First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

Rags to rainbows

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In its second life, a soda bottle becomes a portable hand-washer to fight the spread of cholera in Zimbabwe.
In its second life, a soda bottle becomes a portable hand-washer to fight the spread of cholera in Zimbabwe.

I rode the train into work this morning with a friend who grew up in Malaysia. She now lives a comfortable life north of Boston, as do I. But we’re both keenly aware of how fleeting that comfort can be if you don’t have the means to support it. Could we, as Americans, make do with less? 

Absolutely.

Would we know how?

I’m not so sure.

That question about “how” might have more to do with attitude than aptitude–which brings me to the story my friend told this morning about her underpants.

Growing up in a frugal house shared by many relatives, nothing went to waste, ever, she said. Every scrap had a use. When her mother’s dresses were too worn to be decent, she would cut them up and stitch the fragments into underpants for her daughters. When those underpants frayed beyond function, they were laundered, ripped into strips, twisted into strands, and turned into scatter rugs.
Imagine the colors, said my friend, remembering, with delight, the rainbow splash across the drab floor.

When I told that story at work today, eyebrows went up.

Underpants for rugs?

Why not?

I think about all the things we throw out–all the things that, with a little bit of ingenuity, are put to use in places where people have less. I remember the girls in a rural Sahel town using the mouth of an old plastic bottle as a funnel to catch every drop dribbling from a water pump. And the boys, consumed by soccer fever, who make do with a wad of plastic bags knotted tight into a ball. In Congo, a young man sings as he strums his guitar, the notes twanging through the rusted two-gallon can that is its body. In Zimbabwe, health promoters fill empty soda jugs with water and use them as portable faucets for washing their hands. And everywhere, grain sacks, woven from plastic threads and still bearing the names of donor agencies, serve as carry-alls.

As the headlines here blare nothing but bad news about our economy, I’m holding onto every one of those bits of inspiration—and longing to learn how to make a rainbow-colored rug.

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