Tag Archives: food


Sacrifice has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.  How much should we do it, is it meaningful, is it imperative.  While sometimes I think Farmer goes overboard, it seems selfish to question making personal sacrifices when there are lives on the line.

I tend to agree with Paul Farmer on one thing: the token sacrifice (such as wearing a Che shirt or going without shoes, both of which I often do) seems largely irrelevant if it is an isolated “act” of solidarity with the world’s poor.  However, I do admire people like Michael Franti who partner a small personal sacrifice like his barefootedness with genuine good works, philanthropy and publicity for his causes.  On many poverty alleviation-style trips, there have been many…conversations about finishing one’s food.  I agree that we should not waste food, and do my best not to.

However, I don’t think we can be punished for failing to eat the massive helpings others often serve us against our will, and I think hounding someone to keep eating when they’re not hungry is damaging on so many levels.  Only a fit person who has never had personal food issues would think that yelling at someone that they have to eat whether they want to or not was somehow okay.  But getting back to my point, even if the rest faded away, I still think that most of the time, my cleaning my plate won’t make anyone any less hungry.  Neither would not eating food at all, unless I had a specific goal and a lot of publicity.  Otherwise, it’s just a way or making this about me instead of about the people I claim to be helping.  It becomes an empty gesture.

Of course, there are differing circumstances.  For example, in Cruz Verde I think Tim is totally in the right to lecture people to serve themselves small helpings and go back for more if they’re still hungry.  In this instance, what we do not waste will in fact be eaten by our Sister Island Project colleagues, who wait, hungry, until we have served ourselves.  And I understand people like Claire who quietly live through discomfort at the site of food because it is so emotionally charged for them when in a place like this.  Furthermore, in my book, neither Tim nor Claire is a WL (White Liberal, a term of Farmer’s).  They take real, tangible steps to alleviate poverty.

I am always wary about veering towards becoming a WL, about centering this experience on myself to the detriment of those with whom I work.  Wary of being a fake ally,

Food Donation: Is it Ethical?

After a day or two in Mata los Indios, a rural, poor village in Dominican Republic, we reflected on what we had seen and what we could do.  We came there with the intention of assessing the needs of the community and mapping their assets, in an attempt to persuade Esperanza International to open a Bank of Hope.  This Bank of Hope would most likely be funded by a donation raised by our group of 40 people in a capstone class in poverty and social enterprise.  The Bank of Hope would help 25 or so families start their own businesses with a series of small loans that they would repay over a 6-12 month period, with a relatively low interest rate.  The interest would pay for services like health and dental, which the community badly needs.

That was the plan.  Use our questionnaire and our Spanish to take thorough notes of the community, literally map them out, present our findings to Esperanza, and come back to the states to do a more thorough analysis.  And hopefully, at some point, make an actual damn argument about it.

But then we saw the community.  As we reflected, some people were getting pretty choked up (did you not know people are poor?).  Professor was saying it had been a long time since he had seen poverty this bad (you mean since last summer?).  There was shock that people were only eating once a day (that wasn’t in our questionnaire, and no one wanted to talk about it–how did you learn this?).  Then there was the woman who had lost 9 of her 10 children (ok really, what kind of intrusive questions are you asking to get this stuff?).

I sort of felt like a robot.

At this point, we were basically ordered to make a considerable, one-time food donation.  This seems logical.  They are hungry, we are not.  They need food, we have money.  Except this is not a group of missionaries.  We are students who study how to develop poor areas in a sustainable and socially responsible way.  A one-time donation is not sustainable.  We are linked to Esperanza, so that may send an incorrect impression about what Esperanza does.  We are almost entirely white; this might send the wrong message about what the presence of gringos means.  These are the landmines we have been taught to look for.  And here we were, plowing forward with our one tonne of rice.

We went through the local pastor, and created the equal portions ourselves, which were equivalent to about one month’s worth of food per family.  I have no idea how that was calculated.  Every household was to receive one.  No more, no less.  While this meant no one could get screwed out of their food, it also meant some people perhaps got more than they deserved/needed, while others got less.  But in a community where everyone lives on less than $1 a day, how bad could that disparity be?  the food would be dropped off and distributed without us there, which was a good decision.  Except maybe some people went?  It’s unclear.

Professor asked Esperanza, our partner and a micro-enterprise institution (MFI), what they thought about what we did.  Their response was polite, but they had concerns. They didn’t want Esperanza to be interpreted as party to this, their central message is that working to lift yourself out of poverty is more effective and dignified than receiving charity, and they were concerned that the distribution may not have been equitable.  Here, equitable would mean going to who needs it most, not necessarily giving out fair portions to all.

If I had been able to answer, I would have said this, exactly: Gracias para todo tus consejos, y creo que estamos de acuerdos por la mayoridad.  Pero, no podemos hacer lo que es mejor ahora mismo.  No tenemos este abilidad.  We all agree, for the most part, with what you said.  However, we cannot do what is best right now.  We don’t have that ability.

We aren’t a micro-finance institution, and unless they would help us, we were utterly impotent to do anything else for the people of Mata.  And as it became clear that our allegiance was to working with Esperanza (regardless of whether they help Mata) instead of to Mata (to help them somehow, even if Esperanza wasn’t the answer), it felt imperative that we do something, anyhting, to help.

I only hope that one thing I didn’t list as a concern doesn’t happen: that the food drop doesn’t help us was our hands of MatalosIndios.  That we don’t check it off our list and move on, because rural is a pain, and we miss electricity, and Esperanza may not agree to help them.

Was what we did okay?  I don’t know.  It certainly isn’t what we’re taught to do.  And I do think it contributes to mismanaged expectations, which is another post unto itself.  But I think it’s a very human impulse to feed someone when they’re sitting next to you, hungry.  And I think we should cultivate that impulse, because sometimes the friend who needs help the most isn’t next to you at all, they’re halfway around the world.

Bienvenue a Paris!

After eight hours in Logan and another eight on a plane due to volcanic ash-related re-routing, I’m finally in Paris!  Here’s a smattering of photos from our dinnertime stroll.

The view from my Apart'hotel (The Citadines) in 1ere Arrondissement, Paris
Saint Michel, near where we ate dinner and a short walk from our place.
The Seine at sunset.
Notre Dame Catedral
My new fox friend that I made at our restaurant tonight. He was perhaps the most normal aspect of the entire experience.

Did You Hate it?

Sometimes I feel like this guy.

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba.

A partial group shot of Americans lounging on the steps of La Universidad de la Habana

When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green

line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships.

During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.”

I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality.

Hotel Nacional, a lavish place most Cubans can only hope to work.

But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance

family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps those terms are outdated.  To smile more, to relax, to complain less, to accept failure–or at least try.

I am very proud and protective of the places I have been, the cultures I try to know.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and I feel a perhaps self-inflated responsibility to portray everything with as much honesty and dignity as possible, but I find it tough when everything is so conflicting and based on rumour.

So please bear with me, as I try to tell you all the conflicting sides of life there, and how I felt about it.

What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.


Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!


While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link

Super Market Sweep

Let me say, to begin, that I should’ve known going to Market Basket on Holy Saturday was a bad idea. Weekends are always terrible there, especially holiday weekends.  (That includes the entire Patriots season.)  But less than twenty-four hours after coming home from abroad?  From a poor country?  From Cuba, where there’s no advertising, no options, no variety?

I am a woman with a death wish, apparently.

My mum kept asking me questions: which kind of cheese?  Hot or mild salsa?  I had no clue how to answer these questions.  I am far more indecisive now than I already was.  So I stood there, gripping the handle of the shopping cart (I should not have been steering) while she scouted deals.  My eyes were so wide, and my face so apparently disturbed, that a nice guy who worked there asked if I was okay.  Um, yeah.  I’m just a little overwhelmed.

Everywhere, options.  Why do there need to be so many kinds, so many brands of lettuce?  It’s just leaves, right?

“Wild crispy tango romaine lettuce.”


How is that even a thing?

The waffle aisle was disturbing.  Yes, frozen waffles had their own aisle.  Name brand, store brand, other name brand: whole grain, seven grain, blueberyr, chcolate, cinnamon, homestyle.  and that’s just one brand

I can only imagine the damage a Cuban would do if they were allowed to shop at just one of these aisles.

Everyone was acting as though all the other shoppers were there as a personal insult.  Living obstacles to their Easter dinner, and time outside on a rare, gorgeous spring day in Massachusetts.

Bright, psychedelic colours assailed the eyes from all sides.  Where in nature does one find that colour?

Then I got to the condiment aisle–row upon row of mayonnaise–and I felt comfortable.

Every five minutes or so, a man’s voice would crackle and bark onto the intercome.  Always selling more, different, here, new, better!

I should’ve stayed in the car.

Things I Miss/Crave

I already wrote before I left about the things I thought I would miss, so here is what I cannot WAIT to have when I’m back in Amurica.  I’m sure I’ll be thrilled to have even more things (like a cell phone and the Celtics) that Cuba has just conditioned me out of thinking I need, at the moment.  Don’t worry, I’m sure that later on this week I’ll be posting about all the Cuban stuff I miss.  But for now, all I can think about is home home HOME!

  • honey bbq wings
  • honey mustard wings
  • bbq bacon cheeseburger
  • BMG and DMG
  • My giant family
  • New Baby Alexandra Murphy!  And Coming-Soon Baby Harrington!
  • Andrew Robert Brady
  • Chicken Lou’s TKO
  • cereal
  • milk
  • steak
  • thai food
  • REAL Italian, where the pasta isnt overcooked
  • Mondo buffalo pizza=my life force
  • really any meat that isn’t a mystery
  • hot showers
  • quiznos, $5 foot longs even moreso
  • comfortable beds
  • back rubs (because of the aforementioned lack of comfy beds)
  • American tv, sort of.  But that’s way down on the list.  I’d take the food, showers or bed over television any day
  • It’ll be nice to have more of my closet back, but I was doing just fine with what I packed
  • I WILL love the ease of laundry in the states, however
  • fast walkers
  • rapid restaurants (although I think I’ll be overwhelmed at first)
  • personal space
  • not being harassed by men on the street.  Yeah right, I live in Boston.  But Reading will be nice.

If you spent three months in a developing nation where food was scarce and not many people speak your first language, what would YOU miss?