The National Geographic owns a very evocative photograph from 1931 by Melville Chater. He documented Basuto women picking apples in the Prairie province of South Africa.
The women are arranged in pairs, one at the top and one at the base of a ladder. It’s a production line of barefooted women in shawls and wide hemmed skirts picking and packing apples. The apples are collected in wooden boxes. The boxes are filled by the top-rung women reaching, picking and bending from the top of the ladder, the filling made easier and less bruising (for the apples) by the cruel efficiency of having the the boxes balanced on the heads of those women at the base. My eyes battled with my brain for comprehension. I’ve seen woman carrying hods of bricks on their heads. It even happened on an extension to an office I authorised in Burma in 1992. No more than ten bricks at a time was agreed after I expressed disquiet. I had asked the contractor for none to be carried like this, then we got to eight but in the end, ten seemed better than the dozen or more I had seen. Listen, I tried but the labour of women in this role was so much a part of the culture that I had to be satisfied that at least the women were being allowed to work. Yes, exploitation is in the eye of the beholder, always easier to see in hindsight.
The National Geographic summary of such photos from a chapter in Through The Lens from 2003 was“Life‘s work for most Africans means hard physical labour, such as the drudgery captured by Melville Chater in his 1931 images of black South Africans toiling in orchards and mines owned by their white countrymen.”
There was a news item on RTE TV recently about a week’s supply of soft fruit arriving by ship into the port village of Ringsaskiddy. All the way from Costa Rica. I’m not sure if bananas and mangoes qualify as essential imports but I do know they are vital exports to an agricultural economy like that in Costa Rica and many more besides. The economics of global supply chains have chained us together.
Ireland continued to export during the potato blight of the 1840s. Our Encyclopaedia Britannica in the kitchen estimates that by 1849 maybe a million had died and maybe two million had to emigrate. Which meant the Irish famine was Europe’s worst in a century. Consequently there were lots of navvies eager to help build the global communications infrastructure needed to run the exploitative competing empires of rival European royal families. What will happen in 2020 and beyond in countries on whose produce and products we depend? For produce and labour, feel free to substitute people and poverty. And remember, it gets much worse for them if we stop buying. Look what happened when the exploiters ran out of resources and the colonies thought they were rejecting colonialism. Transmuting colonialism to self-determination was as challenging as turning lead to gold. Most former colonies are not independent of dependency.
Which is why our governments must commit to borrowing and spending vast sums now. On us. For them. And us. And them.
Watersheds are rare. We know it was wrong to make Basuto women into human conveyor belts. At least, I think that’s how we react to the Chater photo; I think we see a degradation too far. And we probably feel the same way about Bangladesh sweatshops. Brazilian gold mining. Guatemalan coffee picking slavery. Child soldiers. To name just a few modern horrors that show nothing has changed, just relocated. UHNCR shows there are more than 70 million refugees as I type. How cruel is that; a web page recording refugees titled “at a glance”?
Nonetheless, this isn’t the time to fix all these wrongs. For once, the more challenged economies need us to keep them feeding and clothing us. The obligation is on us to do everything we can to help them. Billions and billions of people. I don’t mean to be condescending nor evangelical about this, I just want people to wake up to what the word pandemic actually means for other people.