Monday, February 14, 2011


A few months ago, I received an offensive fundraising letter from an organization that I had sent money to on occasion. All non-profit groups must walk a fine line when portraying the needs of poverty-stricken people to their supporters. Sometimes, organizations err on the side of cultural manipulation, knowing that what disgusts or unsettles their target group will serve to loosen purse strings. Besides being unethical, it is a dangerous tactic, one that perpetuates inaccuracies and widening the divide (real or perceived) between people of different cultures.

The letter I received fit this description to a T. I'll paraphrase, because I'd rather not name names. It started out with this question in big, bold letters.

“Would you feed your child termites?”

The letter went on to illustrate the sad plight of children in an African nation, whose mothers feed them roasted termites and millet bread to “keep them from starving.” Readers are encouraged to give financial support so that no one will have to eat bugs. Because eating bugs is horrific, right? Terrible. Disgusting. Appalling.

Now, I'm not questioning that this people group needed food assistance; starvation is a very real tragedy all over the world.

However, what's being expressed here is an appeal to disgust, not true need. If you're talking to the average American suburban housemom, yes, feeding bugs to your children would be frowned upon. (Even though the nutritional value of bugs probably far outweighs the junk food currently residing in their lunch box.) But cultural context and nutritional data ought to trump disgust. In some parts of South America, making your kids eat guacamole is tantamount to offering them vomit: avocados are served as fruit, usually with milk and sugar. The thought of mixing salt, lime juice and garlic or onions into a favorite breakfast fruit brings a look of nausea to many faces! But it doesn't negate the fact that sweet or sour, avocado is a nutritional food. And it's also worth noting that “Would you feed your child a COW?” is a repelling Hindus. So culture and context really IS everything.

Roasted termites are said to taste like Brazil nuts. They are high in fat and calories: a dry 100g of adult winged African termites (females) produced 761 kcalories. In fact, while not termites, Bible readers will remember that John the Baptist was reported to subsist on honey and locusts while in the desert. I don't claim to know the food preferences of these African mothers and children, but I'm willing to hazard a guess that termites may not be considered the lowest thing on the food chain.

Maybe I'm overreacting, but I stopped supporting this organization after that letter. I hate being manipulated, plied with half-facts and encouraged to succumb to sensationalism. Every time I'm confronted with spin, my hackles go up and I want to attack, with guns blazing, the stupidity and blindness that are being perpetuated. Like the ridiculous video we were sent last night, a fear-mongering spiel using "statistics" to prove that "THE MUSLIMS" were going to populate the world with their 8.1 child-per-family ratio. And we needed to "take action!"**

I'm still not sure if they were advocating mass murder or just a lot more unprotected sex. Respectfully hoping for the latter...

**This video has enough fodder for a new blog post, but I don't know if I have the energy to watch it again and comment. They didn't even have the decency to do their math properly...being someone barely able to do simple addition in my head, I still caught the mistakes! And I should perhaps clarify that I'm not in favor of irresponsible procreation, as per my last sentence. :) It's just so much, much preferable to murder.


anne said...

well, yes, the frolicking for the sake of frolicking is quite the thing, and much less stressful (I hear) than the Doing It To Make A Baby...
I recall us chatting about these termite folk and the non-tactics of judging the cultural differences as a way to raise money....
they should perhaps be raising money to improve infrastructure. That way, when the Walmart goes in down the road, they'll be able to get there to buy poptarts!

Ellen said...

In Uganda people often eat ants- dried ants for lunch. Very nutritious. I tried them, they don't really taste like anything, it just has the texture of popcorn kernels, you know, the little bits that get all stuck between your teeth and gums.

In Thailand, people ate bugs, too. But I can't remember what kinds.

Also- here in the United States I remember there was a boy who ate grasshoppers instead of sitting for a lunch of soggy pizza in the cafeteria.
And, you might recall a certain boy in our youth group that brought mealworms as a snack and offered to share them with others, if we wanted. I declined.
But even in the United States, people eat bugs for food.

I didn't see your letter, but I must agree, it didn't sound very culturally sensitive.

Pull Up A Chair said...

mmmmm...termites. Very nicely written. Articulate and compelling.

Thank you.


Ali la Loca said...

Amen to this. I am disgusted by the manipulative letters, messages and images so many NGOs send out in an attempt to garner up support. I am especially sensitive to the poor, starving African variety of these letters so what you describe would have gotten me on the soapbox as well.