I am certainly not the first to move between the global North and global South and notice the discrepancy in the amount of stuff that is generally around.
By stuff I am referring to items, goods, things, materials, etc. The difference applies to my own situation – three weeks ago I lived in my own fully stocked apartment; now I live out of a suitcase – but also more broadly. I draw attention to the discrepancy in stuff for reasons beyond a fondness for living more simply. Indeed, I would not mention this if it were unrelated to my PhD research on disability in Bulozi.
In talking about their lives as persons with disabilities, the participants in my study spoke frequently and emphatically about their lack of stuff. During our interviews and meetings, the participants referenced all sorts of specific things that they lacked: food to eat, hair dryers, rice to sell, houses that did not leak in the rain, and on and on. They also spoke about money, and how they would be able to acquire the things that they lacked if they had more money.
Like the specific accounts of the participants, it was a specific situation that got me thinking about this topic in the first place. In my case, the specific situation was an issue with towels.
When packing up my apartment in Toronto, I knew I had more stuff than I could actually move. I even triaged the items for the Salvation Army to fit into the two trips that I had time to make. Among the items that I left for my property manager to deal with (topped with a foregiveness-seeking J note) were my excess towels. Two weeks later I found myself in Mongu, sweating and dirty and wishing that I had more towels.
If this blog post goes over like a thousand conversations that I have already had with North Americans, some readers have already visited the linen closet and started a used-towel collection. To those of you who have just returned after filling a reusable shopping bag with my name on it, thank you, but please return your towels to their place. Don’t worry, your intentions are good. And these good intentions are possibly a useful starting point to a conversation that I am trying to have with more people.
If you are with me, this issue of stuff is worth discussing. Furthermore, I propose 1) that the issue is really about the distribution of stuff and 2) that the way people understand the issue is closely tied to what they think should be done about it.
In the discussions that I have had with North Americans, the issue/solution is one of acquisition; specifically, that the people who are lacking items are not able to acquire them. Related to the participants with disabilities in my PhD research, North Americans guess correctly that the participants lack money to buy stuff. In talking to me, North Americans have proposed a wide variety of reasons/solutions for the lack of money. Despite the varied opinions related to money, there is general support for direct donations of stuff for people who are currently without.
The participants in my research spoke about this issue/solution in terms that at first seem similar to the North Americans, but I think are fundamentally different. The participants spoke of this as an issue of connectedness; as a problem that could be solved if they were connected to people who could help them by providing them with things – or money to buy things.
Through both of these perspectives, the problem is that some people are doing without and the solution is that those who have a lot can give to those who are lacking. Sounds similar, right? At that level of detail it does sound similar, but when I talk to North Americans about the perspectives of the participants, they are surprised to hear that the participants do not talk about this giving as voluntary; instead, it is a moral obligation of people who are rich & non-disabled to distribute their excess things (including money) to “those of us who are suffering.” When I talk to North Americans about this, they often reply that the research participants are demonstrating dependency or “learned helplessness,” and that an expectation to be given is “unsustainable.”
I would like to pause here a moment. Why? Because as a collaborative researcher, it is a fundamental principle for me to respect the perspective of the research participants and use this as a foundation for our collaboration. At the same time, I am a North American. Even though I try to detach myself from the North American perspectives that I highlighted above, these are the perspectives in which I have been raised. And actually, I should be more specific about the perspectives to which I refer. What I have referred to as “North American” might be more accurately identified as “middle class North American.”
I suspect that I will return to this similarity-difference in perspectives in future posts; at very least because it will probably be a part of my upcoming interaction with research participants.
In the meantime, I would like to talk more about towels.
I know, a discussion about towels seems to be odd and inconsequential, but I propose to you that this mundane anecdote can be useful to help us think through the distribution of stuff.
Common to the perspectives of “North Americans” and research participants with disabilities here in Western Zambia, is the idea that the problem is that some people are lacking stuff.
My situation with towels is a bit different: the frustration is not only that I am lacking here, but instead the juxtaposition of lack with excess. “Three weeks ago me” had too many towels; “today me” has too few. Accordingly, the problem has two faces, one of which is in Mongu, Zambia; the other of which was in Toronto, Canada.
In seeing the problem with two faces, the problem is inherently different; it is no longer just “in Africa,” or just with disabled people, or just with poor people. This framing incorporates the question “why is it that in Toronto I had so much crap that I did not know what to do with it?” I will call this framing of the problem inequality.
During my two months here, I will undoubtedly talk with the (now former) research participants about their lack of stuff and about their connectedness to people who can help them. The solutions we discuss will likely include considerations of acquisition, which might in-turn try to attract North Americans with good intentions.
If the discussions unfold the way that I think they will, discussions of inequality as a problem will not emerge frequently or spontaneously. With this foresight in mind, my question for myself and for you, my dear readers, is the following: when do we get to talk about inequality?