scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Scattered Thoughts on Difficult Landscape


What is poverty, in fact (there should be a question mark here, but I can]t find one on this computer). I thought I knew what it meant, but I have found it necessary to develop a new definition. It´s frustrating to be resourceless while working on this. No access to internet, a library with books on the subject. Even a dictionary would be helpful at this point. But none of these things are at hand and I fumble through my thoughts like the lonely fish who creates a vision of the world above his frontier, the world of air and what it must be like. No chance for a real visit and no one to tell him what it~s really like up there.
Aside> I wonder, when fish take their occasional jumps out of lakes or seas into the air to shake shake shake, if they feel the same as I do when I plunge into their world. The rush and plunge and feeling of being in another element and another world, unable to see clearly and unable to breath. Both of us are compelled by force (gravity for the fish, buoyancy for me) to return to the habitat where we belong. But when i surface i am almost always smiling. I don~t know if fish can smile. <
I thought I knew what poverty mean, having nothing, being poor. But I am no longer so certain.

In Achmeddan´s village they had, pretty much, nothing. No electricity, no running water, just thatch domed houses, a fw goats, a donkey, tea, couscous... I think that´s it. They were so poor, in fact, they didn´t even have garbage. To throw something away you have to have something to begin with., If you start with nothing, nothing can become refuse. Nothing to cast off. And your garbage looks like it does in Achmeddan´s village, bits of expired flip flops and expired goats. That´s it. They were extremely poor, but I´m not so sure they live in poverty. It may be that in my four days I was treated to a very easy time there. Basically we slept under the stars, rose in the morning to feed the goats, went back to sleep inside the hut to wait the heat of the day, rose in the afternoon to make the rounds of friends, to visit and drink tea, to eat the sour couscous with chewey camel meat.
Another aside> On crunching a piece of sand in my first bite of camel I tried to make a joke. I told A that on the Pacific we say you know the clam chowder is fresh if you crunch a grain or two of sand, and that the same thing must be true for camel. As most jokes delivered out of cultural and linguistic and context, it fell flat like a dead goose. A was worried that I was offended there was sand in the food (of course, there is sand in everything there) and I said no no, I was trying to make a joke. The camel is delicious. <
And after the camel, singing under the stars! A life with very little, but not a life of poverty.
Of course, my exposure to the daily routine of hte women was less complete. And I know that A grows carrots and dates (he showed me the plots) and there must be busyness accompanying the different stages of planting, tending and harvesting. But from our conversation I concluded that this toil is not so much to keep him from the generous enjoyment of his life.
My conclusion, after the experience is that poverty is not, in fact, lack; rather it is want. If you lack nearly everything but have want of nothing, I don~t think this can be called poverty. I spoke last night with an economist from Portugal about this idea and he said that its fine to think of lack as existing in balance in a closed system, but what systems are closed these days (again, can]t find the question mark). Point taken. But this seemed to be a system without want, closed or not.

Achmeddan himself is a good example. He studied economics in Noakchott before returning to care for the family after the death of his brother in law. I was interested in how he felt about his life now, having known another life in a bigger place, having known what else is out there. He looked at me straight when he said `this is a good life`. Poverty is want, not lack.

During my protracted journey on the sea, helping deliver the giant ice machine to the island of Orakan, I had opportunity to think of this machine and what it would mean to the people of Orakan, and the larger Bijagos community as well. I don´t know the history of these islands, but I imagine there were people living on them long before they became islands, long before they became Africa´s only archipelago. And I imagine they must have always taken fish from the sea. First enough to feed their families and then (the big shift in thinking) more than they needed for their families, enough to trade to others. Then to trade for money. Each transition bringing a new range of upgrades for family and community. The structures of a community. But their community had always been there, before the infrastructure and before people started ‘investing’ in developing it. So I wonder, what will this giant ice making machine, purchased with money given by the government of Japan, do (question mark). It will make it possible for fishermen in the Bijagos to take more fish from their waters, to more easily transfer these fish to market in Bissau and to sell them. Then the extra money, the money they do not have now, they will use to buy more things for their families and their community. Maybe they’ll build a health clinic, build another school. More. As I walked through the water onto the beach of this tiny island village I couldn’t help but think that life here must depend on balance. With more money there will be fewer infant deaths, and this is a good thing of course. There will also be more children born, more surviving and more born and surviving. And I’m not sure where it stops. In all cases an increase in the availability of food means an increase in population growth. The western world with its huge surpluses and declining birth rates would be an exception were it not part of a larger system that follows the rule to the letter.

The life of the dead. When you talk to people in these societies about death there seems to be an understanding that the occasion is an integral part of life. Laye~s wife dies in childbirth. It’s sad of course, but he shrugs and says it is a part of life. The woman in Lauren’s village loses a child. There is crying and a burial but soon she is pregnant again. The occasion of death is loud and no one in the community skips the party. From where I am writing I can hear the wailing of mourners coming from the other side of a tall wall. They will do this for a week. There will be crying and dancing, the slaughter and preparation of goats and chickens, a feast. People dying in the houses where they lived, and sent on their way by the whole community.

I’ve never seen death. Even the two or three dead bodies I have seen were so wax-like in the cascading folds of their coffins that they scarcely resembled real people, especially not the real people I had known in life. We’ve banished death to the fringes. We’ve dissociated ourselves from it and no longer recognize the forms it takes and the steps along the way. Death for us belongs mostly to those far too old to be alive, and is accompanied by beeping machines and the stale antiseptic odour of the hospital. And we visit at the last moment possible, shocked to see that the person we loved for so long, the person we left in this place is gone. Could never be this folded bird on a paper bed. And we conclude that death has already happened, somewhere in a white room far from the bustle of our daily lives.
I don’t think the removal of death from the life cycle is necessarily something I want to give to others. To Achmeddan in his Saharan village. Death is already there in the frail father who lies all day in the shade, rising only to say his prayers to Allah. Do we want to give this dissociation to the people of the Bijaogs. Is this what the ice machine does. What development does. Surely it does more and things are not so simple. At any rate, it’s time for bed.


At 10:56 PM, Anonymous irees said...

marty marty marty, thanks for writing your stories.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Byron and Eileen Hartzler said...

I love to read your comments on life & death, the exploration of poverty and development. Somethings can only be discovered through experience. But I find myself having not seen you in years, but because of familiarity to west africa and past knowledge of you, feel oddly like a close friend, sharing in your adventures and thoughts - kinda creepy, but kinda surreal. It makes me want to hang out with you sometime soon, when you make it home to America. I think of the engaging conversation it could be about things that matter the most - people, their needs, our needs, how they need help, and how we need it at the same time, just in different ways.
Looking forward to some images,

At 7:33 AM, Anonymous Freezy said...

Hey Shmarty,

Pulled my head out of the books to wish you some warmth. I have been having regular thoughts of asserting our manhood on grizzly and your fabulous Granville Island Pasta Sauce. Took Wenders down for a chowder and splash on Indian, remember that sunset? Well we had another one accented by the pungent odor of neoprene and the sting of salt in the nostrils, you were there. Wow, great reading, according to your definition I am living in great poverty here in this wonderful city of things. I have been inspired, however, by Wendy's recent wanders through Karnataka to begin the process of dematerialization. Hey what are your Paris dates? Well I am off to exams, love you ya fuzzy headed vagabond.


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