No, I didn’t experience the Dust Bowl. I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression, although I was raised by parents who lived through them. The media is having a heyday with our stores having empty shelves depicted with this bone-chilling image. Check out this recent story in the Washington Post. Social media is adding to the hype. One would think the world is coming to an end here in the U.S. Whether it be snowstorms, floods, employee shortages, supply chain issues, COVID, or whatever is contributing to the empty shelves, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel the panic.
Even though I didn’t experience the food shortages of the Great Depression, I did live in Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1971 for two years. In my small village of 1000 people, I had no running water, no electricity, and no store in which to buy fresh food. The village of Zorgowee did have a Lebanese store, Sami’s store, that sold nonperishable items.
An excerpt from my memoir, In Search of Pink Flamingos, Part III, Chapter – Sami, My Rock:
...Sami’s store, only the size of a small two-car garage with double outward swinging doors, was much smaller than the ones I remembered in Monrovia. Without electricity or windows, even at high noon on a sunny day, its interior remained dark and dank. He scanned the shelves with his torch [flashlight] to show me his stock of nonperishable items: African fabric by the yard, sewing thread, razor blades, batteries, rubbing alcohol, soda, beer, canned goods, including fifty-five-gallon barrels of kerosene and gasoline sold by the bottle or gallon. He also sold sugar, flour, salt, and rice. Sami was the only person in the village to have a generator to produce electricity, and he turned it on a couple hours a day to chill his fridge to sell cold Coca Cola, Fanta, and Liberian Club Beer. The villagers relied heavily on Sami’s store for these items….He was admired and respected by the entire village. (In addition to the excerpt, there was only ONE choice of each item.)
The sporadic outdoor market in Zorgowee sold greens, bananas, ground pea (peanuts), dried salted fish called boney, and a few other odds and ends. Locals displayed these items on a piece of fabric lying on the ground. That was the extent of my shopping choices. After a couple of years I became adjusted to my limited supply. It was when I returned to the U.S. two years later, on a layover before my next Peace Corps assignment in Tonga, that I experienced the unexpected described below.
An excerpt from Part VIII, Chapter, Power of Shame:
…on a shopping run to Kanton [Nebraska], I momentarily froze staring at the grocery shelves: five brands of catsup and mustard; eight varieties and textures of toilet paper; soap in every shape, color, and smell one desired; packaged bread products of every kind: muffins, buns, sliced, brown or white. Though the Peace Corps warned us of reverse culture shock upon reentry to the U.S., I was surprised by my disgust at Western abundance and America’s obsession with choice. Did we really need five or eight varieties of anything? With relief, I’d be leaving for Tonga in a few weeks.
Somehow, we in the Western world forgot that we live in the Land of Plenty. If our grocery store is out of Heinz Ketchup, there are always six other brands to choose from. Maybe the scented, extra soft toilet paper is out of stock, but we still have the unscented store brand to choose from. God forbid it we run out of paper towels. Has anyone ever heard of a cloth towel? Most of us have never experienced hunger or having to do without. Most of us reading this don’t have the Dollar Store as our nearest and main food store. Just think about that for a long minute.
WHO has recently reported that 2.3 billion people (30% or our world’s population lack year-round access to adequate food). No, we’re not talking about the techie device they were out of during the holidays. We are talking FOOD. My Lebanese surrogate family outside Beirut, Sami’s family who has adopted me as their own, told me they pay $80 for a carton of eggs, when they have them. Here in the U.S. we have no clue about scarcity. If ever we are unlucky to experience it, maybe we will learn.
I don’t want to preach or sound like I’m a 100 years old and lived through the Depression, but most of us reading this do have enough of everything…everything we really need. I’m not holier than thou, but Liberia helped me to realize that I can live very well with less. Take a deep breath and look at the silver lining. Maybe we don’t need the top-of-the-line of any one thing. Just having what we need will be good enough. Then maybe we would have no shortages. No need for a larger pantry.
Let’s try living without paper towels for a week.
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