Many a Westerner have been shocked to witness South, South-East Asian hygiene and cleanliness standards for the first time. Children eating their dal bhat with bare dirty hands, food being served on every street corner, fish lying in scorching heat on a food stand in the local market, the toilet customs of the locals—lack of Western-style flushing toilets and toilet paper. Later on, many of us embraced the local ways of life and, rather surprisingly, found ourselves to be alive and healthy. Our first typical reaction is to fix, to apply our Western solutions, to better. But what if, instead, we should tread carefully, observe and maybe even learn? There’s a growing body of research that suggests this might be the case.
In my earlier post I wrote that our notion of development and linear progress should, perhaps, be applied more carefully in the “developing countries”. Eating one of my first street meals in—what seemed a rather dirty—Thai food stand in Bangkok I tried to silence the inner voice telling me that this is not such a great idea. And yet, nothing happened. It might have been the heaps of extra hot Thai chillies that saved me. Or, maybe, dirt and most bacteria are not that bad for us.
“In the UK, it is estimated that up to 50% of children are diagnosed with an allergic condition”. – British Allergy Foundation
Our Western obsession with cleanliness seems to be backfiring. Our understanding of our body as exclusively ours is fading too. Our bodies house 10x more bacteria than our own body cells. We tend to fence ourselves with hygiene chemicals that were introduced only in the past 100 years hoping to protect ourselves against some harmful bacteria that we had lived alongside for thousands of years. We prefer to smell like chemicals too. An odour of fresh sweat? Oh no, disgusting! In the end we end up covered with the stuff.
“We’re shedding tons and tons of cells, and you would’ve thought that would’ve been enough to eradicate a previous chemical signature. But like a tattoo, that signature doesn’t disappear very quickly”. – Jack Gilbert
Returning back to the roots might seem like the logical conclusion of what I’ve said earlier, but, I feel, it’s too romantic and simplistic a solution. There’s definitely a need for higher sanitary standards in Nepal. That’s why in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake we launched a sanitary education programme. However, there’s a balance to be struck. Pushing our imperfect and still rather poorly understood Western solutions in a country bubbling with ancient wisdom is something we should do thoughtfully and carefully.
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