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Archive for July, 2011

A few months ago, I rode a bicycle taxi for seven kilometers in a rural area of western Rwanda. While I had a blast relaxing on the comfortable cushioned backseat of the bike, the driver was visibly exhausted from pulling me over the meandering dirt road’s rocky hills. I even had to get off at a few points so that he could push the bike up the steepest parts. At the end of the 30-minute ride, he asked me to pay him 200 Rwf, or 33 cents. I was shocked by his request for such meager compensation, which my Rwandan friends told me was the going rate for that distance.

After thinking about it, I realized that 33 cents couldn’t possibly allow him to replenish the calories he exerted in the 30-minute trek, unless perhaps he bought 33 cents worth of pure cooking oil and drank that. 33 cents could buy 2 chapati or maybe 4 small doughnut holes in some parts of the country. However, judging by the rivers of sweat dripping down the driver’s face and body, I estimate that would replace about only half of his calories exerted during the ride.

That encounter got me thinking about all of the underpaid physical labor that happens across the world. I’m no labor wage or nutrition expert, but the clichéd statistic of more than one billion people living on less than one dollar per day has some truth to it. The type of person earning $1 per day is probably not working in an office or using his critical reasoning skills (unless he’s an unpaid intern); he’s using his hands and body to manufacture, harvest, or carry things. It’s doubtful that a salary of $1 a day can buy enough food to replace his calories lost, let alone feed the (most likely numerous) mouths of his hungry growing children at home.

The concept of a caloric replacement standard intrigues me as a minimum wage idea. What if all compensation for physical labor was based on how much it would locally cost to replace the calories exerted? Or even better – what if compensation for physical labor was based on how much it would locally cost to replace the calories exerted and provide enough nutrients to help maintain a healthy body? It sounds obvious and a bit idealistic but if applied in practice or as a calculated law for minimum wage standards in developing countries, it could be a potentially powerful instrument for reducing malnutrition and overexertion-related diseases and maintaining healthier populations.

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After a short hiatus, I’m back in blog action. I spent the past few weeks on vacation with my mother and sister, who were visiting Rwanda – and Africa – for the first time. It was wonderful to see them, show them around Kigali, adventure around the countryside, and watch my sister, Julia, pick up Kinyarwanda like a pro. Some of the trip’s highlights include seeing Rwanda’s famous mountain gorillas, walking on a canopy bridge high above Nyungwe Forest, and introducing my family to the delicious grilled tilapia of Nyamirambo. Once my internet hopefully improves, I’ll dedicate a full post to the trip and put up some pictures. But first here, I want to write about an interesting phenomenon that I witnessed all around rural Rwanda.

It’s impossible to drive on a dusty road in rural Rwanda without causing a commotion. For people who live along the rural back roads, seeing cars is a fairly exciting event, especially when the cars have muzungus inside. People of all ages wave and children run after the cars, as well as ask for money, food, or other things. Throughout our trip around the countryside, one consistent request that surprised me was for “chupa,” empty water bottles. I would estimate that every third child we passed yelled excitedly at us “Chupa!” or  “Agachupa!” (small empty water bottle). At first I thought they wanted a Chupa Chup, but our driver dispelled that naive idea.

Empty water bottles are in such high demand by children in rural areas for a few reasons. First, they can fill them with water to take to school. They can also sell them to a local store for 20 francs (3 cents), so that the storeowner can fill them with oil, paraffin, or juice and resell them.

Talk about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. Seeing children so excited about receiving what people driving by toss away as unwanted garbage reminded me of a blog post I read a few months ago by a blogger who works in the humanitarian aid industry. The anonymous blogger coined the term SWEDOW, or “stuff we don’t want” to describe his/her criticism of well intentioned but ill conceived and ultimately useless, self-serving, and occasionally harmful in-kind donations to Africa from developed countries. Some examples include used shoes and clothing, pillowcases, anti-ageing skin cream, and even breast milk.

This case of the empty water bottle seems to me like an extreme example of SWEDOW but with actual positive effects on the recipients. Granted, the plastic bottles may ultimately end up polluting the environment at a later date once they are discarded for good. But in the intermediate phase, they help children eke out a tiny livelihood or hydrate themselves while at school. And the people who discard these objects have essentially no use for them. In a country where plastic recycling has not yet become widespread or easily accessible, this seems like a decent small and localized way to recycle or reuse.

To be poetic about it, you could say this phenomenon is the intersection between waste management, supporting small-scale livelihoods, and constructive aid. But rural Rwanda isn’t going to be developed through a One Chupa Per Child policy, and I’m not advocating donating plastic bottles from abroad to rural Africa. It’s just some interesting drink for thought.

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