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Chickens Leaving Me with Questions about More than Chickens

Some years ago we lived in Mwanza, Tanzania.  It is a pleasant city: tropical, yet not humid, mostly clear skies, and on the shore of a beautiful lake.  The built-up “downtown” of shops was small (relative to the population of 1.5 million people) and while we did shop in the local markets on many occasions, we also frequented one store in particular.  This store usually stocked imported items from Nairobi or elsewhere in Kenya.  Most often we could find everything we needed, plus some oddities.  That’s where the chickens come into the story.  

One day as I walked the narrow aisles, I saw something that caught my eye.  It was a frozen chicken.  There was usually frozen fish, beef, and mutton for sale.  But a frozen chicken?  That was strange.  Curious, I slid back the glass lid and pulled one out.  The bird was not especially large, nor were any of the others.  The plastic wrapping, crimped at the top with a wire staple, was beat up from shipping.  I read the label closer - Producto do Brasil.  My first thought was, “that’s come a long way”.  And my second thought was, “that’s too far.  What’s a frozen chicken from Brazil doing in Tanzania?”  I paused my shopping in astonishment.  As I stood there, I looked outside the entrance to the street and saw some long-lost cousins of this very Gallus gallus, scratching through the grass and dirt on the other side of the road.  “We have chickens right here in Mwanza”, I thought.  “Why would I want a frozen one from Brazil?”

These questions at the end of my thoughts were on both the workers and their wages

I put the bird back and finished shopping.  As I made my way home, my head was full of questions reaching further and further away from Mwanza.  I asked myself, how were they able to do that?  How were they able to raise, slaughter, pack, freeze, ship, ship again, move by rail or lorry and get this chicken (still frozen!) into this one shop in this one town in this one part of Tanzania?  It seemed to me that the efficient gears of mass production and transportation were at work and had ruled in favor of the profit margin.  So what was ruled against?  In the end, there were two questions standing out among the others.  Who was not paid what in Brazil and under what conditions were these birds raised to make it affordable to ship a chicken from the other side of the world and sell it at a profit in East Africa?  

These questions at the end of my thoughts were on both the workers and their wages, as well as the birds and the facilities where they were raised.  It is true that I don’t know anything about the wage history for the employees or the growing conditions.  I don’t; I can only surmise, and when I do I don’t see justice or earthkeeping as part of the story.  Still, I don’t have to look too far to see other examples of the same thing every day.  Our stores in Europe are full of long-distance travellers: mandarins from Greece, oranges from Spain, and of course bananas from many parts of the world.  This is similar to North America. 

How do we make good choices that follow a path of justice?

As a culture we’re in the habit of consuming more than just the fruit because the possibility of eating anything from anywhere at any time of year leaves a pummeled earth in the wake of consumption.  Consumption of fossil fuels to move our container ships, planes, and vehicles carrying these goods.  Plus the consumption of farmland dedicated to growing specialized export products (or unspecialized items, as I found) instead of food for local households and communities.  But how do we change this system?  How do we make good choices that follow a path of justice and earthkeeping when we simply buy food?  My thinking tells me that seasonal and local are two ways forward.  But these are not a universal solution guiding every choice people have to make.  Plus, just because it’s local or seasonal doesn’t imply justice and good earthkeeping.  There’s still a lot we need to know about our food.  But my thinking is that changing our pattern of consumption in these ways is a real viable action we can take to have a lighter tread on God’s green planet and that’s a good start.

Photo by Hana Oliver on Unsplash


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