Though I certainly have ideas for answers to these questions, for the most part, I really don’t know. I’ve never moved back to the United States after living in Africa for two years before, so I really have absolutely no evidence or past experience on which to base my speculations.
I’m happy to report that one of the benefits of my two years of hard-earned street-cred is not completely up in the air, though. There is one aspect of life here that I am confident I want to bring back with me, and it can be succinctly labeled as food. I know, shocker! As much as I’ve whined about missing all my favorite American (or American-modified international) foods, you’d think the last thing I would include on a list of things I like about this place is food. But hear me out.
It’s not the food itself I want to take back. Don’t get me wrong, I love the unsweet corn and will certainly be sad to leave behind my new favorite fruit that I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen in Texas. But it’s no secret that even the blandest of eaters will choose to just go without supper every once in a while to spare themselves another consecutive night of beans and potatoes. So, no, it’s not the food itself. But the way food works here is something I’ve really grown to appreciate.
For example, I love knowing that my kilo of muddy, small potatoes was grown right here in my community. I love that when I’m offered roasted corn at a neighbor’s house, I know it was plucked off a rope hanging from their roof with all the other corn from their most recent harvest. I love that when my favorite grandmother next door offers me a big bag of beans, I can bet they’re the same beans I watched her plant a few months before. And I love that the milk I drink and cook with comes from a cow I actually see every day (even if she did charge at me and Rafiki).
To be fair, agriculture here is not perfect. A lot of people do use potentially harmful pesticides and there’s a good chance they’re not cultivating the most appropriate crop for their soil type. But they did grow it themselves, and in many cases, I actually watched it grow. And when I buy food from my neighbors and my community, I’m directly contributing to the economic growth of my neighbors and my community. My food wasn’t grown and harvested thousands of miles away by a person I don’t know and then shipped here by a gas-guzzling truck, causing the price to sky-rocket and putting my neighbors out of business.
Basically, this system of food just makes so much more sense to me now. Of course farmers’ markets, CSAs, community vegetable gardens, and the like existed long before I came to the Peace Corps, and there are ample opportunities available in the States for people to get local, fresh produce. And that’s just it: we have these options! We have the luxury of the variety and the personal benefits of buying locally. But I personally didn’t take these opportunities seriously enough or appreciate them enough before I left. Living in Rwanda has made me want to become a much more conscious and intentional consumer when it comes to my food. When I’m back, I want to make healthier food decisions that boost both my health and my immediate economy.
Of course, produce isn’t the only thing we eat. Many of us also eat meat, and my perspective on meat has changed during my time here as well. While my ideas about fruits and vegetables have changed as a result of positive observations, my ideas about meat have unfortunately come about in a more negative way.
Especially since Ryan and I adopted Rafiki, I have struggled immensely with the way people here treat animals. While some animals, like cows, are greatly appreciated for what they produce, in general animals are treated with very little integrity. Many are beaten and kicked, if not outright then in an effort to keep them in line while traveling. Most are not washed or brushed, leaving them dirty, cold and infested with fleas and ticks. Even cows are often tied up in the same place for a while, which means they stand in their own waste for days. Understandably, many are malnourished. Cows, goats, sheep, and chickens are piled by the dozens into the backs of trucks with no regard whatsoever for the dangers and discomforts of being crammed so tightly and made to stay that way for hours of travel.
The saddest thing about this is that this happens all over the world, including in the United States. Meat in the States is often mass-produced from animals that are treated without any compassion and with no respect for the fact that they are living, thinking, fearing, feeling creatures. They grow in crowded quarters, sometimes never even seeing daylight. I love my steak and chicken just as much as the next person, but there’s no reason an animal should have to live such a miserable life so I can satisfy a craving.
All that being said, though, there are better options for meat available at home as well. Many local farmers aren’t only growing produce; they’re also raising animals in a compassionate way and working to ensure they have as painless a death as possible. I know it’s often more expensive to buy these types of meats, and maybe they don’t taste like what we’re used to. But most of us don’t need as much meat as we’re getting anyway, and I’m willing to adjust to a slightly different taste if it means supporting a farmer who shares my beliefs about the rights of living creatures.
So back to the subject at hand: how my Peace Corps experience has changed me. I realize all of this food talk isn’t exactly “development” oriented, and probably isn’t what a reader expects from a PCV. And regardless of how it may sound, I didn’t write this as a roundabout way of criticizing Americans’ food choices. For me, Peace Corps has basically been a huge mirror – one of those with all the lights and magnifying options that shows you every single imperfection you never wanted to see. The mirror is forced in front of me daily, and I constantly see my own country and the way I lived my life before I came here. Sometimes I love and am proud of what I see, sometimes I’m ashamed, and a lot of the time I don’t even recognize what I’m seeing.
The food system here has been among the few glimpses in that mirror I actually can recognize, and for now the way it’s changing my mind and heart is one of the most exciting improvements I’m seeing in myself. In this respect, living here has made me want to be a more informed and more purposeful citizen of my own country. And I have to say, I do believe that is worth documenting.
Another neighbor's potatoes.
“A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic, inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality.”
- Polyface Farms Owner Joel Salatin in an interview in Food, Inc.