Plagues and Famines: better not to know? (part 1)

Have you wondered if maybe it’s better not to know about great suffering? After all, does knowing help?

Maybe it’s happened to you: you read an eyewitness account of famine, perhaps visit a developing country and see firsthand what extreme poverty looks like, and, turning back to your own life, you’re not sure how to go on as you have been.

You have a fridge. And it’s big. And full.

And not only do you have shoes, but you have more than one pair. And they fit you properly and are in decent repair.

And what you spend on your daily coffee is more than what 75% of Africans have to live on each day.

When you go to the grocery store, you feel overwhelmed by how much food there is. And how much plastic. And excess packaging. And things meant to be used once and then thrown away.)

This weekend, I read William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. When he was just 15, William built a working windmill out of scavenged scraps and junk complete with a functional circuit breaker, to power his family’s house in their Malawian village. He also built a solar powered water pump, giving his village its first source of drinking water and enabling his family to have two plantings of maize, their staple food crop.

William taught himself everything he needed to know to build the windmill from a discarded American textbook called Using Energy, and through extensive experimentation. And he was motivated to do it–at least in part–by the terrible famine that killed many Malawians in 2002. In the book, William tells of seeing starved, skeletal people walking from place to place, begging for some work to do in exchange for something to eat. At the worst point of the famine, William and his family got three bites of nsima–that’s the Malawian staple food, a cornmeal mush–a day.

William’s ingenuity and determination was motivated by the hope that his invention would protect his family from going hungry.

Because where William lives, “hungry months” are a regular feature of each year.

Where William lives, most people get malaria quite a few times in their lives, and cholera is not an anachronism.

At this point, I want to acknowledge that compassion fatigue is a real thing. How much suffering can we know–and summon the energy to care–about?

Is it better simply to not know about famines and other kinds of suffering ‘elsewhere’ since we can’t do much to help anyway?

I want to discuss this question in more detail tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

What might that mean?

How Beer Saved the World

I’m not really a fan of beer, but I think that has more to do with the beer I’ve tasted, not with me. Two times I’ve tasted beer that I liked: once, at Zum Schwarzen Bären in Göttingen, Germany, when I tasted a house-brewed dunkelbier, and once at a pub in Philadelphia following the funeral of our dear friend Sam, when I had a Chimay Rouge. I suspect my taste for beer is somewhat underdeveloped.

So a couple of weeks ago–when I mentioned the fact that I have OI, a genetic defect leading to weaker-than-normal bones–a commenter suggested that I drink beer. Beer, s/he said, contains certain bone-strengthening minerals and has been demonstrated to improve bone density and reduce fractures–more conclusively, apparently, than milk! Sure enough, I consulted Monsieur Google and found the study (and reports on that study) indicating that, indeed, beer is good for the bones.

Beings I can’t just nip round the corner to buy some house-brewed dunkelbier any more, and beings, too, that a case of Chimay Rouge would drink up as much money as I’ll earn writing a decent-length essay, I haven’t exactly been eager to incorporate beer into my health regimen, such that it is. (I am, however, eager to accept recommendations on beers I might like, keeping in mind the preferences I’ve already indicated.)

Here’s the thing, though: I want to like beer.


Because I love getting drunk? Heavens, no. A bit of ale or wine to gladden my heart is as far as I’m happy to go, thanks!

Because I want to strengthen my bones? Well, yes. That’s not a bad thought. But come on–this is the eat with joy person here.

With all due respect to Hippocrates, food (and drink) is not my medicine, nor vice-versa.

No: I want to like beer because it’s culturally important.

Egyptian Beer Making

Did you know that…

  • the Agricultural Revolution–the beginning of agriculture–was driven by beer–not grain-consumption

which means that beer helped form civilizations

  • bones from Ancient Egypt have been found to contain tetracycline antibiotics…from BEER

which means that, likely, beer helped many ancients fight off certain bacterial infections

  • you can brew beer from nasty, E.Coli infested pond water and it will become drinkable

which means that people living in cities where they’d get sick from the water available could drink beer and be A-OK.

If you’re curious, you can watch How Beer Saved the World here (or streaming on Netflix, if you have that) and learn more about this amazing stuff called beer!