Poverty. Or Lifestyle by Choice. And the Genius of Julius Nyerere.

Poverty. Or Lifestyle of Choice

Poverty alleviation to my mind is a patronising imposition on the unsuspecting impoverished as the rich see the poor. I have seen extreme ‘poverty’ at first hand in many parts of Eastern rim of Africa, East Asia and India in what are some of the poorest regions. Its not that the poor are exactly sending out distress signals for rescue.

Their smiles are broader, worry lines on their faces far lesser, leisure activities and small talks of humour reveal more enjoyable times, families better knit, better at peace with the rest of creation like Animals, rivers, environment, trees, etc. Their care for the rest – elders or younger- seems better and worries about what next and what will overcome their existence near non existent. Yes I am talking of the extremely poor. Of course I am talking of those in regions that would truly be called the poorest by any economic patronizers.

The rest of the paras is about a tribal village that we visited recently in Tanzania located between Gorongoro and Serengeti both world famous abodes of Wildlife – first a conservation area, which means both animals and native people are allowed to live together and the latter a National Park which means no human habitation is allowed.

There is nothing spectacular to further my arguments / conclusion in my description, so be prepared for some disappointment except some heat at the end.

Our Visit and What we were told

When one gets down from Gorongoro’s crater rim one could see from time to time people sleeping on hard rocks in baking Sun with just a crate of water. Or young children – alone or 3-4 at odd places with nothing else in visible distance. You wonder where they live and what they are upto – completely bewildering.

In the middle of nowhere is the tribal village (Bora by name) amongst the vast stretch from horizon on one side to the craters rim and small volcanic mountains on the other side. There is a small stream a KM or so away and a few trees near the stream.  There is a vast area of pebbles, sand grains, mixed with goats droppings, a few blades of grass visible here and there and a disproportionate number of sheep grazing or trying to graze them.

The Village has 122 people all belonging to the same person. He and his 20-odd wives, their children and grand children. They spoke a dialect of KiSwahili. They belong to the Masai tribe which stretches from south west Kenya to west and north west of Tanzania.

The driver called out and a man of the tribe who spoke fluent english (and of 24 yrs of age as i later enquired, Seiko by name) came out to negotiate with us. He had studied Secondary in nearby town in a boarding school and was in line to pursue graduate studies after a year or so – there seemed no reservation for them – perhaps for noone in Tanzania).

We were told that the fees for our visit per person was $ 20 and we negotiated a consolidated $ 100 which Seiko agreed only after checking with his head tribesman.

they performed a dance for us in which they invited us to participate. We never understood the lines but it was all about jumping about with a staff and a kind of oversized wooden hammer shaped like a scoop – spoon. (see pictures). But when we finished some of them asked us ‘Barabar?’ in Hindi with an approval seeking smile on their face.

The Village: The village boundaries are marked with some twigs and Acacia branches, more for warning animals than human intruders. We understand that the whole village takes about 3 years to build but a single hutment about 2-3 months – all entirely made of twigs, acacia branches to lend strength and cow dung and some ash for binding. There must have been 40-50 houses in 2 concentric circles, with a central open space where they were displaying handicrafts for sale.

Their houses have a master bed may be 6’X4’ and an adjoining 4’ X 5’ and a fire pit hardly a foot away from them. The drawing cum dining cum kitchen cum store must have been another 5’X6’ – fire seemed eternally burning. In one corner was some firewood, water for cooking and some vessels in place. It is the duty of women to build and maintain them. They let out the entire village in case they have to shift out somewhere and some other tribe is willing to take it, though i was not sure what that contingency might be.

Each lady of this polygamist society had a separate house for herself and children.

2           Divisions of duties: The society we were told is divided into Children (boys and girls), Women, Warriors and Elders. Children play and sometime help out (of late some attend primary school) in grazing cattle. Its the duty of women to construct houses and maintain them, upkeep of village pathways, raise children, housework and cooking. Warriors are males who are trained to ward off dangers primarily from Animals during migration. They train in using some acacia staves and some wooden hammer (they weigh quite heavy and just one blow might throw the lion or leopard out of its wits and leave the tribe to itself). They don’t hunt for there is nothing that they can or are allowed to. The Elders are the judges, rule makers, administrators, liaison people with external communities or government, deciders of any changes to their customs, etc.

3           They follow a religion called Engarai (not sure if I got that right), which worships the volcanic (long extinct) mountain and fire.   There was a lonely Christian (which the tribe had allowed) who had a neck chain with the cross. Apparently, he had attended some higher school or college in Kenya and had attended some Churches and developed some affinity to the religion. There were also a few others who had been to Iskcon temple but had not converted to the faith.

What to do with the dead seems to be in a state of flux of late. The long standing custom was to sacrifice it back to the God i.e the mountains. In between they thought it should be offered to water. But seas are a thousand kilometres away. So they thought that if they buried the dead they would be carried by the earth to the seas. They tried out cremations but are back to burying in the mountains now. Somehow they seemed undecided as of now, waiting for the next big thing.

4          Marriage custom. They are all polygamists each taking 3-4 wives. and there is no incest. so the women have to come from other villages. Once they come over, their contact with their parent community is near totally lost. The man has to propose and the female accepts or rejects. After the girls accepts, her parents have to approve and then they have to inform the village head which is usually the grand or great grand father. and then the Boys side, although none of them stand on their basic decision. (I could not get any answer as to how such a skewed ratio can be sustained unless the ratio of women to men is also similarly skewed). When the village headman dies his next eldest brother takes over and the line of succession is very clearly laid out.

 

5           Social upbringing. The children are born into the society, we were told – not just to the parents who biologically bore them. Its the duty of everyone to look after and bring up the children and the children in turn have to do whatever duty is assigned to them by the village elders – no saying no if not coming from your parents etc.  Male children take cattle out for graze and females house building, maintenance, cooking etc. So both ways there is nothing individualistic or home centric – everything is village centric – belonging, upbringing, duties and responsibilities.

The skin tone was great, no cragginess or folds despite the harsh Sun they have to face thru the year. No worry lines – not at least as much as you see in similar aged people in cities. Smile but no giggle or ridicule, quite disposition no cynicism is how I would describe.

No exaggerated exuberance or garrulousness that is typical of most Africans. It was more a guileless dignified ‘easy to make friends’ kind of welcoming ness.

6     The Culinary. Basically the entire food chain revolves around the cows and the sheep. For a group they claimed to have 3000 cows and an equal number of sheep. Cows give them milk and blood and meat and sheep mainly for meat. They drink the blood of cow every morning for breakfast along with milk. The extract the blood by puncturing some blood vessel and letting it ooze, without killing the cow. There is meat at Lunch and a soup of herbs and plant roots along with meat in the evening. There is no fruits or vegetables for them – ever.

We did not see any cows during our visit. We were told because of lack of grass and water, cows had been taken to a nearby place – 2 days walk, for grazing.

The entire medicine is made up of herbs and plant extracts and only in very rare occasions people are sent to outside towns for surgery etc.  Sanitation is primitive with near total open defecation out in the fields.

7           Economy : The entire economy revolves around Cows and sheep. When we entered they collected our fees in USD. They sell some handicrafts made by the women. The proceeds are used to buy their clothes – which looked neat and clean and i had no clue as to how they kept it that way, all in deep blue and red colour combination. The water in the stream  is hard and incapable of being used for cooking or drinking. They buy their water in tankers (stored them in syntex tanks) and a tanker of 22,500 litres last for about 3 weeks- some economy indeed.

8     The School visit: (see the photo with a man walking towards a small hut. Thats the school). The school is primary and sets them all together for 2 sessions each day one on the morning and one in the afternoon. We saw a glimpse of the 2nd session. The students stood up and sang a song in Swahili – led by one and repeated by others – welcome to Bora, our holy land, Welcome to Gorongoro, welcome to Serengeti, and welcome to Tanzania. The teachers are sourced from within their colony and teach them english and how their native tongue is constructed (that too thru english alphabet) and basic arithmetic.  Beyond that students go to boarding for secondary education and beyond that to distant cities in Tanzania or Kenya for even higher education. But those going outside are limited in number and is a recent phenomenon. The primary school itself was started in 2003/4 only. It will be interesting to see what influence the education has on their culture. There were 4-5 of outside graduates we could see and our guide was one. They spoke good english and one of them had become a Christian by choice and others had exposure to Hare Rama Iskcon movement.

The Warriors are trained in the use of their weapons and have the duty to protect their cattle and cows from animal intruders and from animal during migration. They smear some ash on their face – may be different patterns for different ranks. They don’t eat with others – they prepare and eat their meals outside the village near the stream – wonder what is the reason.

9     The Genius of Julius Nyerere – We also heard of another community of one Boni Louise who had 27 wives, 70 children and rest to make a community of 147 living somewhere in the stretch. The govt had offered to take them on board, provide for education and give them skills and jobs. But the Village headman had refused and the government had no problems with that. The Government made a standing offer for providing teachers for free should the village chose. After long years BL accepted it to forma school for his grandchildren and there ended the govt’s role. Basically Julius Nyerere has done a more commendable job of 2 types of integration after Tanzania’s independence – religious and cultural. Tanzania has 45% Muslims and 45% Christians and the rest making 10%. The population is one and no visible signs of tensions anywhere during the last 50 years. They are Tanzanians first and whatever religion they are, next.

Again he did not force development or education on any of the 120-odd tribes. They were given the option of integrating with the national mainstream but just an option. And where they just wanted to access only education they were allowed without precondition.

The net result after 50-60 years is that we have several societies or village communities who have their own rules and regulations, cultures, law etc. over which the nation has no say. But they also have a strong respect and love for the nation. Finest form of Democracy with no force or pressure tactics used anywhere, anytime – everything by choice. And no militancy or naxalism anywhere – all nationalists by choice. That explains the students’ song. In that respect Nyerere seemed to have done a far better job than his mentor Gandhi or even Mandela.

My Take on the people

The students in the school looked at peace with themselves like any of their city counterparts, seemed competent at what they were doing but not over eager to please us. The men looked healthy, again not too eager to prove themselves or ingratiate themselves as some of the country cousins tend to be when they come in contact with what they think are superiors. They dealt with us as equals I thought.

At a point in time when we asked them questions which appeared invasive, a silent pause to make us understand that we are off limits is exactly how you expect someone who is sure footed to handle a difficult situation. The ‘foreign returns’ and the outside educated did not betray any signs of dis-ease with their native surroundings nor any snootiness over the rest. They seemed well integrated and at peace with their community and no visible or subtle signs of dissatisfaction or Freudian slips anywhere that their true leanings were elsewhere or their desire to be in the cities or towns.

Their politeness, sensitivity, courtesy levels were laced by a sense of unhurried ease secure in the belief that the other person will not run away with what’s yours and hardly betrayed any rabid competitiveness. The village was neat and clean with no litter – even of food remains – to be seen.

On a Philosophical Note

My take is that they have lived exactly same lives the last millennium or perhaps the last million years. Other than perhaps the recent changes in clothing and education. It would be interesting to see how education affects them, whether it leads to any conflict between the educated and those without, whether it leads to younger ones challenging the Elders and all the civilizational conflicts. The younger ones seem to have come back out of choice and happy embracing the village life. As of now it appears that they wont move from their equilibrium. Happy as they are, with what they are, where they are, who they are…with their surroundings.

Their today is an exact carbon copy of yday, day before, last week, last year, probably the last 1000 years. The children would be doing exactly what their grandfather and head of the tribe would have done when he was similar age. The tribes head would be seeing his sons and daughters in law doing the exact thing he had observed his parents do. In a sense everyone had the script with him and his role was frozen in it.  Nothing to strive for or compete for that the society would tolerate. Seniors juniors  and young ones -they all have the same houses. There is no greed in such a situation, there is no competitiveness or need for savings or safety at individual level. Even concepts and words like regret, failure, lack of success, (all about the past) and fear, confidence, optimism, savings  (all about the future) may be largely irrelevant or lot less diluted.

They are the perfect example of sustainability in my opinion. They have already proved it in my opinion. Lets come back after a thousand years or a million years. The tribes will and can subsist exactly as they are – their lifestyle wont destroy the river nearby (unless it dies by itself), they wont destroy the trees, they wont dig the hills or mountains for minerals or metals, they don’t eat the wildlife, they wont mishandle the cattle since any quick reduction of cattle will threaten their own existence. All the current notions in the developed world seems an apology or euphemism at best, in comparison.

Makes me believe its an ideal most Oriental spiritual heads or religious heads crave for. They live in time zero. Somehow happiness is inextricably fused it appears with time. You move away backwards and you long for or regret yesterdays and with it the unhappiness. You move forward you develop fear, greed, despondence, confidence or lack of it or successive waves of it, and you find people in the most affluent societies walk to their office with heavy worry lines as if they will face the yellow slip on arrival or go back to their residence as if when they reached there their spouse would have deserted them for a better choice.

Choice may not necessarily mean Welfare. Just get rid of the words Greed and Individuality …life can have a completely different meaning altogether. Like particles behave completely unpredictably under zero gravity, greed and individualism seems to make humanity to go berserk – no amount of savings is enough, no measure of success enough to satisfy – we are in a permanent pursuit to prove ourselves to others and earn their certificate, no end to competitiveness to prove others are not as good as you, destroy nature and its various creations in the name of development and give euphemistic proselytization to others.

They may be called poor. But there is no poverty in my opinion. Its their lifestyle. By choice … choice not to move away from what they have seen work. And no good Samaritans have a right in whatever name be it religion, democracy, freedom, women’s liberation, human rights, etc.  have a right to interfere in their choice. For happiness you seem to need equilibrium not necessarily fly around in A380s or zip around in fast cars. And they seem to have that in plenty. They have inherited it from their forefathers and will bequeath it to their successors nth  generation. And in doing so they would not use up an iota of nature, But most certainly we, the development champions,  would have exhausted our Gas.

India’s Culture Boast tries to hide serious shortcomings

 

This is rather bashful and may sound offensive to some of you; so please exercise discretion to read or reject. But pl feel free to be copious in criticism , in case you read it:  I will know if my line of thought is directionally correct or i need to relook.  Thanks.

From time to time there are whatsapp waves or internet deluges claiming or implying India’s Culture is the Best and that it can teach so much to the West but India has itself nothing much to learn from the rest. (if You don’t agree? – you can trawl internet. Or give up reading further). Sure any ancient civilization like India’s must be having something great to give others. The things cited in favour are the family values, mohella culture, way we come to others’ rescue during crises, our everlasting marriages, and of course West’s flippant marriages and divorce rates of 43%, 67%, 97% whichever way the tongue twists[1] and as soon as this trump card is dealt … if you are sensible you are supposed to concede defeat and shut up.

Without perfecting the art of Match making, to expect marriage that last a life time seems rather naive to me. This threat to quit I think is essential for both sides … for the men folks to defend excessive hen pecking and domineering and for the women folk against abuse and philandering by their men. Otherwise it will become like a football match where the referee has no powers of yellow or Red cards. I am within striking distance of kissing death with my first marriage intact … so i can say this without guilt of justification.

First the West, then the East

A few years back, I was escorting the CEO of the 2nd largest paper company in Europe after a day long discussions in our office. The first thing he  told me on entering the lift was that he had a 21 year daughter and that his concerns regarding her were she does not take to wrong husband or go lesbo since that seemed to be the  fashion. “i am sure she is not into drugs or other addiction”. I naively asked him if she was his daughter. “why you ask? This is my only marriage and only daughter”.

At another time the chief of Business Development of the largest European player, while on a drive to their plant, started lamenting that his daughter of 19 was not coming with them for vacations, participating in family get togethers etc. ‘We have even told her to take her separate room and otherwise offered incentives … but then you know we are clueless’. I have had a middle aged German PhD telling me once over phone on a holiday (i dialled without knowing it) that he was busy cutting trees in his father in laws farm since his FIL was too old to handle it and that he would dial once done.

I have not often come across those who are into 2nd and 3rd marriage.  I don’t go about doing a survey and hence it will be foolish of me to be conclusive. So I would rather reserve my judgement. The images I carried till i started interacting with them closely and frequently is vastly at variance with I have heard from others.

When the Vietnam Cabinet had come to India, since we were pursuing some project there we were asked to see them. We were seated and the person from their delegation who was to be seated opposite me came in and even while pulling the chair and trying to sit, shot straight as an arrow …”how many children you have”. My neighbour who was more in tune with their culture whispered ‘its normal for them’.  He enquired what my daughter was doing and i said engineering. He shared his sons plans and said ‘he is Ok, I have discussed and let him have his choice but my daughter i am confused and i will suggest engineering  to her after your daughter’.  All these even without shaking hands or introduction. I later came to know he was their Industries Minister.

So howsoever high may you be, concern for the family and sons and daughters run deep even in permissive societies.

So much for my boast about high profile meetings…now some show off about my rub with other cultures.

Whether it is our cultural shortcoming  or otherwise, we have a lot to learn where it concerns treatment of women, children and the old and underprivileged … in public and in private, collectively and individually. Without substantive correctives on this, we would continue to be a Banana republic reporting and reading daily doses of gruesome acts of murders, rapes, ragging deaths, bullying, eve teasing, lewd looks and violative abuses.

The kind of eve teasing or unsavoury remarks (even if the target of comments is out of earshot) i see on the Indian roads is aweful. A feudal mindset …as if God has created their targets for the exclusive comfort of the commentator. The same thing is the base for rampant ragging on campuses (you accept my/our superiority and we will take you under our wings). Lewd looks and cheapness of comments is something unique to India – at least the market share it enjoys in this is far disproportionate to its population. As a society and more as Individuals we show the least sensitivity to others rights, conveniences, and dignity.

Our Hindi movies peddle eve teasing and molestations as Romance. The more bizarre the Gender abuse, the better the justification for concocted heroism and chances of coffers hitting high numbers. Tell me the last time we evaluated any cinema by the social changes that they helped bring  about? But minute to minute updates on the amount grossed by each cinema are available on the internet. They have a decisive negative influence on our next generation and are my prime suspects for the increasing crimes against women.The worst of photo journalism in recent years is the wordrobe malfunction.

Give up wants and expectations and embrace Happiness

I don’t subscribe to the Western notions of women’s rights and gender equality. The fight for right itself recognises someone else’ superiority. True equality will be achieved only when people don’t even have to think about it. That I would say has been achieved in some East Asian Buddhist societies. In Vietnam, Bhutan and Myanmar there is such a high degree of respect for each other that its almost like there is only one sex where both recognise that they are designed to perform different biological functions and there is nothing more to it. I haven’t read or heard of any rapes or molestations in their societies, don’t see people teasing girls or women. During formal or informal dinners and sit ins, I see them cut even crasser jokes (enough to make me blush profusely) but its both ways. They get very explicit (like a girl about 27 years who i had known hardly for 90 secs till then once informed me that although she has a secure job and wealth she didn’t have assets in the right place and hence not able to get married). But its never with any sense of deriving cheap feudal satisfaction at being able to impose abuse and or inflict insult on the unfortunate recipients – present on the scene or otherwise: can’t be called ridicule by any stretch of imagination.

If I have to be born a woman, my top choice will be one of the Buddhist countries except perhaps Thailand if I should heed the advice of a friend who has lived there.

“Give up wants and expectations and embrace Happiness” seems to be the signature line of Buddhism. It settles a lot of modern distress including inter-gender friction, inter-age friction, and breeds responsible child care and public behaviour.

Our Epics

Probably our cultural fault lines as far as shoddy treatment of women is reflected in our great epics. One leading Epic (MB) starts with shaming a women. What is even more demeaning is that the very group we worship today put her as the bait for their bets. The other (R) is about a hijacked women. Again after all the trauma his wife goes through, the man finds it necessary to defend personal honour above her travails – honour before responsibility of providing life along expected lines. I refrain from further elaboration due to fear of hurting religious sentiments. I am aware that these Epics have a great lot of lessons to teach. I am aware that the Epics may not be actual (but there are too many evidences at various places in India to indicate otherwise) but a mere metaphor. Even if it is, the authors could have chosen a more sensitive story line.  Sure even Greek Epics have Helen and Eurydice as the lead characters in their storyline. But as much as I have read it there is nothing crass or abusive about them.

The bogies about the Middle east

Much against prevailing wisdom, I would say that the next lesson in respectful treatment of women, children or underprivileged should be from the middle east Islamic countries. I know its not popular going by the image or false illusions that have been created by the media.

Four 4 marriages is the prime reason or target of attack as if that is where abuse starts and ends. Triple Talaks are the next reason, as if the Divorces these days take any longer in the West – just the decision on % share of spoils takes time in Courts but the physicality is as immediate as the time it takes to say Talaks in the Middle East. So who are we fooling? When the ratio of women to men develops as 4 : 1 due to internecine war between various nomadic societies or as in Vietnam when men were reduced to 65% of women due to the American War, social changes and marriage customs are bound to shape suitably. “1: 1 and let the rest go to hell” cannot be a responsible social answer. But whether such a ratio should be hard coded into religion or left to evolve with times may be a matter of debate.

Oman which has been rated as the Paradise on Earth by the Spice Jet in house travel magazine is exactly that. Although there is a slant of protection towards women there -be it in workplace or streets or I would reckon at home. But who is complaining? There is also a lot more sensitivity to treating their poor almost on socialistic lines than reliance on Fate or Karma have allowed our society. The serene face of women does not reveal any fault lines between gender or age.

Looking at some Syrian women and men and their serene faces can be an exercise in meditation by itself. Such serenity could only come out of inner beauty and happiness and peace with the World around, stability of relations, feeling of security around life. That this is my observation from my only trip there which was when the country was deeply in ‘Civil’ war should speak volumes. ( as I had cheekily written in one of my earlier posts, I would any day prefer Syrian type ‘Civil’ War to the ‘Uncivil’ violations against women in Delhi streets everyday and the mindless manner in which the Press tries to milk it).

The stories that my friends tell  about the courtesies at home (much of the hosting of business courtesy lunches and Dinners take place at home, I am told) about Iran and Iraq makes me believe that women are treated like Queens within; only they have to wear their Hijabs outside their house. The patience of Indonesia is awesome.

Whether these countries alone are representative of muslim world may be questionable. But why do we have to bother with their religion? If there is something to learn, why not?

I wouldn’t want to mix up with the debates in India/South Asia.

Repeating myself I don’t subscribe to the Western notions of women’s rights and gender equality. The fight for right itself recognises someone else’ superiority. But if we were given that scale of Income and social realities where both spouses work, stability of jobs is not a reality and there is need for frequent job switches across cities or even countries, I am sure basic instincts will overpower our values and Culture and make us behave much the same way. With our lack of respect for rules and regulations and irreverent mindset, we might even evolve rather crudely. Future alone can tell.

I don’t think our Culture and Values alone will overcome human instincts.

Lets both teach and learn

It is not just biological differences, but several things else – race, colour, income, caste, etc … we let them become permanent handicaps right through one’s life term from birth rather than be accidental co-ordinates at birth after which one is free to develop on equal terms.

I know there are a zillion other things that make upthe Culture than just the way we treat Children, a great lot of society (not all) look at women, spit on the road, defecate, jump queues even ahead of elders, break road rules, jump signals, ask for bribes and accept them, confer favours on the undeserving or have no qualms in seeking them. I am sure India can be great on all those other things … but on these things we smell foul and are way below qualifying marks.

I reckon India should market its Yoga, Ayurveda, Epics, or other aspects of its culture more aggressively for its own benefit.

In substance and summary, the boasts about our culture seems a surrogate swagger or justification for our inability to progress, a failing attempt to hide our shortcomings. (I think so). People who are at the top and truly belong there don’t go about proclaiming that they are the best. (unlike Tyson or Md Ali). If we have something great to offer others will sure learn it from us given the ways of internet. If we find nothing great about the West, we don’t have to learn from them but there are others out there who can offer lessons. But even if we consider we are 80% perfect, lets learn the balance from the rest.

(PS: God has been kind to provide lots of travel opportunities to me but also appears to have imposed the responsibility to find out more about many who are not in any way connected the underlying business purpose. Pl pardon the offshoot boasts).

[1][1] As per official reports Netherlands and Czech republic (or is it just Amsterdam and Prague) have the highest divorce rate of 52%; the highest for the balance is 1/3rd. That is in 2012 or 13. May be we have made perverse progress by leaps and bounds since then.