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Lost Connection

After a little over a year, I’m returning to Malawi. I’ve entered the strange, liminal realm of airports, where I’ll remain suspended for the next forty hours. I’d like to reflect on the current crisis in Malawi, where recent flooding has displaced an estimated 300,000 people, killed 276, and affected the lives of more than one million. Instead – even though it won’t be long until I’m in the thick of it – Malawi seems like a distant idea, a dream I once had, or something I read about casually one evening. I remain most keenly aware of myself, of airport terminals, and of the fog in my head.

The idea of connectedness in this world is one that has challenged me with unanswered questions for at least the last dozen years. I hear about the islands of plastic floating around in the ocean, the war for oil, or the deforestation of the Amazon; and I carry on with my life, attempting to live consciously, but often just wandering along in bewilderment. From 1991 to 2001 they cleared somewhere between 415,000 and 587,000 km² of the Amazon. That’s about the size of Manitoba, or Spain. They do this to raise cows. The consequences are extreme and diverse, but what comes most immediately to mind is the disruption of weather patterns, not only in South America but also in far off places.

I believe that connectedness is a beautiful and essential thing. My connectedness to trees in the exchange of air is a beautiful thing. The affection I share with my beloved is a beautiful thing. The way that winter leads into spring is a beautiful thing. But what happens to connectedness when developed nations demand more beef, for example, and less developed nations respond by depleting the world of its rainforests? Consequences are felt, and not most immediately by the developed nations who are the cause of it.

It’s been suggested that the disruption of weather patterns even as far away as Africa is, in part, a result of deforestation in the Amazon. Connectedness in this circumstance seems less beautiful and less fair. When the lunch choices of millions of North Americans ultimately results in the loss of crops, by drought or floods, for millions of Malawians, our unavoidable connectedness then suggests a blatant disconnectedness in our consciousness. The connectedness happens no matter what. A person consuming a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant in Winnipeg, Manitoba is potentially inducing the deforestation of the Amazon, which is certainly affecting the lives of individuals living in that area, and potentially disturbing the weather patterns in countries as far away as Malawi. This leads to loss of crops. Loss of crops in a country like Malawi often results in loss of life.

This is just one possible outcome. Eating a hamburger in Canada doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody in Malawi dies. But the gross consumption of beef globally, does have global effects, including loss of life. We are not always conscious of the connectedness between our actions and seemingly distant and unrelated consequences; but they happen whether we are conscious of them or not. I’m not necessarily advocating for veganism, or a hundred-mile diet, or even necessarily for the complete preservation of the Amazon, but I am advocating that we raise our consciousness, at least enough to understand how our decisions impact the people nearest to us, and hopefully enough to understand how those same decisions ripple out to affect people in other parts of the world. From that place, we might begin to decide whether or not we want to import our foods, consume meat, or protect our forests.

Malawi is facing the worst flooding in their history. This has had an immediate impact on the lives of many Malawians. But what remains to be seen is what will happen next. Even as the rains continue to fall, I wonder how much more land will be destroyed. How will this land be recovered? Beyond those who have died in the floodwaters, how many more will die of Cholera, Malaria, and other diseases? How many will eventually die of starvation? The present moment is connected to the next, and so on, and so on. A year from now, there will be Malawians still recovering from what began a little over a month ago as the season’s first promising rains. A year from now there will be many Malawians who were unable to recover.

I’ll be spending three weeks in Malawi with my friend Samuel Magombo working on the Innovative Development Initiative of Malawi. We’ll be spending time documenting the devastating effects of the flooding as well IDI’s response, not only to the present crisis, but also to ongoing issues of agriculture, hunger, and sustainability. If anyone feels compelled to participate in IDI’s work, donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities.

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Malawi Flooding

Several weeks ago I was contacted by my friend Samuel Magombo from Malawi. I worked with him in November and December of 2013 documenting hunger inssues in Malawi and his efforts to address those issues. With the support of the work that I did for him, he has been able to find funding for the projects that he is involved with in Malawi. I was also able to raise $1500 for his projects this past summer during my Dollar a Day Diet.

Recently, the rainy season began in Malawi. The flooding this year has been extreme and has led to loss of homes, crops, and life. Samuel made a very ardent request that I return to Malawi as soon as possibly to document the current crisis, which will have a rippling effect over the rest of the year and likely longer.

He is able to cover my costs while on the ground, but I’ve had to provide my own airfare of $2000 and take a three week leave of absence from my work. To be honest, I do not have the money, and will be paying off my credit card for the rest of the year. This seems insignificant when compared to the devastation that Malawians are now experiencing in such an acute way; but it remains a reality for me. I will be leaving on February 17th and will remain in Malawi for 3 weeks.

I recognize that we all have our own financial burdens in addition to a responsibility to those that depend on us in a more immediate way. However, if you feel compelled and willing to support the work that I’m doing in Malawi I would be grateful. I am pursuing connections with organizations working in Malawi that may be in a position to pay for images, but if I am unable to establish any payment for my work I’ll be operating at a deficet.

Here is a recent article from Al Jazeera describing the current situation in Malawi:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/02/thousands-cut-aid-disastrous-malawi-floods-150205100559431.html

Any other help in terms of connections would also be largely appreciated. If you are interested in supporting Samuel Magombo’s direct response to the crisis you can do so by following this link:

http://groundworkopportunities.org/ideas/act-now-for-malawi/

Thank you for reading,

Peace,

Colin

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A Continued Intention

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished my 30 days of hunger solidarity. Near the end of the 30 days I shared here that although I would no longer be restricting my diet to a dollar of food per day, I had every intention of continuing to work towards supporting the New Life Center in Malawi and raising awareness of hunger issues in the world. Over the last two months I have raised $1408 for the New Life Center and hope to raise the remaining $1592 of my $3000 goal within the next three weeks. 

During the 30 Days I spent eating only a $1 of food per day, I learned this:

- Without being intentional about the food I eat, it is very easy to use food primarily as a source of pleasure, to eat more than I need, to eat food that is taxing on my body and on the environment, and to dispose of uneaten food unnecessarily.

- Hunger increases stress, distracts me from important tasks, causes fatigue, and makes it very difficult to raise myself above challenging contexts.

- My experience of hunger, though uncomfortable, is relatively minor compared to the experience of those who are not certain when their next meal will come, or if it will at all.

- A significant factor in my food choices is how it will affect my body image. This has, in the past, lead me to consume unnecessary amounts of protein in the form of dairy, meat, and poultry.

- Finding food that has a low impact on the environment is very difficult when I do not prepare it myself. The food that is readily available is high in sugar, high in preservatives, high in packaging, and high in cost.

- Eating a diet primarily of rice and a variety of pulses leaves me feeling much healthier than eating excessive meat, sugar, and processed foods.

- $1 is not enough to live on sustainably, but I could imagine living comfortably on $2 a day.

- Food is beautiful when you know its value, and can feel good about its production, and when it is prepared with gratitude.

- My privilege is not an excuse to hoard. It is a responsibility to share.

Beginning tomorrow I will begin a new diet for the next three weeks. For $2 a day, I believe I will be able to eat enough to sustain an active lifestyle healthily. I recognize that these numbers are somewhat arbitrary, but I believe that the reduction and/or alteration of our consumption is a step in the right direction toward a more sustainable world in which those who are presently starving would have a better chance at life. In these next three weeks I hope to continue to raise awareness of hunger issues and to raise support for the New Life Center in Malawi through Groundwork Opportunities. Every dollar donated through Groundwork Opportunities goes directly to supporting Malawians through the New Life Center.

Thank you,

Colin

 

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Day 30 – Hunger as a Responsibility

I left Malawi in December of 2013, only a few weeks after arriving. My time there passed by in a blur and I left with a vague recollection of latent images I would later process and share. I left wondering if it was enough to be a witness to the things I had seen, and the stories I had heard, or if, having witnessed these things, I was immediately made responsible to them. My question of responsibility is one I hope to be continually asking throughout my life, and even if I never come to a definitive answer I hope that I will always have the courage to respond with willingness and humility.

For the last thirty days I have been eating much less, both in volume and variety, with the intention of raising awareness of the story of hunger that most Malawians face every day. I’m doing this because I want to experience it myself, to whatever limited extent I can, and because I want others to take pause and consider their own relationship with hunger. I don’t have an answer to solve world hunger. But I do know that I am capable of helping at least some of those who face hunger in a severe way every day.

The following is a letter that I wrote and sent out last week. If there are others who might be interested in supporting the New Life Center in Malawi, please follow the link.

Dear Friends,

Some of you are aware that I set an intention 27 days ago to spend 30 days in Hunger Solidarity with Malawians in the hope of raising awareness for an organization I worked with in Malawi called The New Life Center. I’ve been eating only a dollar’s worth of food each day and am nearing the end of my 30 days. I’ve lost about ten pounds, but I seem to be leveling out. My diet has consisted largely of lentils and rice, with small portions of a few other things to add some variety. It hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be but, as I’ve mentioned several times in my blog www.foodforaday.wordpress.com, I am doing this with the awareness that I will have food the next day, and that I’m doing this by choice, and that my intention has an expiry date. These are luxuries that most Malawians do not have. For them, hunger is a daily reality and it represents a constant unknown.

The New Life Center is working to address hunger issues in Malawi by providing direct access to food for those who need it most, and training to farmers who are otherwise limited in their ability to produce enough maize each year to feed their families. The center’s fundraising goal is $22,000, of which they have raised $8308. My personal goal is to raise $3000 for the New Life Center, of which I have raised $808, although $258 of that was out of my own pocket as a representation of the average amount that Canadians spend each month on groceries. I’ve waived this luxury for 30 days, but as I near the end of it I know that I am developing new intentions, which are now related to the variety and the amount of food I will choose to eat in the future.

I’m writing to ask if you’ll support this project with me. I’ve spent time with the individuals responsible for this organization in Malawi and I believe deeply in them. Their stories are available through the organization responsible for the facilitation of their fundraising efforts, an organization based out of San Francisco called Groundwork Opportunities. It was through Groundwork Opportunities that I traveled to Malawi in November and December of 2013. I’ve been very impressed with the organization and am happy to share that they do not hold any percentage of your donation for their own operating expenses. Instead, at the time of donating they provide you with the option of donating an additional small amount to Groundwork Opportunities. Every dollar you donate to The New Life Center in Malawi is received by the New Life Center.

So, here are some suggestions:

1.The average Canadian spends $8 per day on groceries. This doesn’t include meals out. Try to spend an entire day eating only $1 of food. Or even a single meal. Donate the remainder of your allotted $8 to the New Life Center. It seems like a small amount, but if enough people were willing to do this, it would make a considerable difference.

2. Host a dinner with your friends and your family. Allow $1 for each person in attendance and see what kind of meal you can come up with. Ten people would give you $10. Then, put together the money that you might have spent if you had gone out for dinner to a restaurant and donate it collectively to The New Life Center. Ten people could very easily come up with $200, which would be a huge help.

3. In solidarity with my 30 days, donate $30. One dollar for every day.

4. In recognition of the imbalance of wealth between our countries, donate the amount that you would spend on groceries during a normal month. The average for Canadians is $240. Maybe you spend more, or maybe less.

The issues around hunger are complex and overwhelming, and I don’t want to ignore these complexities or discount them. But nor do I want to be paralyzed by them. Even if my response is as simple as offering a small amount of money to an organization I believe in, I am doing more than nothing.

For more information on The New Life Center, or to make a donation, visit www.groundworkopportunities.org.

To hear more about my personal experience of my time in Malawi and my current experiment in hunger solidarity read my blog at www.foodforaday.wordpress.com or watch this brief video: https://vimeo.com/102839666

Thank you for your time and your support.

Sincerely

Colin Vandenberg

 “I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one.”

- Mother Theresa

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Day 24 – Decision Fatigue

A few months ago my friend shared an article with me from The New York Times about Decision Fatigue. Essentially, as a person goes through his or her day, making decisions as they go along, their ability to make sound decisions eventually begins to diminish. This isn’t because of a lack of character. The brain just gets tired, like any muscle would. At one point, the article cites the grocery store checkout aisle, where stressed out individuals stand in line waiting to pay for the dozens of decisions they just made. Available to them in that moment of exhaustion is a special arrangement of chocolate bars and candy, just when their sense of judgement is at its weakest. The brain is ready to resign to cravings and escape. It wants relief. It wants to be reckless after so much careful scrutiny.

I’ve had a stressful few days, wrestling with challenging decisions, and trying to discern the next step in my life. Stress and hunger make poor companions and I’ll admit that I was tempted to abandon my Dollar a Day Diet in order to cope with the accumulative stress. Knowing that hunger – a temporary and merely physical affliction – was contributing to my levels of stress, did nothing to alleviate that stress. The decisions felt more difficult. The stress felt more unbearable. I did not abandon my intention but it did give me something to think about.

We all experience stress at various points in our lives, and I wouldn’t claim that one situation is more stressful than another. There are many factors, and there are many different methods of coping available to many different people. A person in my city earning $300,000 every year might experience more daily stress than a person in Malawi earning only $300 every year. They might experience stress for different reasons, but it’s a hard thing to quantify.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that stress is a lot harder to deal with when your stomach is empty and you don’t know if you’ll have enough to eat for the rest of the day. Maybe Malawians are used to these physical sensations and it has less of an impact on their feelings of stress, but maybe not. I know that I am not used to it. I get a little grumpy when I’m hungry. Sometimes I feel stressed out and then I realize after eating that I wasn’t actually that stressed out but just hungry. 

I don’t mean to diminish the stress that is experienced in the midst of affluence. Certainly there’s a lot of stress buzzing around between all of our heads. I don’t know that it gives much perspective to say that there are some who are stressed by much more morbid decisions, like whether or not they are able to feed all of their children. This doesn’t make me feel any less stressed out about my own life, but it does remind me that affluence or poverty do not determine peace of mind. Peace does not come from having more than I need. But in knowing that I have enough I can experience peace. And in sharing with others I can have peace.

I would ask this of you: if you are able, spend a day eating only a dollar of food. And, if you are able, take the money you would have spent on a meal out, and give it to an organization addressing hunger issues. Donations to The New Life Center, where I spent time in Malawi, can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians to experience the life of abundance we all deserve.

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Day 22 – Hunger as an Annoyance

Day 22

After running around all day on an empty stomach, feeling irritable and tired, I’m finally at home, well fed and at peace. It’s amazing how a bowl of rice and chickpeas can so easily calm my mood. Food is a beautiful thing.

It’s been 22 days out of the 30 that I will spend in hunger solidarity with Malawians. So far, I have consumed a total of $20.86 worth of food. The actual feelings of hunger have been easier to deal with than I thought they would be. I’ve intentionally saved my biggest meal for the end of the day so I have rarely gone to bed hungry. I prefer to feel it during the day when I know that I will eat eventually. What has been more challenging is remaining constantly conscious of every gram of food that I eat, and saying no to any impulse to treat myself with a piece of chocolate, a beer, or a meal out.

The woman at the food stand near where I live, tried to convince me that the actual cost of her fries were probably only a dollar an order. It would cost me $4 to buy them but she insisted that I could eat them with a clear conscious. I was tempted, but that would have been my budget for the entire day and so I declined. I was glad at least for the conversation.

I know that I feel irritable when I’m hungry and that the fewer comforts I have, the greater my irritability becomes. I’ve given up my usual diet, but the rest of my life goes on as it would otherwise. I have clean, running water, electricity, a comfortable home, and reliable transportation. Most Malawians do not have these things.

I have just over one week left of my intention to live on a dollar of food per day. I’m raising money for an organization that I worked with in Malawi called The New Life Center. Donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities. Every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians through The New Life Center.