Soup Kitchen Essays - Summer Hiatus Blog

Normally one announces a summer hiatus at the beginning of summer, rather than in retrospect.  It was not really my intention to post less frequently, as my passion for the added value (environmental, social, and economical) of reuse, repair and recycling does not fade.  But I suppose I've had a growing awareness that a book on a hero cannot last forever, and my hero - the prototypical Geek of Color - would not ultimately be served in a soup-kitchen of essays.

I've still been writing, but the "draft" folder is burgeoning as I try to reflect more and more on what I'm writing which itself adds value, which is itself new, which is evolutionary.

The "e-waste" recycling industry is constantly evolving.  When I started my business, after leaving the regulatory field 15 years ago, the USA was "The Saudi Arabia of Reuse". Americans had evolved to a period where the US Department of Labor forecasts for TV and electronics repair jobs showed an unprecedented shrinkage.   Employment estimates of TV repairpeople were 100,000 in 1990, and they had fallen to 20,000.

So too, my blogging must evolve.  (listen to cover of Steve Earle's "Hillbilly Highway" below).

By 2010, the same drop in repair jobs had hit Malaysia and Singapore.  They are now major suppliers of reuse grade electronics, as well as cheaper new electronics, to "good enough markets" in places I used to sell to.  My CRT TV buyer in Peru was buying a mix of new flat screens, and used CRTs, in the same containerloads from China, which was in its own heat of display upgrade.  Her brother had stopped repairing and was running a restaurant (on repair alley).  We talked about how to renew our trade, but she said the demand in Lima was changing so fast that by the time we agreed on a new purchase order, she'd be afraid to be stuck with the merchandise.

BAN's Executive Director boldly declared, several times, that "Africa wants new goods, not old goods."  And that's really what this blog has to be about.  It can't forever be about SKD markets and copy machine reuse.  It's about the #hashtag culture of certain NGOs who, like Jim and all his employees at E-Stewards, have never lived in the countries they describe.  Jim is doing what Hollywood did to the Ozarks - they found a creepy attraction to poverty and marketed it to millions.

Jim is not the expert in what Africa wants or needs.

The road from Burkina Faso and Mole and Tamale is a West Africa "hillbilly highway".

The Hillbilly Highway became a two-way street.  The roads from Taney County Arkansas to St. Louis and Chicago and California became a reverse-trip for city tourists, fascinated with the roots of poverty, who made Branson the number one tourist destination in America for a few years.  In between, the Hillbilly Highway was the route of "externalization" of Chicago's "auto waste", as city dwellers too affluent to want to repair a Model T sold them to people, like my Grandfather's brother Charlie Fisher, to bring back home.

Externalization isn't about waste, it's about opportunity, and humans pursuing the best opportunity they can find, either by immigrating or importing good enough product.  The highway of "hillbillies" and used goods and mined material (oh, I didn't tell you about Lead Hill or the Leaded ore mines of the Ozarks, have I?) were for cargo as well as people.


There is a thread of resentment from my generation of midlife "white saviors" for a new generation which wants to share its conscientiousness with a cell phone App.  As nightly comedians (Trevor Noah, e.g.) are starting to hone in on, it's simply too easy to be "hashtag outraged" at #Kony.

The sympathy is real, the outrage over child soldiers is real.  But there is a Hollywood 2.0 going on.  Leonardo de Caprio's movie about "Blood Diamonds" tried to solve a genuine problem with a million dollar Hollywood  portrayal of "poor Africa".  And it sold to people who can only see that part of Africa:

A)  Because they have never lived in Africa, and "Third World" is the only thing selling images
B)  Because most of the real problems about "Third World" are boring and don't have #solutions

Sean Penn's Africa movie was even more clueless, but here's what is interesting.  He at least captures a lot of real people of my generation of "world savers".  He depicts people making mining deals, and people serving the poor charitably (with honorable African colleagues who are a bit more developed than "Man Friday 2.0")

And here is the really hard part of blogging... to tell a real story about what my friends living and improving and surviving and enjoying life in the "developing world" are really like, what they really do, how they are really improving the place, while making many of the same mistakes every other industrialized nation did.

Basel Action Network and E-Stewards are marketing a 1970s-1980s version of China and Africa which still exists, but has become the equivalent of Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Hee-Haw Ozarks and Appalachia (which I know a good deal about).

People in the USA were aware of the Ozarks because of a comic strip depiction of lazy, barefoot redneck boozers served up by L'il Abner and Snuffy Smith.  There were some sympathetic characters, and in many programs Jed Clampet came across as wise (if a bit of childlike or accidental wisdom in some episodes, there was something in Buddy Ebson's character to celebrate pride in).

What was sold about the Ozarks, via Branson signboards, was a homespun comedy about America's Third World.   Shepherd of the Hills and Silver Dollar City were about preserving the image of 1900s Ozark hero-poverty which served both as history and as poverty porn for USA city gawkers.

What I have to say and write about needs to be less about the alarm of accidental racism, smugness and collateral damage by certain ENGOs, and more about the discovery of what it going on and documenting wherever I have a genuine new insight.

Next up (if no new distractions come) is the "Hillbilly Highway", which I've been studying, both through photos at my parents house, and 1960-80s history books, and online.

Agbogbloshie in Ghana is the end of the highway for Africa's "hillbillies", the hard working, laboring poor from the north.  Dagbani, Hausa, and Burkinabe, and many more, who arrive in the bright lights and big city of Lagos or Accra with naught but a suitcase, like the dust bowl refugees in California's central valley.

If I can somehow connect the roots of many Californians, Okies and Arkies and Missouri refugees of the Great Depression, with the scrappers in Guiyu and Agbogbloshie, I might actually have found something which, unlike cell phone repair jobs or semiknockdown CRT factories, or repair jobs, which actually survives and adds value a few decades from now.

My great uncle, Elmo Ingenthron, was a writer who told what was actually going on in the Ozarks.  He did a darn good job documenting the history, the antithesis of Hollywood's Hillbillies.  But his books sold more than they would because L'il Abner and Snuffy Smith and Hollywood and Branson had made people in Cities aware of them.  My great uncle, Jerry Hensley, once told me that for all the complaining our folk in the Ozarks did about dams and flooding and tourism, they sure made a lot more of a living off it than they were making before.

And that's an insight that maybe I can bring, which is maybe going to last longer than "ewaste reform" as a cause.  We have to bring a kind of Buddhist humility to our work with the rapidly emerging markets.

My vision for "aid" in Africa is not to sell it as a Branson, though a "Gold Dollar City" in Tamale might be a good way to preserve some culture and history.   My vision is to document where my generation screwed up.  The only people who DID learn from living overseas (unlike Senor Puckett) came back and either got jobs as development workers, or used their experience to hook up with chicks and seem more exotic and more conscientious than business school grads.  We basked in the exoticism, and I caught myself doing it in Egypt, in Peru, in China, and in Ghana, always seeking to snap the shot of the poorest thing in sight.  Like European tour buses going through Harlem, it's not a bad thing,  but it does not substitute for cross culture.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism needs to be translated to the Savior Class.  #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou hashtag is real, but needs to be explored from the roots up to the flower.  We need to understand how caring, and being agents of conscience in our youth, is not naive, and not a weakness, and can lead to happiness.  But my generation started out of the gate by telling ourselves that as Peace Corps Volunteers or Oxfam interns, that our experience was more holy and more valuable than driving a truck or being a cook or studing marketing in business school.  We rubbed the musk of poverty all over ourselves, burned its incense, and are now outraged that a new generation is getting the same smug rush by retweeting an outrage tag.

That's not as brief as I want this post to be, but my 25 minutes are up.  This is where I've been.  I haven't stopped fighting for Fair Trade Recycling, I haven't stopped believing, but I'm studying the garden, I'm learning about the plants, rather than just photographing them.

No comments: