Then the debate ensued: why do we as a culture feel that we need these things? More importantly, why do we feel that we need them even after seeing first-hand from our experiences in the sub-Sahara that we truly don’t need them? Why is it so difficult to succeed in curbing useless spending on unnecessary items (shoes, junk food, the latest fashion items, or anything to fill free time)? What drives us to consume like we do, and how could we put a stop to the madness and horror?

In Senegal and Benin, Heba and Erin had seen that they were capable of living without many of the things they had deemed “necessary” for life in Canada, and had even realized that it was, in fact, easy to live without these things. They had grown accustomed to live without small things like candy, brown bread or Tim Horton’s coffee, or slightly more difficult things like hot water or even running water. They had gone for lengths of time eating the same thing day in and day out (rice, rice, and more rice), and had gotten used to squatting in dark, smelly, cockroachy holes on a regular basis. They swore they would try to maintain some semblance of the concept of the simple lifestyle they had known and come to appreciate.

Then, enter Egypt. It’s amazing how fast things can change – often in the blink of an eye. Heba and Erin slipped frighteningly easily back into their old ways, accepting invitations to eat deep-fried mozzarella sticks, caramel-smothered ice cream and cheese-drowned nachos, like the past life-changing months had never even happened, or at least had more or less faded away. And they went right back to enjoying those things. Heba had entered a jewellery store and felt the immediate urge to purchase earrings and that perfect purse to match her new shoes. On the other side of town, Erin had been drawn by the warm light of a bakery beside Rami’s apartment where glossy cookies and puffy pastries had little to do to convince her she needed them.

As they sat there on Heba’s bed debating how to spend their evening, stabs of guilt crept up their chests, which gasped for air after the almost continuous eating they had both done since arriving in Egypt. Although they hadn’t forgotten the lessons they had learned in Africa, the consumption suddenly seemed inescapable outside of the context where they had learned about it. It was in the fully-stocked fridge, the seven-story shopping malls, the speed dial of their landlines that allowed them to order delivery of practically anything existing in the known world. Egyptian youth socialize like Canadian youth: dinner, drinks, coffee, some form of smoking. How is it possible to have a social life here or in Canada, to participate in the norms of socializing with others, without letting ourselves get sucked into a culture that equates satisfaction with consumption? When one of our friends or family wants to treat us to something, whether it be a new shirt, a nice lunch, a Nile cruise, or a full-expenses paid trip to the Dominican Republic, how is it possible to reject this on the basis that it’s completely unnecessary and moreover, promotes rampant consumerism and materialism?

These thoughts and others circled the heavy fog of concern in the room. The challenge seemed insurmountable, and there was only one thing that could calm their nerves. They headed to the kitchen for a good ol’ slice of cake and a mugga hot chocolate.

1 comment:

teh MLE said...

Hahaha, gratuitous consumption. You don't even know the half of it. Wait until you see Google...