Sunday, November 2, 2008

citizen eaters

Sometimes, stirring bread flour into my sourdough starter or dolloping jam into jars feels like an indulgence. I devote time, and subject my debit card, to the pursuit of food for pleasure on a near daily basis. Should I really have made another pot of fruit preserves? Will the dozen cups of flour I’ve devoted to sourdough starter ever manifest into something edible… and did four more cups really need to be tossed into yet another batch of pumpkin-based baked goods?

I’ve learned to let go of thinking too much about what constitutes luxury versus necessity, and nutritious or practical versus indulgence, when it comes to my personal food decisions. But what I have a harder time contextualizing is how I can spend time stirring a pot of mulberry jam in between reading article after article on the recent violence in eastern Congo, near to where I spent most of last summer and where few people are able to make dinner for their families right now. The violence has kept aid workers from even distributing nutrient bars.

I know, it’s the old refrain: “You have to finish everything on your plate because there are children starving in Africa.” I cringe thinking that anyone should be forced to eat all that lies in front of them as children with protruding bellies look over their metaphorical shoulder. This, after all, exemplifies a treacherous global paradox in which half the world stuffs themselves while the other half starves (to paraphrase activist/writer Raj Patel). But nevertheless, I’m not beyond being able to reconcile my brimming pantry with the information that people in a place I’ve visited have nothing to eat today.

A dairy farmer at a grass-fed livestock conference I was at once proclaimed to me that “producers” must be referred to as farmers. And “consumers,” the other half of the food chain dichotomy, I asked? “Consumers are citizens!” said the dairy farmer.

But those who have managed to return to their farm plots in eastern Congo as the fighting subsided this weekend are not citizens, at least not as we define citizens. They often struggle for the right to be even consumers, picking up each other’s scraps of unripe banana and papaya as they wander along footpaths, wondering where they’ll lead their families to sleep that night. In a region perpetually destabilized by bloodshed, the inhabitants of eastern Congo are subjects of a pawn game played out in a power vacuum by various armies. A messy arrangement of rebels hawking ethnic affiliations, UN peacekeepers, and a ragtag Congolese national army that is better equipped to rape and pillage than protect can hardly be considered governance. Congolese haven’t elected any of these groups to power and yet all of the armies strip the people of eastern Congo of their basic rights to food, shelter, and safety.

When any one of the rebel groups stirs from hibernation, hundreds of thousands of Congolese scramble to escape, flee, scatter. Whatever verb best describes it, it’s a routine that involves putting down their hoes, packing up their houses, and uprooting their families for an uncertain amount of time. This past week, droves of Congolese fled Goma, a city on the northern edge of Lake Kivu and on the border of Rwanda, in advance of an encroaching rebel line. The fact that these particular rebels (who are accused of being propped up by Rwanda’s government) were threatening to take Goma surprised even the most battle-hardened journalists stationed in the area. Goma has long been considered a safety zone for UN aid workers and also for tourists from Rwanda stepping cautiously, rebelliously, over the border.

There’s been a cease-fire in effect for the past few days and according to The New York Times life has all but returned to normal in Goma this weekend. The headlines on this particular spat of violence couldn’t have faded from the news any faster. But I haven’t been able to get this whole story to fade from my mind. I spent a weekend in Gisenyi this past July, at the nicest hotel in Rwanda that is a mere 15 minute walk from the Congo border. This violence thus seems all the more real, and also more surreal. The hotel shares a beach with Goma’s hotels; the single connecting road has been a lifeline for refugees from both countries.

I briefly contemplated paying the $50 visa fee to walk across the border and take a few photos in Goma but my companion at the time, James, had already made a few visits there. I resigned myself to watching the subdued scene from the passenger seat of James’s jeep, munching on Trader Joe’s Asian rice crackers while James renewed his car permit at the border. A blue-helmeted African UN peacekeeper peered into the jeep and squinted at the sight of all the road-trip snacks we had in the car. The Congolese soldiers milling around projected the authority of Tappan Zee Bridge toll collectors. Everyone was stroking their guns, and yawning.

Later that night we drove to a high point in Gisenyi to see the spooky red glow of Goma’s active volcano, which spewed ash all over the region in 2003 and baked Goma’s crop fields to dust. Its stirrings are as unpredictable as the activity of the rebels. What is predictable in eastern Congo right now is the rainy season, which has just commenced. I imagine it’s both a blessing and a curse, having made sleep miserable for those who spent this week on the run but also bringing life to fields of potential food.

This New York Times article from the other day titled “With Tense Calm in Congo, Time to Assess the Damage” ended with:

Rebel soldiers were working with village elders on Friday to assess the damage caused by the departing government forces, who residents said had picked clean dozens of homes and robbed the local bank, cracking open the safe and stealing the villagers’ savings. But Mr. Nkunda’s troops may have committed similar abuses. “These guys are bad, too,” one man whispered in Kibumba.

But he did not want to elaborate.

Instead, he slipped away, down a path toward the bright green bean fields. It is planting season now, and many people have said that if they don’t go back to work, soon again there will be nothing to eat.

On the eve of our own most prominent ritual of citizenship, we’re gearing up to exercise the privilege (or is it a fundamental right?) of choosing those who we will trust to govern us. Few Americans fail to recognize the significance of being able to do so, particularly this election year. But there’s another ritual of citizenship that so often goes unacknowledged, that of feeding ourselves without fear. Whether or not we farm our own food, or even bake our own bread, all of us here eat as citizens, not just consumers. So I’ll keep stirring pumpkin muffin batter and grinding my $17 a pound coffee, wondering if Congo, or Rwanda for that matter, will make the front page headlines tomorrow, and feeling proud and powerless all at the same time.


Timur said...

Again, Jenny, well put. Thinking back on Pollan quoting Wendell Berry in his Introduction to Omnivore's Dilemna: Eating is an agricultural act, but it's also a political act. We tend to lose sight of that, I think, getting wrapped up as we do in the presidential election (is it really almost over?), and it's well worth stopping to think a moment. See you soon.

mary said...

Stimulating article, dear. As always, so proud of you.

For the record though: I make no claim to being a perfect mom but never once did I suggest that you finish all the food on your plate ...

Love you
p.s. YOU might be pleased to know that I actually baked some apple pies last weekend !