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.