I may have mentioned my friend Jonathan here a time or two. Jonathan is the sort of person who works for several months, saves up a lot of money, and then travels for several months (or years). He has done this over and over again in the time I have known him, and I always try to keep up with his latest exploits, because I find them fascinating.
Jonathan is currently living in Hong Kong, finishing up a master’s degree and working on his next steps with what he wants to be when he grows up. I’ve been following him on twitter and get Facebook status updates, many of which link to articles that interest him, and yesterday he linked to one that I just couldn’t help but read. See, a few years back, Jonathan spent several months traveling through and living in parts of Africa. And by Africa, I mean really, really Africa. He spent at least a month living in a town of 3000 people in Mali, for example. So when he linked to the article, saying it was representative of his Mali experience, I had to check it out.
Internet, after reading the article I was totally ashamed of myself. I’d rarely given more than a passing thought to most countries in Africa, other than a vague desire to see Egypt one day, and of course when various friends travel to various countries (Morocco, Ethiopia, and the aforementioned Mali are all places friends have gone). I thought some about South Africa when I watched District 9. But Niger? What is there in Niger? I know absolutely nothing about it, know nothing about its culture or its history or its geography or what it’s like to live there. Now, thanks to this article, I do.
Of course, the article is about how there’s little to no media attention for Niger, despite its serious problems. The problems Niger has are exacerbated by climate change, by its patriarchal culture, by things as small as cutural taboos of feeding eggs to children or not allowing newborns to drink colostrum. The statistics in the article about Niger just completely blew my mind: 1 in 7 babies dies before age 1. Women have, on average, 7 children. SEVEN. When there’s not enough food for anyone, let alone that many babies. It’s a sort of life I can’t even imagine living, and a sort of situation I can’t even imagine how it can possibly be changed for the better. There are so many factors in play, so many reasons why people do the things they do and why Niger, in general, is so poor. They don’t have anything to export, really, and no way to bring in tourism dollars. The way of life people lived for thousands of years isn’t really sustainable in a world where countries have borders and you can’t just pack up and move to where there’s less desert and more food and more opportunities.
Every so often, I catch myself having a pity party. Things are not going the way I would like them to, and I feel sorry for myself. It really takes something mindblowing like this for me to realize just how good I have it. My kids, should I ever be lucky enough to have some, will never, ever be this poor, or this hungry, or have to wait for dad and older brothers and mom and older sisters to eat before they get to eat. We live in a society where that doesn’t happen. We have clean water and a huge infrastructure set up to ensure we have plenty of food, and a myriad of choices both miniscule and profound. I’ll never have to watch a child starve to death, and never starve myself.
Now, I’m not saying that people who live in Niger have shitty lives (though I suppose by some standards, they do). It just never ceases to amaze me how the luck of the draw entitled me to live in the United States, be born into privilege, and ensure that I had enough food while my brain was developing that I was able to learn and realize my full intellectual potential. For millions, even billions of people, they never get that opportunity. Next time I’m feeling sorry for myself, I’ll remember how much better I have it than most of the population of Niger, and while I’ll feel like an asshole at least it will remind me to get out of my own head once in a while.