x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Living on Dh5 a day helped me realise quite how fortunate I am

Trying to live “below the line” of poverty can teach how to appreciate what we have and sympathise with the poor, writes Deborah Williams.

Before I had children, I scoffed at parents whose children were picky eaters. I watched with disdain as parents fluttered around catering to their children’s rejection of all green vegetables or anything with tomatoes. I swore to myself that my children would be happily omnivorous.

You know what happened, right?

Yes. That was me, when my son was a toddler, lugging the toddler and a suitcase laden not only with clothes but also cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup on our flight from New York to London. Chicken noodle soup was one of the few foods that my son would reliably eat, and I feared that in the wilderness of London I might not be able to find that exact same brand. Time has only marginally improved things: I cringe as my children order at restaurants: no sauce, no veg, no this, no that, and please couldn’t we just have chicken nuggets?

My children are picky eaters, proving yet again that being a parent means living on a steady diet of humble pie garnished with a sauce of eat-your-words. Was there a magic moment that I missed when the boys were younger, when I could have taught them to love all sorts of foods, so that I could be the parent who talks about her daughter’s love for truffled cow tongue, or her son’s passion for pickled trout pâte? Did I give in too easily to the whining? Should I have suffered through even more dinner-table battles over the ingestion of three or four peas?

True, some people, due to allergies or other health problems, are picky eaters by necessity, but I think my picky eaters have been created at least in part by surfeit: while it’s wonderful that we can choose from gazillions of different types of breakfast cereal, for example, doesn’t that array also suggest that we should be able to have exactly what we want, exactly when we want, with no need for compromise or deferral?

Thinking about my picky eaters, I found an unexpected resource in Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s recent column in The National about a fund-raising effort called “Live Below the Line.” To live “below the line” means feeding yourself on $1.50 (Dh5.5) per day, the amount that the World Bank uses to define “extreme poverty”. The Live Below project aims to increase awareness and activism on behalf of the billions of people who subsist on pennies a day. Instead of pity, the organisation advocates that those of us with groaning larders and relatively healthy bank accounts do more for those eking out an existence on the fringes of society.

I have donated to the “Live Below” project but it has also become a teaching tool for my children, to show them the privilege that surrounds them – and that they mostly don’t see. Off we went to the Abu Dhabi Coop, where each child was given the princely sum of Dh5 and told to make his menu for an entire day. One child amortised his allotment over a few days and did a bit of “bulk buying”: a bag of oatmeal and a small loaf of brown bread, plus the peanut butter and jelly that we already had at home.

My other son arrived at a menu composed almost exclusively of white food: an individual box of “Frosties” cereal, a roll, and a small baguette. He decided that eggs would be his source of protein, given that he doesn’t like peanut butter and his budget precluded meat. He gazed at the packages of chicken and ground beef and said, mournfully, “I’m going to starve”.

His hyperbole struck me. I wondered suddenly if pretending to be poor for a day or two is similar to touring the favelas in Rio. Had our beyond-frugal budgets turned poverty into a spectacle, a performance, rather than an active engagement with the issues? I don’t know, but I think that my children began to see what it means to be able to choose chicken rather than beans. Afternoon snacks are luxuries not necessities.

The real pain of “living below”, however, came when they realised a school bake sale was being held on their Dh5 menu day. The bake sale (fund-raising for a different organisation) would cost Dh10 each. There was a long silence as they calibrated what it meant not to have money to buy a doughnut.

“We’re lucky,” said my younger son. And if he understands that, then I will make my peace with the fact that he still avoids peas like they’re poison.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi