When people at home ask me how Rwanda is, I’ve often used the word “real” to describe it. It seems to me that so often in America, many things are hidden from us, sometimes by chance, often on purpose. It’s not that life in America is all fake, it’s just that I can see the consequences of all my actions so clearly here. Let me explain.
In my village, any water that you use, you must walk to a nearby water station, wait in line with your jerrycan, and tote that heavy water all the way back to your house. Want that water heated? You might have to chop down a tree to get firewood to boil it. Any trash that you create, you have to dispose of yourself—either burning it or burying it. On one of my first days in my host family, I ate a granola bar and then foolishly asked my Mama where the trash can was. She didn’t understand, even though I looked up the word for “trash” in Kinyarwanda, and repeated it in French too. She took the wrapper and just threw it in our backyard. I thought about an average day in America, and what my backyard would look like if I had to toss all my trash there instead of the “out of sight, out of mind” model, where regular garbage pick-up, waste incinerators, and massive landfills assure us that our consumptive habits are not a problem. It has made me so much more conscious of what I consume.
In America, you can buy paper without ever seeing the trees that were cut down; you can buy produce without ever seeing the chemicals that were used or the workers who harvested the food. You can buy a hamburger without ever seeing the cow, or a speck of bones or blood. You can use electricity as much as you want, often without knowing where it came from, without seeing the mountaintop removed, the lung cancer of miners, the kids with asthma who live next to the coal plant and who can’t afford health insurance.
Cost is the only barrier: if you have the money in America (and in most developed countries), the environmental and human costs of consumption do not stand in your way. Everything is clean and sanitized on the outside; because that’s the way we like it. It makes us uncomfortable to think about the effects of our actions on people that we’ve never met, and in all likelihood, will never meet. I just wonder how different the world would be if, for example, we had to meet the person in a developing country making a few cents a day making our shoes every time we wanted to buy them, or if we had to meet people whose water or land was ruined because of an oil spill every time we wanted to fill our gas tanks.
It just seems like there’s a huge disconnect somewhere along the line. And in many ways, I don’t know what to do about it. Let me rephrase that. We know what to do about it, it's actually doing it that's the hardest part. And it’s scary, looking it in the face. "Reduce, reuse, recycle", people. In that order.
I think sometimes of the quote by Gandhi that has almost become a cliché, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It has taken on a different meaning for me after being here for four months. I often wonder if everyone on the entire earth were an exact replica of me (even scarier than all that stuff I just wrote about, I know), would the world be able to sustain itself? If everyone had a laptop (as I do), if everyone had five pairs of shoes (as I do), if everyone wanted to take hour-long hot showers (as I desperately want to right now instead of a 5 minute bucket bath)? Not likely.
So many things in America are possible because we are separate from the consequences of our actions. And it’s all real, whether we choose to see it or not.