Tuesday, September 9, 2014

where there is no google: the subtle privilege of living green

Living in Zambia has made me significantly more “green.” A few things I know to be true: A little dirt never hurt anyone - my daughter's face is evidence of that. Straight from the earth ingredients make the healthiest - and most delicious! - foods. Our bodies are much more resilient than we realize, and nature holds many solutions to many problems. The sterility of American medical centers and the synthetic everything in stores and the plastic smell at the grocers – these things turn me off and I know that in many ways, my Zambian neighbors and I are crazy lucky.

Green is good and nature is lovely and I feel very fortunate to be able to engage both without tremendous effort. But one thing I’ve learned is that living a healthy and a successful green life is not merely about access – it is also about understanding. As beneficial that nature can be, it can also be fierce and we must learn to respect the boundaries of its healthy influence.

nature babies. what, your kids don't play with fire in the middle of the night?
In rural Zambia, there are many traditions that employ natural remedies for common ailments. Aloe Vera grows in abundance in the bush and many people use its healing salve on wounds. Specific bushes have been identified as containing anti-venom properties and are quickly applied to snake bites. Charcoal is commonly used to treat upset stomachs. Papaya seeds are chewed on to repel mosquitoes.

But there is much ignorance in the use of natural remedies. Traditional healers make large sums of money offering concoctions of all natural ingredients for illnesses, often times playing on the fears people have of scientific methods. The witch doctor down the road from us is well known for lobbing off hemorrhoids in her living room (with a presumably unsterile knife) and packing the wound with herbs. Many TB patience default on their clinically observed treatment course because the traditional medicines sit better in their stomach, though they will never cure Tuberculosis. There is a woman in the neighboring district who claims she has found the cure for HIV and people are lining up to pay her $40 to procure this miracle drug. First, second and third degree burns are indiscriminately packed with ashes of tortoise shells despite repeat infection. Women routinely induce abortion by drinking the liquid of certain boiled leaves and roots.

Many of these traditional practices are grounded in semi-accurate medical theory, often surrounding the drawing out of infection and promotion of the body’s natural healing properties. Many practices though are based in nothing other than mysticism. Most mothers tie a piece of bark from a certain tree around their babies’ necks to ensure proper healing of the soft spot. Women wrap beads around their waste as a method of birth control. Potions are drunk to expel demons from an (actually) malnourished child. Skin is cut and packed with powder to alleviate aches and pains.

She says her muscles still ache. 
How exactly is a person supposed to separate out legitimate natural healing remedies vs. nonsensical folklore? How was Patience’s mom supposed to know that honey and aloe were beneficial burn creams but tortoise ash and toothpaste were not? What’s the difference between a pregnant woman swallowing down iron-rich beans verses swallowing down dust of a termite trail? How does a person make heads and tails of all this natural stuff? How should a person determine what will help and what will harm? How can a person weed out superficial fixes in favor of solving root problems?

Most of my green friends are exceptionally good researchers. When I wondered about putting this hair stuff on Bronwyn's hair, I got a my answer in about 2 seconds from my awesomely connected friends who not only communicated "hell-to-the-no" but also furnished me with evidence to support their answer.
baby girl has a blond fro and it needs help. sadly this was not it.
Standard procedure for many green/natural/conscientious consumers involves taking the time to research every ingredient, every drug fact, every source and possible side effect. They know what to look for and why that obscure word on the back of a package is a red flag and a no-go. They know which websites are reputable in providing accurate information and they know to cross check again and again. The anti-child-vaccination crowd? You have never met better researchers in your life. The hard-core natural child birth friends? They are armed and dangerous (in the best way possible) with incredible statistics for powerful and peaceful childbirth. The organic everything tribe – they are fierce and can list the horrid ingredients contained in common foods and and can tell you about an essential oil for just about anything. They know their stuff through and through… and they live in a technology based society that is ready to assist them.

This is the subtle privilege of living green.

in rural zambia its not "organic" or "natural" or "free range," its just FOOD.
My awesomely green friends are not successful at this lifestyle because they are better or smarter or more deserving than my Zambian neighbors who still dabble in earthy mysticism more than anything else. They are successful because they live in houses with electricity and own computers and have grown up using google and most can just ask Siri to answer any question they might have. They have access to a patient’s bill of rights that lets them ask questions and accept or reject treatment accordingly. They visit doctors are able to pull up CDC recommendations during patience visits and expect to have a conversation. They live in counties where public health advocates add value by trying to empower the consumer. They can read anything about anything, fact check and compile evidence, drain their battery, and charge it up while they sleep soundly, and all of this cries of privilege.

I used to be rather critical of the blind dedication to natural remedies here in the village. But eventually I realized that most things are not as obvious as I think they are. (I didn’t know Nutrigrain bars were the devil until yesterday, so clearly I’m not all that.) People often don’t know what they don’t know, and its important to be gracious when hearing the stories of people who have no way of knowing. In every situation, doing the best you can do is, in fact, the best you can do. 

I think that that’s all anyone does – the best they can. The birthing women and the snack providing moms and everyone trying to reduce their footprint. And for this reason, I hope the green movement stays humble – teaching, engaging, exploring, and sharing where possible, but remembering the privilege and providing a comfortable  space for those who maybe have not benefitted from the same.

What about you? What are your favorite green/natural/organic/healthy living/education sites? Link up, green bloggers! Comment below!

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