Let Them Eat Dirt

Some get the gravy, some get the gristle; some get the marrow bone, and some get nothing, though there’s plenty to spare…” — Joni Mitchell

I saw the first photo about a month ago in the Hartford Courant: a close-up of a Haitian child’s face, eyes wide and dark with misery, the mouth smeared with dust.

Did you know that in Haiti, hunger has become so extreme that the poorest of these poor are now eating dirt? They make it into patties by mixing it with water, a little oil and some salt. They dry it in the sun until it’s brittle and then they eat it. They feed it to their children. Their lips are lined with dust, because dust is what they have been reduced to eating. And believe it or not, it isn’t even free. Imagine that, if you can: imagine counting out your meager coins and handing them over in order to buy this thing: dirt to feed your baby.

This is the same world in which you and I live. Haiti is not so far away from our American shores. It is in fact a stone’s throw, in earth-sized terms, from the Caribbean playground islands so many Americans have visited on their vacations, where they snorkel and lounge on the beach and then sigh with bliss as they sip their martinis and wait for the lovely supper to arrive.

World food prices in the last year have gone up over 40%. For even the middle class in America, that’s enough to force some changes in eating habits; for the poorest, it’s enough to mean genuine hunger at least on some days during any given month. But in Haiti, where the average person lives on less than $2 a day in the best of times, it means that the people are eating dirt. This is a statement of fact so unbearably searing in the suffering it names that the mind wants to behave like a skittish horse, startling and moving sideways to avoid it.

But we can’t avoid it. This is not a momentary crisis born of one bad drought or the sudden destruction of an earthquake. It is the legacy of slavery and colonialism and corruption in Haiti’s past; deforestation, erosion and almost no  capacity to grow its own food; and a ‘perfect storm’ created from all the linkages in the present moment: the Iraq war and current oil prices; the co-opting of crops for biofuel; continual government corruption and incompetence in Haiti; the amazing shrinking American dollar; and the long-term greed and obliviousness of so many of us in the wealthiest countries.

What do we do about the fact that people in Haiti are now eating dirt? Most immediately, I guess, we look hard at our own personal resources and send as much money as we can to Oxfam (http://www.oxfam.org) or other aid groups working in Haiti. We agitate ceaselessly for more aid to go directly from the US and the UN to Haiti, immediately.

But the long-term solution will surely require much more from us. It will require, among other things, that we grow up, and leave behind the lovely illusion that a “growth economy” is sustainable, or has ever truthfully fit into this real world of ours. The American Dream would be more aptly called the American Delusion. We cannot keep on using up the world in the way we have been using it up: its oil, water and food, as though any of them are unlimited. As though any of them belong only to us.

Will we keep on sucking down the gravy when the people of Haiti are eating dirt?

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