Monday, April 8, 2013

Of Heifer Ranch and Urban Slums...with Gratuitous Baby Goat Pictures

This weekend I traveled with a group of OSU students to Heifer Ranch in rural Arkansas. While there, a baby goat sucked my finger, I was cured of amoebic dysentery by the sale of a cooking pot, and I slept in an urban slum in the company of a dozen college students and a speckled king snake.

I suppose a word about Heifer Ranch is in order. It’s an experiential learning facility run by Heifer International—a development organization that helps vulnerable communities improve their lives and resources by providing livestock animals and related assistance. The centerpiece of Heifer Ranch is its Global Village: a series of campsites that approximate the living conditions of the people that Heifer helps, as well as some that Heifer can’t help (I’ll get to the latter in a bit). Groups can spend a night in the village, divided by lottery into “families” that are each assigned one of the campsites as well as a modest basket of resources. If you end up at the refugee campsite, your basket is empty. And no, you aren’t allowed to bring in your own food.

When our lead van pulled into Heifer Ranch on Saturday, the first thing I noticed was a camel. But because I really, really needed to pee, I didn’t get a picture of it. I kept thinking there’d be that chance: the chance to photograph a camel contentedly munching (not far from a water buffalo) in a pasture a few dozen miles west of Little Rock. It never happened.

But while I returned from my weekend at Heifer Ranch without a photo of a camel, I came back with something more important.

A picture of baby goats.

Here's a picture of one trying (without success) to extract milk from my finger:

Okay, so that’s the most important thing I brought back from my daughter’s perspective. (She's seven.) From my own, it was about reconnecting with some formative experiences from my youth—experiences that transformed me, that not only shaped my values and outlook but also energized me to work for change...but whose power in my life has become progressive attenuated through the years.

As a moral philosopher I think quite a bit about global hunger. I teach about it every semester. I can explain my theories about social justice and equity. I can tell you what I’ve learned about how a high quality of life, a life defined by joy and meaning if not material opulence, can be made more broadly available with the resources we have.

But that doesn’t mean I care.

Hunger is a thing that lives in human flesh and sometimes tears it to pieces. When a professional academic like myself addresses this profoundly human problem—this problem experienced in real human bodies—it can easily become an intellectual exercise. It’s easy for theories and data to amount to just a colorless outline, one you might fill in with human empathy or the ache of memory. You might, but it’s so much safer to keep it empty.

As a college sophomore I traveled to India, and when I came back I was fired up to save the world. Because I cared--not in some abstract, attenuated way, but in a way that burned. I can remember vividly my first glimpse of an urban slum. I was walking in New Delhi, not too many hours after my plane had landed. It wasn’t a big slum, nothing like the sprawling world of cardboard-and-tin shanties that fill in Calcutta’s undeveloped spaces.

But it stunned me. I’d never seen anything like it. I wondered what it must be like to live like that—in a shantytown nestled in against a rail line, an open sewer running adjacent to your shack, the size of a tent but with less power to keep out the rain and wind.

In the months that followed I would come to see worse. I’d witness the human meaning of urban poverty in sights I almost dare not describe. I share here a single image because it’s what came back to me during the initial tour of Heifer’s Global Village, when our facilitator asked us to close our eyes while he read a description of what it’s like to live with chronic hunger.

It’s the image of a single toddler boy. He has no pants. Just the scrap of a shirt. He’s staggering towards a street vendor’s cart, drawn by the smell and sizzle of the food. He reaches up but the vendor swats him away. He falls bare-bottomed to the concrete. Of course he starts to cry. A girl, scant years older and likely his sister, darts forward and scoops him up, carrying him off as the vendor shouts after them.

At the time, as I watched the scene, it occurred to me that the little girl had urged her brother forward, perhaps thinking the vendor might have pity. A five-year-old girl is a thief, but a toddler? Maybe the vendor would look the other way.

A moment after that it occurred to me that I might have stepped in, bought what the boy was reaching for, and given it to the children. But instead I stood in rapt paralysis as the scene unfolded. I told myself afterwards that it would’ve made a difference for half a day at most. The hunger would have returned as keen as ever. What was needed, I said to myself, was some more fundamental change.

It’s true of course, but it’s also a rationalization. At the Heifer Ranch one of our facilitators talked about the difference between relief work and development. Heifer’s work is in development. It’s about helping people acquire the resources to provide for themselves in the long run. Of course we need the latter. Handouts to those with nothing leaves them with nothing in a day. Relief without development is a recipe for cycles of dependence. But that’s not a reason to avoid famine relief. Instead, it’s a reason to pair it with serious efforts at development.

While I was in India I saw numerous rural villages. And while the villagers had little, they had enough to laugh. Their worlds were so much richer than what’s possible in the urban slums. But sometimes drought strikes or some other disaster drives families away from their rural homes and into the cities, looking for work, for some way to eat. They land in the slums. Having sold what resources they’d possessed in order to get to the city, they have nothing to help them get home again.

A goat won’t be much help to someone trapped in the insecure world of a slum. It’ll turn into a bit of inefficient famine relief, slaughtered quickly, filling some bellies for a few days. But in a village it might help a family stay where they are when the drought hits. It might help them expand their resource base enough to keep them from the desperate migration into the insecurity and misery of the urban slum.

And that’s why Heifer’s Global Village includes a campsite designed to mimic an urban slum.

The lottery that divided our group into families landed me in that slum. Of course it was nothing like what I’d seen in India. The shanties were similar in appearance—a bit larger, I think, with more scrap metal and less cardboard. But there were a scant handful of them instead of thousands, and they were set on a forested hillside in Arkansas rather than pressed into a city’s unsavory seams.

Still, when I looked at it the memories began to come back to me: the vivid images of what it means to have nothing, to be stripped of hope.

I won’t share the details of how our respective “families” coped with the inadequate baskets of resources we’d been provided. What I will say is that, in addition to a lottery to decide who stayed where, there were other lotteries. One of them doled out hardships. The one that fell on me was dysentery, and our family was given a choice: We could “sell” all our metal (that is, give up all the metal objects in our supply basket) in exchange for the medicine to help me...or I could spend the remainder of our stay in the Global Village bedridden (except for bathroom trips).

The group chose to save me. This is why we arrived at our campsite with rice but no pot to cook it in. Of course, the pot wouldn’t have helped much without water. And only the Guatemalans had that.

The Guatemalans also had a small cinderblock house (modeled after the Habitat for Humanity houses they build there). The house had a door that sealed things out. The advantages of this became clear enough when, within moments of setting down my sleeping bag in one of the tiny, dirt-floored shanties, a king snake slithered out from under the bag. I asked who in the group knew about snakes (it didn’t look poisonous to me, but I wanted to be sure). The question led to something of an uproar—which worsened when the snake visited the larger shanty, slithering close to heads and hands.

(I have the sense that the world is divided evenly between people who have an unreasoning terror of anything remotely snake-like, and people who are cautious with them but fascinated. This sense was confirmed in the divergent responses of my slum family.)

In a real urban slum there are things far worse than harmless king snakes, and patchwork walls of scrap metal and cardboard can’t keep them out. Sometimes the worst of these threats comes from government policies, which send officials to “clean out” an area, destroying the only semblance of a home the slum dwellers have. They are driven out to look in desperation from something else, something unlikely to be better, quite possibly worse.

Those in rural villages in the developing world aren't rich in things, but they are so much better off than those in the urban slums. And with the gift of a heifer or a goat or camel or a flock of chickens, they may just have what they need to avoid the grim migration. That goal—sparing vulnerable peoples the hopeless journey into cities that offer no solutions—is one of the key things I brought back from my time in India.

But in the decades that lie between my present life and those experiences, the goal has become an abstraction, an intellectual puzzle, sometimes a pious talking point. Heifer Ranch restored it to what it needs to be—for me, for all of us: A goal that lives in human flesh.

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