Bitter Chocolate

Bitter ChocolateI’d like to say that I was being considerate of you by not writing and posting this blog before the chocolate binge fest that is Easter, but in truth it was because I couldn’t stomach it myself.

Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate charts the unsavoury history of chocolate, dating back from the early days when indigenous peoples knew it was the bomb but Europeans (who hadn’t yet discovered that combined with sugar it was heaven) couldn’t fathom the interest. It follows it through to the present-day big-business bullies who continue to turn a blind eye to child slavery and other awfulness in order to keep their supply of cocoa beans cheap.

It’s sickening stuff, and appears at odds with the delectable flavours of the chocolate and the slick packaging and marketing campaigns that have us salivating over it and hankering for ever more. And it’s kind of ironic that the people—read: children—whose forced labour brings this goodness to our shelves and our tastebuds don’t know about and never get to eat the chocolate fruits of their labour. I’m feeling particularly guilty given that I ate enough Red Tulip rabbits in the lead-up to and over Easter to be the eating equivalent of Myxomatosis.

Ever since reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (twice now, actually), I’ve been unable to shake the sense that everything that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the West. It’s just that, as the adage notes, history is written by the winners, and for that reason so we rarely glimpse anything but the wholesome projection they’d like us to.

Which is why they’re nervous about journalists poking around and documentaries being filmed—both reveal a seedy side to cocoa bean production, which includes enslaved children working for no money and almost no food, the unethical farmers being crunched themselves by militia and corrupt officials who expect payoffs, fights over land that has been in families for generations due to new laws refuting immigrants’ rights, and wars and genocide as a direct result of this land and wealth scrabble.

Meanwhile large chocolate companies and governments stand back, actively turn a blind eye, and let this play out before pouncing on low prices and desperate people. And then they cry poor to governments when these governments try to make a move to ensure all chocolate must be human-slavery free. They can do this; they just don’t want to.

Perhaps saddest of all is that children from Mali, the poorest of the poor African nations, often go to Cote D’Ivoire to work because they heard about a boy who went and came back with a bike. If they do come back to their families, they are broken boys who’ve experienced all manner of abuse and horror. They certainly don’t come back cashed-up and sporting a shiny new bicycle.

I’m not selling this book well, and that’s perhaps because I’m disillusioned that the apparently oh-so-tasty chocolate that is marketed and sold to us as innocuous, feel-good treats are anything but that. I’m shocked and saddened that the low shelf costs comes at a high human one.

I’d recommend reading Bitter Chocolate to understand what’s involved with that tasty treat we enjoy, often mindlessly. I’d also recommend applying pressure to big chocolate manufacturers to change their ways through letters and the like. And I’d recommend voting with your dollars and your feet and buying only chocolate that is organic and fair trade.

Mini Mountains of Books

4-Hour Work WeekLogic would tell you that you’re buying too many books when you literally look at the latest package that’s arrived and are genuinely mystified as to which books it contains. Of course, it makes it a little like Christmas every weekday as you heft and shake the packages to determine their contents before finally tearing them open.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned—that is, apart from the fact that a little bit of credit card space combined with an oh-so-easy-to-use online bookstore is a dangerous thing—it’s that the more books you buy (or burgle), the more you want.

My bookshelves are overflowing and my bedside table, my coffee table, and floor boast mini mountains of books that I have to shift or shuffle around in order to operate. I don’t The Gamephysically have the space to store more books. Nor do I have the time to get through the ones I already have. Yet I’m absolutely itching to buy more.

Currently on my completely disparate wish list are:

Neil Strauss’s The Game (not because I’m intending to pick up, but because I want to know why this book is perennially popular but furtively obtained)

– The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris (not because I don’t want to work—I love my job—but because I’m seriously wondering if that would enable me to fit in more reading time until someone invents a time machine)

– and Dr Catherine Hamlin’s The Hospital By The River (which documents how she and her husband set up the world’s only and life-changing fistula hospital—‘nuff said).

The Hospital By The RiverUnbridled book buying is not a bad habit to have—I can think of much worse ways to spend my money and use up my time—but I also can’t explain it. You can consume only so much chocolate or sugar before your body says ‘no more’ (and yes, I’m fully aware that bucket loads can be ingested before you get to that point and often wonder who chocolate manufacturers really think they’re kidding when they call their giant, easily-consumed-by-one-person-in-one-sitting blocks of chocolate ‘family’ size).

But there’s no such limit for book buying or reading. You get sick of one book? You change to another. You get tired? You have a power nap before returning to it. You get motion sick on public transport? You buy the book in a digital format so you can read it with your ears. Regardless of the circumstances, you keep buying and you keep reading. Is that a bad thing? I think not. Particularly if said reading is accompanied by a family-sized block of chocolate.