Running on Empty

Reflections on Hunger, here and in India, 29 May 2011

An Organic Farm and a Basti (slum)

A couple of weeks ago, Audrey and Linda facilitated a Prayer Bead workshop. Participants talked about prayer and what it means or doesn’t mean, and we had a chance to make a set of prayer beads like these and a felt bag to keep them in. How many of us would even have been interested ten or fifteen years ago? Yet there we were—more than 20 of us. It was a fun craft project. It was a social event. There was a delicious lunch, thanks to Audrey. But for many of us it was a moment in time to focus on a spiritual hunger. We have all we need in terms of food and material wealth. We have plenty of things to do and multiple ways to give of ourselves. Sometimes that’s the problem. We tend to give of ourselves until our Selves are depleted. We find ourselves running on empty.

Many of us are hungry for WHOLENESS.

 Perhaps all of us are hungry at one level or another.  “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” is a frequent mantra. Spiritual hunger might refer to an ill-defined empty feeling like something is missing, like life has no meaning. We can fill ourselves with work or mindless television or reading or shopping or eatin0g or love. We can spend more time in meditation or in nature or in relationship. There are plenty of negative and positive ways to fill a spiritual hunger.

My trips to Japan in 2003 and to India this year exposed me to different cultural expectations of spirituality, more than other countries I’ve visited. This morning I’ll take you on another journey to India. You won’t even need to spend 25 hours of travel to get from Austin to Chennai, a port city on the southeast coast of India, on the Bay of Bengal. The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Clearwater, FL, led a group to his home country: to “Sacred Places” in south India, and to Unitarian schools and churches in northeast India, and to Delhi and Agra in north India over a 3-week period.

I knew that India would be a land of contrast—such as wealth and poverty, beauty and squalor, temples and slums. I knew I would be entering another culture and that it would be wise for me to let go of expectations and let go of quick judgments. Abhi’s objective was “to provide [us] with an in-depth experience of life in India, especially in smaller towns.” Our spirits were filled by what we experienced. We became pilgrims in an immersion experience.

Our bodies were filled with delicious Indian food—

  • idly with chutney or sambar,
  • dal with vegetables,
  • shahi paneer, and
  • plenty of steamed rice or parathi or naan.

Hindus eat meat but not beef; Muslims and Christians eat beef.

One guy joked that with his luck he would come back in his next lifetime as a cow in a Muslim neighborhood!

 Two particular destinations in India were related to food.

One of them was in Abhi’s hometown of Rajahmundry (a “small town” of 800,000). We took an overnight train (an adventure in itself). The train stopped for about 5 minutes so we were all lined up in the aisles ready to toss luggage out to his family and friends. We were AMAZED to see how much luggage they could carry!

 Luggage

 

We visited Abhi’s cousin Krishna’s organic farm right on the Godavari River in the city of Rajahmundry. The Godavari is one of the longest rivers in India, about 900 miles. It flows all the way from Mumbai in western India through this southern area and on to the Bay of Bengal, so it collects water across many miles. The widest portion goes through Rajahmundry—a little over 3 miles to the other side.

The farm sits on a bank 30 feet above the river. We could see islands where fishermen lived and worked, but in the rainy season those islands will be submerged. In fact, last August the river rose 50 feet and the farm was flooded by 20 feet of water. Krishna and crew had had to move the cattle, water buffalo, turkeys, chickens, guinea fowl, dogs, and people to higher ground. Crops sustained quite a bit of damage—the sugar cane, mangos, bananas, cashews, coconuts, and rice.

Krishna showed us how sugar cane is laid on the ground lengthwise and grows new sprouts from those canes. Sugar cane has an 11-month growing season. Rice is planted between the rows and is harvested twice a year, after a 4-month growing season.

Here’s a picture of a 3-week old calf that was untethered and frolicked around until he caught his mother’s attention. She left the herd and came running over to greet her youngster until the cowherd managed to bring her back.

One of the workers climbed a palm tree in his bare feet with only a rubber belt for safety and a machete to cut down bunches of coconuts for us to enjoy.

 Ready to Climb

 

 

This variety of coconut is full of water, not milk! The farmworker expertly chopped off each top, inserted a long straws inserted, and we enjoyed a delightfully refreshing drink. Coconut water is clear, without a strong flavor, but it’s very good.  We also ate some of the coconut meat and sweets made with cashews, dates, and mangos. A farm is an excellent place to see a direct link from the earth to our bodies.

 

 The Revs. Abhi Janamanchi and Justin Osterman

We recognized some common farming issues: farmers markets, organic produce and meats, and healthy recipes. There are challenges in farming and distributing nutritious foods, especially locally grown organic foods, and especially when weather or flooding is not under the farmers’ control. There is also a very spiritual connection between food and personal values.

On Friday, the Rev. Eliza Galaher, minister of Wildflower Church in south Austin, encouraged her congregation to fast all day, when they had a worship service at 6pm then broke the fast with simple vegan soup and bread. There is a strong link between spirituality and food—choosing where to eat and with whom, selecting ingredients or menu items, preparing and savoring food. Body, mind, and spirit can best be nourished when we tune in to what we truly crave.

Taking into consideration great advances in agriculture, technically there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. The population has grown by 70%, but world agriculture now produces 17% more calories per person than it did 30 years ago. Poverty is the main culprit—no land to grow food and not enough income to purchase enough food. People in developing countries live on $1.25 per person per day or less—the cost of one song on iTunes. The reasons for poverty are vast and complex.

Statistics on world hunger are estimates based on income per capita vs. the cost of food in various parts of the world. It’s not an exact science. About 14% of world population is hungry, approximately 925 million people.

In medical terms, hunger means malnutrition. The first and most important is protein-energy malnutrition. Protein-energy is a combination of adequate protein plus enough calories from all the basic food groups. The second type is micronutrient deficiency. Micronutrients are not even considered with respect to world hunger. A new and growing concern is the over-abundance of poor food choices that can lead to obesity as well as malnutrition.

But why should anyone be hungry or malnourished? Why are people poor? In brief, economic policy, corruption, lack of education, hunger itself, which leads to lack of energy, depression and disease, climate change, and war. Nearly all of the undernourished are in developing countries.

You might say they are running on empty—simply not enough nutrition for optimal health.

Another amazing place we went was about an hour’s drive outside Delhi. It was a slum, or basti, one of about 70 in the area. You won’t find this described in The Lonely Planet guide for tourists. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about trash. Streets are pretty clean in Delhi as big cities go, but not all the trash is carried away in large trucks.

 WELCOME

 Shashi Dhushan Pandit, a local activist, escorted us to Pua, an hour’s bus ride from Delhi. At the site, someone had written in chalk, in English as well as Hindi, “WELLCOME.” Several tarps had been carefully laid out in a clearing, upon which a ring of matching chairs awaited our arrival.

Some of the trash is loaded into a burlap bag on a bicycle cart, hauled to the basti and dumped out for the people to pick through and sort. It’s not always food they’re after, though a piece of fruit might be a bonus. They’re looking for recyclables like plastic, cardboard, clothing, fabric and metal. There is an order here—plastics, cardboard, metal in separate piles. They are not beggars or thieves—they are simply trying to eke out a living on the margins of society.

Basti and Cart

 

 Not only do people pick up trash, they also live in the dumps out on the fringes of Delhi. Stray dogs, cows, and countless flies live there as well. There were so many flies that after some time waving them away, I kind of got used to them. At any rate, I was absorbed in listening to our host.

Shashi spoke to us with passion. When he was growing up he saw that loans of 100 rupees would be charged 10 rupees per day in interest. Temples would acquire land needed by peasants. He became a well-educated activist at a very basic, grassroots level.

We didn’t need to understand Hindi to be able to get the gist of what he said: privatization is taking away their livelihood. Big recycling companies are getting the contracts. Shashi is adamant that they will not give up until their needs are addressed. Like with Austin Interfaith and other community organizing groups in the U.S., they learn how to stand up for their rights as human beings—how to use democracy effectively. They learn about the nature and advantages of unions. One difficulty in forming a union is that the workers have to name their employer. Yet who employs them? Everyone and no one!

Manoj is one of the waste pickers and an activist. His wife Vivha decided to start a school with no training other than a high school education. She teaches and Manoj assists when he has time. Classes are normally held outside for about 70 children, but it had rained the night before and the ground was muddy. Instead of an open-air school, they used a small one-room building and only about 30 kids could fit inside the classroom.

Door to Classroom

Notice in the background that a new 5-star hotel is going up next to this waste operation. The people we met are already looking for another place to live and work. Slums don’t mingle well with tourist and business travel.

 Vivha

 With very few teaching materials, Vivha teaches reading, writing, and numbers in Hindi and English (at least), about days, weeks, seasons—all the basics.

 Children in Classroom

There was a wide age range, from toddlers to about 12 years old. Vivha called on students who stood to recite their lessons. She would love to offer a midday meal to the children not just for the nutrition, but also as an incentive for the children to come and for the parents to send them. Basic immunizations and check-ups are a distant dream.

 Children

 

Young Men

We had been greeted by a half dozen young men who protected us from any harassment or problem. Since it rained the night before our visit, the ground was muddy and slippery. Some of the guys offered a hand to help us through the mud because it had rained the night before.

Father and Daughter with Friend

I was struck by the generous spirit of its residents. The kids were neat and clean, they offered us tea; they removed their shoes before going into their huts. The problems of hunger and malnutrition may be worse in India than here, from the sheer numbers of people and the policies against agribusiness with its pros and cons. Not many outsiders take an interest in this work so it was an uncommon opportunity for them to tell us their story.

The Indian government has special economic zones that are referred to by the workers as “exploitation zones.” These are areas in which the state acquires land cheaply (often from peasant farmers) and resells it cheaply to industry. The construction of a nearby temple that was paid for with mostly non-Indian money displaced 20 thousand people.

ID cards in red and green are prepared for the workers. Red represents labor and green represents the environment. A familiar recycling symbol appears on the back. ID cards are a step in establishing documentation as Indian citizens who might not have a birth certificate or a permanent address. After all, if you’re not born in a hospital, you won’t necessarily have a birth certificate. A significant number of the waste pickers are from poor areas of Bihar and West Bengal.

Seeing Us Off

Recycling tons of waste saves the Indian government millions of rupees annually, but the waste pickers get pushed further outside the city. Some of us wondered about the birth rate, but we were reminded to consider the death rate as well—infant mortality is high, and life expectancy is low. With no health care or adequate nutrition mere survival is difficult at best.

Place to Debrief

It was a privilege to visit and witness the very private struggles and living conditions of some hard-working people. We’re still thinking about our part in this system of exploitation and marginalization. We donated some cash that will be used to repair the roof of the classroom , provide immunizations, and assist with slates, chalk, and other educational materials for the children. It may be only a Band-Aid in a system of checks and imbalances but it will make a difference for these children.

The activism described here has a UU connection. The Holdeen India Fund was established by a real estate mogul who left millions of dollars in trust funds to the UUA. He was not a Unitarian Universalist and he had never been to India, but he wanted a tax shelter. Twenty five million dollars was put into an endowment, the interest of which is dedicated to grassroots activism like this. Holdeen leaders look for people like Shashi and work out a plan that might include funding, training, and finding partners to achieve a set of goals.

Although the caste system was taken out of the Indian Constitution and is no longer official policy, the people we met briefly that day are still treated as outcasts. They often come to the city from poor, small villages and encounter culture shock. People at home are more likely to look after each other, while the city is so anonymous. No one knows or cares about each other the way they do in villages. They don’t have time for each other, any more than we do in the U.S.

The waste pickers, though, have strength in numbers and have actually fought successfully against for-profit corporations. They are working for survival, not so much for profit. Sometimes authorities side with the people, the ones who clean up after everyone else, the ones who clean up after us.

I was both physically and spiritually fed by my journey to India. I found that I need is to tend to my spirit daily—as much time as I spend nourishing my body! Perhaps you do, too. We have various ways to fill our spirits—time alone or time volunteering; time with nature or in prayer.

Sam Keen, who wrote Hymns to an Unknown God, believes that, “The spiritual craving of our time is triggered by the perennial human need to connect with something that transcends the fragile self, to surrender to something larger and more lasting than our brief moment in history (p. xviii).”

It seems that physical hunger is closely linked to spiritual hunger. To serve meals at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless or to collect food for Hill Country Community Ministries is a small step toward feeding both hungers. Fasting for a day or longer is another way to bridge that gap slightly.

Feeding my body happens almost without thinking about it. Feeding my spirit daily is also vitally important. I wouldn’t do without it. There are probably as many ways to fill our spiritual hunger as there are people in the room.

Running on empty won’t get you very far in life. Feed your spirit so that you have something to give to a hungry world.

Amen, Shanti, and Namasté