EAST AND WESTLiving fat vs dying poor [Archives:2004/716/Opinion]

March 1 2004

By Jamil Abdul Karim
[email protected]

For expatriates or visitors from the west, one of the more startling things to see here is how dogs come out at night. Yes, in this capital city, it seems, the dogs rule. Especially the bony-ribbed ones at the neighbourhood dump, around the corner from where my wife, my daughter and I live.
They look for food scraps, as do the goats and cats that also visit the smelly depot. What really hits, though, are the people who patiently wait for our, or anyone else's, garbage, then scrounge through it for anything to ease their own gnawing hunger.
It's something for westerners to think about when the price of their gasoline rises. Oil-rich OPEC countries will soon trim production, which will raise gas prices worldwide, to various degrees, so that certain barons don't lose profit.
Yemen, which produces little oil, has bigger worries. As you know, from coverage in recent issues of The Yemen Times, consumers are worried about major hikes in commodity prices. Whether it comes from the World Bank, the government, or some antithesis of Santa Claus, it matters little. Higher costs are higher costs.
More dump visits
I've heard that some Yemeni fear the price of their gas will rise 50 per cent. The fact that it's produced domestically makes it all the more upsetting to them. It may boost government coffers, but as business costs will rise, and higher prices will trickle down to other goods and services. One has to wonder how many more people will visit dumps. No wonder the Yanks are doubling their yearly food aid to $15 million.
Westerners, especially those who read The Times, but don't live in Yemen, need to remember the only social safety net here is begging. Those of us who live here know how often the poor, usually women and children, ask for handouts on the street or at our door. Several million Yemenis are also migrant workers, mostly in Asia, sending money home to their needy families.
It's something to watch, because while politics in Palestine and Iraq is predictably upsetting across this region, it seems that nothing boils Yemeni blood like what folks believe – rightly or not – is the bombing of their economy by policies that aren't working. Yemen's last major price hikes, seven years ago, led to plenty of demonstrators killed on the streets.
And it seems to me that, for the sake of global security, the Middle East can't afford this quasi-democracy to become undone. Yemen, poor orphan that it is, may have a few terrorist insurgents. But it's also a bell-weather. That's why those 800 delegates from dozens of countries, including UN chief Kofi Annan, recently met here in Sana'a to explore democracy and human rights in the region.
But back to hunger. It kills 24,000 people worldwide. Every day. It's increasing in the poorest countries. But, believe it or not in some developing countries, obesity is also a problem. For example, world health officials say one in four kids in African countries like Morocco, Zambia and Egypt are significantly overweight.
Getting fat, while the hungry beg, and die, beside your table. What a loss, since there's plenty to go around for everyone if distributed fairly.
How shall we live?
What does this say to the rich west, where obesity is now very much in front of everyone, all over the news, not to mention everyone's mirrors? And what does it say to those of us who live in the developing world, but, for one reason or another, have plenty to eat, not to mention other material things that meet our basic needs and usually more? How then shall we live?
A slim build, I personally don't consider myself immune from the gluttony in our time. I've put on 50 pounds in the past 20 years. In my late teens, I had just 140 pounds on my 6' 1″ frame. But this is about more than body weight.
It's a reminder that we're all poor: if not materially, then spiritually, or emotionally, or intellectually, or in ways we each know privately. So, in my family, we make a point of skipping a meal or two regularly, because there's nothing like a hunger pang to remind us of these truths.
It doesn't put food on anyone's plate. But it helps us identify in a small way with the hungry. It helps us remember 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.'
And it helps shine the light on this other poverty of spirit: the one that knows no racial or cultural or geographic borders, the one that says, as humans, we're all starving beggars in need of the same piece of bread. The irony is that often people who have more than they need materially, suffer from these other hungers even more.
For those of you who could stand to push yourself away from the dinner once in a while, what do you think about that? Care to join us sometime?

Jamil Abdul Karim ([email protected]) is a Yemen Times editor.