Billboards and food security


It might be the closet sociologist in me, but I have always enjoyed billboards.  I figure that you can learn a lot about a society’s values by what people post on billboards.  I still remember Coca Cola billboards from thirty years back with only a logo and four words, “It’s the real thing”.  More recently, the City Bank billboard in Dhaka “Money never starts an idea.  It is always the idea with starts the money”.  Or the Airtel India ad “Go wherever.  Do whatever”.  Or the LG (Life’s Good) ad promoting their LCD TV as “The ultimate seduction.”  Or the Kenya ad promoting a well known whiskey with just two words, “Keep walking”.

Billboards are not always stationary.  The outer walls of buses and trucks make great rolling buses.  “India is great”.  “Horn please”.  “Is prosperity the will of God?”.  I liked the truck in South Dakota, “Delivering supply chain solutions to the food industry.”  Nobody has time to read a book on a billboard, whether rolling or not, so the phrases go to be short.

My interest in these writings on the wall has also morphed into a quite a collection of graffiti – sometimes defacing in net impact, sometimes amazingly artistic but mostly always, an expression of something.  Wish I read could these wall art expressions better. 

So whether I am on Facebook or roaming rural areas of Africa, I am always on the lookout for what the wall messages are.  Driving by a Ethiopian farmsite, I see a large area of red chili peppers drying for further processing, and on the house, some amazing folk art – a flower, the “lion of Judah”, a coffee pot, a horse and a covered house.  I am pretty sure that hungry people do not have time for art work on their houses, and to me it was a little indication that the occupants at least had the resources to adequately feed themselves.  Food secure, in other words.

When I am invited, I also like to visit the interiors of people’s homes because what they post internally also has clues of their aspirations, celebrations and values.  On a wall inside another Ethiopian home, extremely sparse in terms of possessions, utensils and furniture, the chalked words in Amharic (which I couldn’t read) and some in English which I could, “Without God and life” – almost certainly an expression of basic desires.

In another rural Ethiopian home, a larger drawing of a school child – partially colored in.  Family members dressed in a more modern style.  The “lion of Judah” as the symbol of faith.  A corn stalk with leaves and developing cobs, and carefully colored in, the important wicker basket with the characteristic lid designed to host the daily bread – the enjera.  Give us our daily bread.

So I see lots of stuff on billboards and on wall postings and on signboards and on rolling vehicles.  People are not one-dimensional in terms of their values and expressions and things to say.  Still, I am struck by how often, especially in less well to do communities, I see expressions of hope and desire to be food secure – to daily have the means to access the food we need to survive and prosper.  So it feels good to be working for IDE, an organization dedicated to providing income opportunities for the poor – income opportunities which provide access to the food desired and required.

Al Doerksen

August 2010.


About Al Doerksen

I'm sort of a vocational tramp; my working career divides about evenly between non-profit and the business worlds. I have lived in Mexico, India, Germany and Canada, and now USA. I've had the good fortune to travel to 90 countries of which at least half are developing countries. The last 25 years of my "career" have involved significant (and enjoyable) international management challenges: travel industry, furniture manufacturing, food (aid) programming and ultraviolet water treatment among others. I'm now leading a development enterprise called IDE.
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