The advantages of living in rags

Kamuli hutI was at a humanist gig in town yesterday, and I think I spent too much time talking about myself. One of those times you look back and cringe. Admittedly I went in tired and not at my best; hopefully I wasn’t too annoying. Anyway – I talked a lot about Uganda, and got into a discussion that’s bounced around my head ever since.

I was describing how the local villages probably have just enough food, but the kids are still in rags, and one person started talking about western materialism, and how over here we’re obsessed with having stuff – perhaps we need to see the advantages of living like they do in these communities.

It’s now 24h later, and I’m pretty annoyed. That argument seems to me a left-wing rationalisation to dismiss something people would rather not think about. It tries to hand-wave the problem away by claiming extremely poor people are in some way lucky. That we in the west are the ones with the problem. That these people with nothing actually have it pretty good.

Get lost. Call me a cultural imperialist, but don’t tell me life isn’t better when your home has running water. Don’t tell me life isn’t better with a local shop with affordable food. Don’t tell me life isn’t better with local medical facilities and expertise raising the country’s under-5 mortality rate above 1 in 8. Don’t tell me life isn’t better when your home is easy to clean, and has beds, chairs and tables. Don’t tell me life isn’t better with an electricity supply.

To me these are not subjective standards. These things clearly improve quality of life. And I don’t think it’s patronising or insulting to point this out – you could be patronising or insulting in how you go about helping, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with saying it.

I don’t see the slippery slope, either. Basic human rights like food and water don’t inevitably lead to oh-so-awful things like wanting to buy clothes. I’m pretty skeptical that modern society is anything like so consumerist as the commentators would have us believe – do you know anyone who’s as obsessed with buying stuff as the stereotype suggests? – but let’s say they’re right. Let’s say western society is completely obsessed with shopping. Good. This is considerably less shitty than not knowing where your next meal is coming from, not being able to provide shoes for your family, walking miles to the local water pump every day, and having to worry about malaria mosquitoes killing your children. I obviously don’t think everything about western civilisation is perfect, nor that everything about living in a hut is horrific, but if the average Ugandan village became a carbon copy of the average UK village, I would be fine with that (not that this is anything like the goal, obviously). This is not pushing a way of life onto other people, this is about reducing suffering.

I can understand the romantic impulse to pretend the Ugandan villages have a lovely, simpler approach to life to which we should all aspire.  It would be nice if it were true. But it’s not. I don’t think it’s a actively uncaring argument, and I expect the person who said it was a decent person, but it’s an easy way to lie to yourself, and it has consequences. The next step in the argument would surely be that we don’t need to help, and that’s simply inhumane.

Moving on, and leaving behind

For months, people have been warning me about this day. You see, this afternoon my parents moved out of the family home, and I apparently needed to prepare myself for the serious upset this would cause. I got this a lot.

I am not upset.

Sure, it’s a touch sad. I lived there for 23 years, after all. Yesterday I stood in my old bedroom for a minute and let my thoughts wander to the birthdays, Christmases, girlfriends etc. it had seen. But things change, and these days I worry far more about getting stuck in a rut than I do losing the reminders of pleasant times.

I occasionally consider what I’d be upset to lose if I came home to find my flat on fire. It’s not much. In a flat *full* of stuff, I’d hate to lose 8 years of digital photographs, and that’s pretty much it. Everything else is nice, but I can re-make nice. The older I get, the less I care about places and the more I care about who’s around me.12 So I don’t find myself too bothered about leaving somewhere with nice memories.

It also helps that my parents have downsized into a lovely canalside cottage. They’ve loved the canals since I was a kid, and the new place is perfect for them. They’ll probably think this is funny, but it’s nice to think they’re sorted – I don’t need to worry that they’re not happy. Admittedly the new house is slightly more problematic: it’s far more exposed, needs some work doing, broadband is much more difficult, and reaching them now requires driving down 500m of towpath riddled with potholes that can only be the result of NATO bombing exercises. But hey – it’s boring to be boring.

Their moving isn’t upsetting, it’s cool. New chapters, and that.

Anyway, this post was meant to be an excuse to show these pictures of my 22-month-old niece, who was toddling about all day as we carted boxes around her. I (unbelievably) forgot to take my SLR, so these were taken with my iPhone’s rather-sucky camera. The pictures don’t come out of the phone looking too great, but a bit of contrast processing in Lightroom can do wonders, and I’m quite pleased with the results:

Watching the ducks

Posing Aimee in

  1. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying objects aren’t important. I am actually a militant materialist. I cannot stand the incessant whines of people who think consumerism is the worst thing ever. It’s like they honestly fail to understand that buying an iPod can, in fact, make you happier. Not in the same way as falling in love, no, but if you can now enliven a crappy commute by listening to music, that’s a good thing. In the materialism-haters’ world, said iPod owner is being duped by evil corporations, and their free will usurped such that their only desire becomes to out-do the neighbours by purchasing more stuff. Crap. I have yet to hear a convincing case that this is a genuine social problem. This weirdly prevalent ‘truth’ sounds suspiciously like part of the golden-ager, isn’t-the-world-going-to-the-dogs attitude I find so tiresome. Materialism-haters fail to appreciate that consumers are capable of introspection, and are not mindless slaves to advertising. Sure, advertising can be effective in subtle ways. Sure, there are probably people who do live to spend money. But nobody I know thinks shopping is going to complete their lives, and bring them every joy. They all realise it’s just one of a thousand tiny ways to improve things, and are perfectly capable of understanding and balancing a desire for new things. I hate that people are told they should feel guilty for buying stuff. []
  2. Ahem. Not sure where that came from. []

Materialism Ra!

Abi and I headed to the Peak District this morning with a guide book and walking boots. We hadn’t anticipated the skyrocketing temperature, and the 4 miles felt more like 8, but it was fun times. I was amused by the car park’s ‘ice cream van’, which appeared to be a guy who owned a white van, some stickers, a tub of Tesco’s Finest, flakes and a scoop.

We walked past a house with a belltower. A belltower! This is my new ambition. Or at least it’s added to the Ambitious List of Things to Own. Which now looks like this:

  • A cuckoo clock. A proper one made of wood. Mechanical rather than electronic.
  • A ship in a bottle. A big one. Must be a real ship, not a yacht or the QE2 or something. With painted sides, mermaid prow and (if at all possible) little men engaged in piratical endeavours. Alternatively, Kandor.
  • A working paper clock. This was on my list for a long time, and I now have one! It just doesn’t work yet.
  • A bezoar, because a) they’re cool and b) they gross people out. Preferably a Gaimanesque version from a girl with Rapunzel syndrome.
  • A Franklin-style armonica. I would obviously learn how to play it.
  • A dog.
  • A wunderkammer to contain said objects, except the dog because that’d be cruel and it might eat the bezoar. This can now be inside:
  • A house with a belltower. Imagine! I could ring the bell to bring the cats in, or whenever there was a particularly great episode of Lost, or if the local mosque was being too loud. I could set up the alternative quartlerly bell-ringing chimes, with snappy melodies from popular showtunes, or Suzanne Vega records. 

Man, I want a belltower.

P.S. You have no idea how close Mork and Mindy: The Board Game came to being on this list. I may yet edit the post.