Postcard from Flores: on food
Flores is one of my favorite places on earth – a small tropical island in Eastern Indonesia with cool weather, amazing mountains and scenery, fabulous beaches, abundant greenery with things to pick and eat everywhere! One never goes hungry in Flores – or so I thought. In Flores, my favorite activity is walking along narrow roads or mountain tracks and picking wild passion fruit to eat, wild vanilla to bring home, all kinds of berries to nibble on as I pass breath-taking scenery, and collect local sounds in my blackberry. On this particular trip, I was in Flores evaluating two area NGOs that have implemented a project to help rural people home-care for their children with disabilities. Keep in mind this is a very poor, isolated region. The villages we visited do not yet have electricity, or road access (we drive for hours, then walk when the passable road ends). Water must be collected in jerrycans by children every day, walking as long as 2 hours up and down slippery mountain paths! Houses have no permanent walls or floors, no bathing or toilet facilities, no furniture beyond a woven mat for sleeping or sitting. There are no health services, almost no literacy, and amazingly, no food! The NGO I was working with told me these people are malnourished and only eat cassava. Yet, when we scheduled our visit to these mountain communities, I requested people not buy any food at all to serve us. They had to serve only what they harvested from their own gardens. And did we eat well! Instead of white rice bought at great expense a several hour ride away in town shops, they made a delicious black rice, that served up dark purple when cooked. It is grown in fields, not paddies, with seeds handed down from generation to generation. They prepared some amazingly tasty vegetable and egg dishes with pumpkin, papaya leaves and flowers, a sambal made of chillies, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, and lemon, and a meat dish of a butchered pig, which I didn’t eat. Even though I am vegetarian, I usually request my host community prepare a meat dish anyway because it is rare they will eat meat if there is no special occasion. So with such fabulous food, why on earth are their children malnourished??! Why are so many children born here with disabilities?
Turns out most of the amazingly tasty and healthy food served to me, they grow to feed their pigs – not themselves or their children. Somehow, these supposedly isolated villages have been infected by a notion of ‘modern’ that demands they serve white rice (no fiber, not many vitamins, just carbs) at each meal with instant noodles – locally considered a ‘vegetable’. Babies are fed instant porridge, a processed food very high in sugar. Just add water – that may or may not be clean. Children grow up addicted to sugar, since exceptionally sweet foods are what they have been used to since they started solid foods (often within a few weeks of birth – what happened to breast is best for 6 months??). Moms tell me that their children demand – and get – packaged sweets daily, rather than a substantial meal, which they often refuse to eat. The evidence of the very broad consumption of these packaged ‘foods’ is seen everywhere where wrappers are tossed – in the ditches, and onto the ground where ever we may be meeting. Cassava will grow anywhere with little effort so that is what people mostly rely on to fend off hunger pains. While everyone has chickens, they told me that eggs cause asthma and that pregnant women and children should not eat them. Everyone has chickens and many raise pigs and cows, but they are only butchered for special occasions and ceremonies – never for more mundane purposes. Since maternal mortality is one of the highest in the region, women intentionally under eat in order to have a small baby – and increase their chances for survival. Malnutrition results in a very high rate of mental and physical disability. Since life is so hard anyway in the mountains, severely deformed children are left to die. I can actually understand why this would be so.
How can I, as a momentary visitor, help people to reevaluate these destructive practices? Since when has ‘modern’ been defined as nothing more than consumerism void of tradition, knowledge, or basic health and safety? But then, we know why and these same issues are repeatedly argued in these pages. As a result, I am painfully aware of my own status in these villages as honored guest and entertainer, and the pressure to always provide alternative examples through my actions. Hence the local food demands, the personal intimacy with communities, the time always taken to sit and talk with village elders and demonstrate to youth my own intense respect for their wisdom, their knowledge of the ‘foods’ found in the surrounding forests, the games and toys made for their grandchildren from found objects, and their natural protection of the fields, water sources, and forests as the home of the spirits they still venerate. It’s not much and it will likely have no lasting impact. But it is better than doing nothing and raising no concerns over how and why these destructive changes are happening.
See also the post by Lies Marcoes on poverty, women, Flores: http://ourindonesia.com/travel/cities/women-and-poverty-in-ende/