Hatching Free Range Ideas

The Useful Life of Things

In Africa stories, Make something, Sustainability on April 1, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Last year when I left my 8-5 job, I worked on simplifying my life by not buying so much stuff. It helps when you work from home; my office clothes and my pjs can double up. I need less; I work more. I spend less.

But Africa taught me an additional lesson. Today, I’m looking at the stuff that I have in a new way. It’s a lifetime of STUFF. What Africa taught me is that the new green is not necessarily to recycle but to use and reuse. What do I mean by that?

Rwanda is land locked and small. Little beyond food and local craft are produced inside its borders so everything else must come from the outside. That makes it both scarce and expensive.

I asked for a fan for my hotel room. Some of the days in Rwanda were hot and the afternoon sun made my hotel room quite warm. The hotel didn’t have air conditioning; it wasn’t necessary as the nights were quite cool. But, the room needed to be cooled off from that afternoon sun. Hence, the fan request.

It was quickly met. In fact, any request of the hotel staff and the hotel manager was met with the response, “Why Not?” I think that sums up customer-centered service pretty well. I heard “Why Not?” a lot in Rwanda. And “No problem.”

Anyway, when I turned the fan on the face plate fell off. I left it lying on the desk; I know not to stick my hands into a moving fan; no biggie. I noticed that there was a little piece of phone wire that someone had used to hold the face plate on and at some time it had twisted into two pieces. When I came back to my room, not only was the room cleaned but the face plate was back on the fan.

The plate came off again a day later and my room cleaning/fan fixing experience was repeated. It happened three times. By the second time, as an American in the midst of abundance, I would have thrown the fan away and purchased a new one. But it’s not that easy here. And Rwanda is expensive, as expensive as a small American city with a much lower average annual income.

I saw this evidence of use everywhere once I began to notice. Older cars were still spotless; weather stripping repaired in bits rather than fully replaced. Clothes were pressed and ironed, even when the pattern was beginning to fade. Things were cared for until finally. they were retired. This is a society of work and not consumption.

I mentioned to a colleague that I was leaving the clothes that I wore on the gorilla trek. He suggested that I tell the woman who cleaned the room that I was leaving them and if she wanted, she was welcome to launder and keep them. Otherwise, the hotel would have to pick them up and put them into some kind of lost and found and who knows what would happen.

It’s an odd feeling, to offer something that you were going to leave behind, but I knew he knew best. So I offered. She graciously thanked me and we parted company.

As I packed to leave, I looked carefully over the things I had brought and made decisions about what wasn’t coming home with me, to make room for the peace baskets and knick-knack reminders. I carried a bag of office supplies downstairs to see if my colleagues could use any of them. Needless to say, they found a use for everything, the ¬†document flags, the double stick tape, the binder and dividers, the bag. . .

Now, as I look through my house, I find uses and substitutes for those items that are on my Need It list. It’s a bit like going shopping at home, like living in a store itself. And I commit to repair and re-use first and recycle only when there is little use left. And I didn’t bring you much back because you have plenty of STUFF.

And, I think about the value of spray starch and ironing to clothes that I previously believed have seen a better day.

Look around your own store for treasures. What did you find?

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  1. Great message for all of us. Thanks Kate

  2. Great observations. Someone once gave me a mug with the New England maxim, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” She was the underpaid receptionist at the company I worked for as a marketing director. At the time, I didn’t understand why she gave it to me, but I used that mug every day for years. Now that I’ve left my linen suits and Mercedes Benz behind for a simpler life, I get it. And I wish I’d gotten it a lot sooner.

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