Third World Living: Austerity Lessons, by T.S.

When I was a younger and more idealistic man, I had the opportunity to spend a year “nation building” in a Third World country. Although I now think those aid dollars would have been better spent at home, I did learn some lessons that could help in a dire situation. After all, there’s no better teacher to prepare you for SHTF than people who have been living in austere off-grid conditions for their entire lives. After some reflection, I organized the lessons I learned into four major categories: Power, Communications, Climate Control, and Food.


None of the villages in my area were connected to the grid (which really only existed in a few major cities and was not reliable anyway). Most villages had a generator or two, but they were often the property of better-off families or tribal leaders who could afford them and the gas to power them. As you may expect, power-sucking appliances like air conditioning, refrigerators, washers, and dryers, etc were rare. But you could find some traces of 21st Century technology in nearly every house, which usually had a car or marine battery, and/or an inexpensive solar panel. These were adequate to power less-demanding electronics like LED lights or to charge a cell phone.

Lesson learned: Electricity isn’t an all-or-nothing binary choice. You could spend tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of dollars to make sure you can power your air conditioning and other large appliances in TEOTWAWKI. Or, as some advocate, you could live like a medieval monk with no electricity at all. There is also a third option. You can carefully consider what electric-powered devices you really need, and choose a simple and affordable way to power them. If people living a lifestyle that would be familiar to folks in the Old Testament can manage to keep a light bulb lit and a cell phone charged, surely we in the West can too.


When I first arrived in-country, I was astonished to discover nearly everyone in the villages had a cell phone (and keep in mind this was about a decade ago). I went to a market and bought myself one of the ubiquitous Nokia 1200-series phones, which was simple, durable, and could hold a charge for nearly a week with light use. Also, it had a built-in flashlight and FM radio function. Smartphones were starting to become common as well, especially among younger folks in the cities. Speaking of younger people, most of the adults under 40 I met had some form of social media presence and were pretty savvy on Facebook and Instagram.

Side Note: The global expansion of the Internet and social media are major drivers of migration to the West. It’s one thing to hear that life in Europe or North America is better than life in your village. It’s another thing to see a migrant from a nearby village posting about his new job, car, house, etc. As the adage goes, “seeing is believing.” Plus social media makes it easy for young men who want to migrate to find each other and pass along tips and contacts, smugglers to trust, and coaching on what to say to law enforcement and immigration officials. (Most of the men I met who wanted to migrate would not qualify for asylum because their main motivation was fleeing poverty rather than persecution or fear for their lives. They are smart enough to know not to mention this to immigration officials.)

I also saw some interesting alternatives to cell phones. Most people in the US probably jumped straight from a landline corded phone to a cell phone. Or perhaps as a transitory step, you had a wireless handset that could transmit from the base station about as far as your neighbor’s house. While this seems obsolete in the West, thanks to technological improvements those wireless handsets can now reach 2,000 feet or more from the base station. Some villages had a chief or enterprising individual who owned such a system and would rent the phone out. A villager could pick up the phone and walk it back to his abode or somewhere else with some privacy, make a call, and return it back. This was a low-cost communications solution, especially in areas with poor cell coverage.

Lesson learned: Cellular phone services can be reliable(ish) even in austere off-grid environments. People will find creative ways to stay in touch with the outside world, and will leverage it to their advantage (as the Firefly series proclaim, “Can’t stop the signal.”) I still have my Nokia phone, which in many ways–like battery life, durability, and ability to swap battery and sim card–is superior to a modern smartphone. I need to figure out if there’s a way I can connect it to my current provider. I would definitely rather use that than my current phone if SHTF.

CLimate Control

I was in a dry and hot country, and unsurprisingly the natives had a number of ways to deal with the heat. Loose-fitting clothing made from lightweight and breathable fabrics was the norm. Sleeping commonly happened outdoors (preferably on the roof, which usually was flat rather than slanted–a great way to catch a breeze). Although some dwellings had a kitchen or fireplace, during the summer most people cooked outdoors to avoid warming up the house.

Speaking of architecture, the village buildings were not the thin-walled structures common in the US. They usually had thick stone or mud walls that were good at keeping temperatures a bit cooler inside. Larger buildings often had an interior courtyard that was the center of social life, shielded from the sun except at midday and with decent airflow. This was not exactly a forested part of the world, but many families made a concerted effort to keep a few trees alive to provide shade in the courtyard or outside windows.

The rhythm of life was also adapted to the heat. Something similar to siesta occurred around the warmest part of the day, where it was generally accepted that people would stay inside or under shade and not move around much. As a consequence, a lot of the village activity happened in the morning or evening.

Lesson learned: After I acclimated, I discovered I could shrug off 100+ degree temperatures, provided I could find shade and airflow (plus adequate hydration). For my southern home, I’m prioritizing shade trees, overhangs, and other ways to keep the sun off of us. I’m also planning to build a shaded outdoor cooking area (nothing too fancy, probably just a gas grill and a fire pit).


Refrigerators were not common in the villages, so the food we ate was either fresh food that was consumed immediately or shelf-stable food. Rice, lentils, and chickpeas were part of each day’s meals, supplemented by whatever fresh meat or vegetables were available.

It’s one thing to keep a bag of uncooked rice viable, but how do you keep cooked food from spoiling without refrigeration? My favorite trick is the ancient art of pottage. You may recall from the Bible (Genesis 25:29-34) that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage. Pottage is a thick stew or porridge, commonly made with lentils or perhaps rice, sometimes with meat or vegetables added. The pot can be kept over a low flame for days on end, without dipping into the “temperature danger zone” where bacteria grows. There are tales from medieval Europe where taverns had a never-ending pottage pot on the fire, with its character constantly changing as new ingredients were added.

Lesson learned: Knowing how to cook “foreign” recipes paid off during the covid pandemic. My wife and I went to the grocery store in 2020, wanting to buy beans among other things. But the bean shelf was bare–lima beans, kidney beans, great northern beans, refried beans, all gone. However, there was a bottom shelf filled with bags of lentils. No one seemed to know what they were or how to use them. Similar to how you could often only find “weird” calibers of ammunition during covid, we could reliably find “exotic” ingredients to replace more mainstream ingredients that were hard to find. We ate a lot of lentil soup and pottage that year, and we continue to make other recipes I learned while overseas. I also plan to learn more about ingredients and recipes from other parts of the world. While cooking is edifying in and of itself, covid made me aware that picky eaters (or chefs who only know a few recipes) may go hungry in a crisis.

I hope this was useful. Although I pray we never have to live through TEOTWAWKI, learning from people who live in austere places with few public services or modern conveniences can inform our efforts to prepare. There is definitely a place for “what if” scenarios and speculating how we would survive different hypothetical situations. But there is also a lot of value to be gleaned by examining solutions tested by generation after generation in the laboratory of real life. Stay safe out there.