The Bush Perspective
Before delving into the real subject of this entry I would like to expound on the theme of consumption. It is so easy to just live a lifestyle of consumption; not even in the sense of overconsumption, just consumption in general. Every day I consume things that I had no part in producing. Ideas, food items, stories, music, books, etc. The scales of production versus consumption are tipped much towards the side of intake. In thinking about this I realized that to produce original ideas and novelty is quite difficult, yet obviously it happens every day, every second on this planet; the development of the world and all its facets is the obvious proof of the interjection of novelty. I realize that in writing I can do my part in the production of originality to share with my community and maybe even give inspiration to some to produce originality as well. My father once said to me (although he may not remember) “Evan, people relate to the world like they relate to trees, they are either picking the fruits off of them, or they are planting them.” I like planting trees.
I recently spent a week doing conservation agriculture and nutrition training in a rural community in Inhambane province. There is no formal transport to reach this community and due to the circumstances and timing of other work I was doing outside of Manjacaze, my transport was my faithful bicycle. So I rode out 100km into the African bush on an epic journey that took me across rivers, massive savannahs and forests and passing through tiny communities long ago forgotten by globalization and the developing world. No cell phones, no cars, very few people, very little infrastructure or governmental presence, it is a totally different world out there. I stayed at a campsite that my organization has on the banks of a swampy river, with a productive agricultural zone and intact forested areas nearby.
This community is about 25km from the nearest population center and so lacks the basic medical and secondary school facilities only found in areas of greater population density. The town is comprised of maybe 100 households spread out along the main road, with a few shops selling the very basics (soap, rice, corn flour, gin) all clustered around the newly installed cellphone tower. There is no electricity aside from a few solar panels, and one communal well where the village fulfills their water needs. There is very little economic movement in the town, no real means of production, people mainly rely on their farming capacity and cutting and selling wood and reeds for building materials. The region is susceptible to periodic droughts and there are constant food shortages; however this has a lot to do with the agricultural practices and the lack of knowledge about conservation, food preservation and nutrition, rather than overall harshness of the environment. The people in general seemed content with their lives, although depending on their level of exposure and education, I received many different perspectives when I began to investigate the private lives and ideas of the villagers.
The first day of the seminar (as we always do when we first meet with a community) we talked extensively about their problems, their production methods, the crops they grow, and their methods of problem solving; all trying to gauge their level of motivation for change and their baseline knowledge of conservation agriculture. We had 25 women from the community (and 1 man) participate. While we were waiting to start, my Mozambican co-worker, friend and professional agriculture technician translated a conversation that two older women were having.
Woman 1 – “ha, they are going to teach us how to plant trees? I am too old to plant trees, planting trees is only for young people”
Woman 2 – “ya, but there will be other stuff too, you should stay, you may learn something new”
Woman 1 – “ha, im out of here.
She promptly left. Not a good start. In a community that suffers from food shortages, and has very few fruit trees planted, you would think there may be more interest. Additionally, if there actually is an age limit to tree planting we are in real trouble. After asking around why there were so few fruit trees (there are no climatic limitations in this area), people responded by saying that it just wasn’t in their tradition to plant fruit trees. Is it in your tradition to go hungry and suffer from malnourishment for 3-4 months out of the year? I would always respond. My question was met with blank stares. Perhaps they didn’t understand the question, or were too embarrassed to answer. I don’t know.
The seminar continued without the old woman, and was actually a great success. We distributed lots of varieties, set up a demonstration plot, visited farmer’s fields, advised about solutions to common problems and taught nutrition and hygiene. In each community we work in, we try to identify at least 2-3 people out of the 30 in attendance, who are actually motivated to try the techniques that we are teaching. We then focus our extra attention and advice for these individuals, knowing that in the future, after they have experienced success, they will be the exemplars and the teachers for the rest of the community. The hope is for a snowball effect of change, that starts with concentrating efforts on a few individuals. So many agriculture NGO’s work on “training” hundreds of farmers each year, in huge seminars, pouring in tons of money, technical equipment and expertise, without doing any actual follow up to see if their methods are producing results. But at the end of the year they can check off their list that they “trained” X amount of people and spent X amount of money on agriculture training. Sorry folks, but it just doesn’t work like that. Examine the word Agriculture and you notice “culture” right there in the middle. In my experience it is very difficult to change practices and methods that have been culturally ingrained since birth, especially related to food and methods of tilling the Earth. Change doest come easily, especially only because some white dude shows up once a year and starts handing out advice. And of course the advice is good advice that will almost certainly have a positive effect, but that is totally beside the point.
If real change is to happen, that change must be valued in the minds at the individual level of the person. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people you train, if the individual does not value the training you will not see change. I think it is an unconscious assumption and thought tendency of the western ideals of mass production and homogeneity that gives aid organizations the idea that behavior change can also be mass produced, like some commodity. One must simply train the people using a prepackaged formula for change; this formula being cooked up in the basement of some academic institution, based on theory and never on practice, with the result that the people will all immediately value the change and implement it. But from personal experience and given the complicated nature of human beings, cultural relativity and the inexhaustible variety of lifestyles and worldviews, this idea of mass produced behavior change is absolutely absurd. To see the proof of the absurdity simply look at the amount of aid Money that is poured into the developing world each year, yet with the result of sinking standards of living, continued lack of opportunities for education and development, corruption and economic decline and stagnation. I am now a firm believer in grassroots change, which is a delicate and tedious process, as being the biggest hope for salvation of our perilous global cultural and environmental crisis that we are in the midst of. Human history is the race between personal education and systemic destruction. So find your one farmer, and walk with her until she is ready to walk with others.
Culture is the mental prison that we all must free ourselves from. This is not a new idea for me, however every trip I take out into the rural African bush acts to reinforce this idea. Culture is the collective mental framework of interlocking beliefs, conventions, practices and assumptions associated with a social group in a particular place and time. The diversity of human cultures on Earth is amazingly beautiful, with each culture occupying a unique location in the plethora of experiences an individual human being can have. Culture is wonderful, and as any curious anthropologists will tell you, almost inexhaustible in the potentialities of study and novel comparison making. However these statements are being made from a perspective as objective and removed from one individual culture as possible. Cultures are beautiful, except when one is totally and inexorably captive in the mindstate of one particular culture. Then, culture becomes the great limiting force. In rural Africa I see culture, habit and tradition as the destructive mental force that keeps people scratching at dry earth, barely eeking out a living under mostly self-inflicted conditions harsh enough to keep the life expectancy at around 45 years old. Culture promotes the subjugation of women and the relegation of children to bearing the brunt of the household duties to the exclusion of attending school. Nobody is thriving out there. This is not a culture that will be developing sophisticated technologies, hurling their instruments to the stars, or exploring the inner depths of the spiritual world. This is survival, and the cultural traditions and practices almost guarantee that it will continue to be survival for many generations to come. Culture deludes people into feeling pride for their cultural heritage as well, such that to even question the cultural heritage or practices are taboo. Nobody seems to know why they do things in the way that they do them, nor do they question themselves about their own practices.
I look at African rural culture and find it beautiful in many ways, and absolutely absurd in many ways. I look at my own western cultural heritage, and with a faint smugness think to myself how much more advanced we are today than our simple minded predecessors. How we know so much more about the universe thanks to our sciences, our open minded ness, our exploration of the material world and our ingenuity. My cultural conditioning tells me that clearly in our position of scientific enlightenment we are at the cutting edge of discovery and cultural advancement. However in this judgment I would be a fool to not make the leap of logic and reasoning by realizing that perhaps in some future generation in some other “cultural now”, the people (or human-machine symbiots) will find my CURRENT position absurd and primitive! So all cultural positions are absurd! Phew! thank god (if your culture believes in one, or multiple), because this realization of the absurdity of my own position grants me the wonderful freedom to simply walk away from it. If you know that your beliefs are baseless and adolescent in their scope, you are faced with the hard choice of acknowledging the gross imperfections in cultural practices and taking steps to either leave them or salvage them, or simply ignoring the dilemma and plowing the course ahead with denial and false justifications leading the way. Once the awareness of the cultural conditioning is obtained, there are hard choices to be made, and these choices will steer our cultural evolution with purpose and collective intention, or maintaining the status quo. It really is an individual choice. I am going to get off my soap box now and go enjoy some of the finer aspects of Mozambican culture.
Photos: The bike ride, and arrival
Ag seminar demo plot and group photos
We also set up an irrigation system for 80 cashew trees that we are planting to start an income generating project for this community.
As always, your comments are enlightening and insightful Evan. Hope you and Roger have a good visit together.
You are never afraid to be yourself, no matter how different; so much of what I love about you.
So inspiring to read about detachment from cultural conditions with realization that it is all so relative in place/time. I feel ready to walk away… for a while!
That frog is insane! I saw many frogs in the Ecuadorian rainforest but nothing like that with concentric spots!!