Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The "simplicity" of rural living

In early April, newspaper columnist David Bullard was fired: he’d penned inappropriate and derogatory content for his weekly Sunday column (Sunday Times, 7 May 2008). It was a fantastical, speculative piece where he wondered what South Africa would be like had “the white man” never landed here, bringing with him European culture and influences.

I rarely read Bullard's column so I'm not a fan nor hater. When the storm erupted in the teacup of our freelancer’s association email group, I went online to read it. I’d visited Swaziland two weeks earlier and was inspired to post a response to the group (parts of which are below).

Elements of this theme cropped up when I was again in Swaziland for Swazi Xtreme. While watching children herding cattle and carrying heavy containers of water one of the guys with us made sympathetic sounds around how tough these children have it, why are aid organisations not putting taps all over the place, the absence of electricity and other “Westernised” comments.
The day before the race start I walked with Bafana, one of Darron’s Swazi Trails guides, up to CP8, a homestead above “Boulder Avenue”. Four young children (sub-2 to 6 years of age) were playing outside the home with no adult in sight. Bafana relayed that they were looked after by their “Gogo” (grandmother) who was out and her return time was undetermined. The parents may have been working in one of the towns, returning on weekends or at month-end (I did see adults around the next day).

Seeing these little children I thought, “Would you leave a three year old child, with three similar aged friends, playing outside – without adult supervision - for the whole day? Of course not.

From the time they can walk rural children have responsibilities. They feed chickens, round up goats and watch over cattle. And yes, they walk to the river, fill up large containers, and haul the water back to the home. Their role is vital and their tasks contribute significantly to the fitness of the family. This is a hard life where your survival is dependant on your efforts (ok, so they have stores but much is self-sufficient; if you're not working in town where would you get money from to buy goods from the stores?). Every family member has tasks, no matter how young or old.

“Western” children have few (or no) responsibilities. They grow up with every need catered for. They must attend school, work hard, get a job and repeat the cycle.

All too often our perception of the living conditions of people from other cultures is clouded by what we are used to. We feel “sorry” for Muslim women covered head-to-toe and those without tapped water, electricity and broadband internet access. We seem unable to accept that their lives are different to ours, not inferior.

Rural inhabitants have every right to feel sorry for us.

You, like me, are certainly slave to email, telephone, job and car repayments. I don’t see this as anything to envy?

Would I like to live in a hut in the middle of nowhere? Certainly, but I’d be unsatisfied tending my cattle and growing mielies. I've been brought up as a Western lass; formally educated and completely Westernised (and modernised).

For 30-odd years my existence has been geared towards obtaining a good education and gathering skills and proficiencies so that I can get a job that is stimulating and rewarding. A good job also means I’d be able to travel, have a house and car and take part in adventure races and ultra runs. Should a natural (or man-made) catastrophe strike, a journo with advanced web skills (and laywers, accountants and all the others) will fade into obscurity; rural inhabitants with the ability to grow food, grind corn, bake bread without buying ingredients from Woolies and build weatherproof huts will be in high demand.

I envy the children of Bullard's column who listen to "their grandparents telling stories around a fire" and how lucky these people are to "live in single-storey huts arranged to catch most of the day's sunshine". I grew up with 4 grandparents in 4 different countries; and how many people live in pokey apartments that they don't spend much time in because they're at work? Have you ever had the satisfaction of eating vegetables you’ve grown?

Bullard also says, "Nobody has any more animals than his family needs and nobody grows more crops than he requires to feed his family and swap for other crops."

We live lives of excess. Just look how we shop and shop and shop. Is there not a limit to how much stuff you can have?

I went to India last year and got an understanding of what a population of 1.2-billion people means. And despite all the aid agencies, welfare programmes, feeding schemes and conservation efforts there is little hope for the World's population or this planet. The growing population demands more resources and infrastructure and no amount of making fleece jackets from plastic bags is going to reverse the destruction. We're just buying time.

Education is another thing; we want everyone to be educated. Cellphones and different lifestyles are lures; people want “more” than the simplicity of tending cattle so they flock to the city to find jobs and money, living under inhumane conditions in informal settlements instead of gazing across acres of open land, their land, from the doorway of their hut. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be educated or have access to modern resources, I am saddened by the effects on rural communities, families and cultures.

The reading of Bullard's column can be done with glasses tinted in various shades. With one shade you can look at living in a hut, growing your own crops, not having "the wheel" (do they need it?), listening to your grandparent's tales and the absence of cars as derogatory. That is when you compare this existence to a Western lifestyle and what your life entails ("Could you “survive” without a cellphone?").

I prefer the shade that wistfully looks at a culture different to our own; that appreciates the hardships and challenges of such a "simple" existance; and is sad to see it disappearing and tainted by the "sinful ways of the West". But that is what happens when two cultures live alongside each other; one influences and absorbs the other.

I certainly wonder what an uncolonised Africa would be like; and perhaps it would not be very different to what we still see in the rural areas? The same applies to the indigenous people in the Amazon, American Indians, the Mauri, Aboriginies and countless other cultural groups dominated by invaders (including many European populations).

I don't believe that colonisation has done much good but it is the way of the World.

Lisa (third generation African; naturalised South African)


Anonymous said...

Youve seen that e mail fwd about the old man fishing on the island with his grand children and the investor wanting to develop; He just gets the "why ? " until it goes full circle ; after making millions the investor aims to live on an island and fish with his kids.

Well the rural people have got that already ; What they dont have is what You (Lisa) strive for , and that is travel !

Does that ever stop in all realms....

adventurelisa said...

I hadn't seen that email - you're right... it's the same thing. I like that story - thanks for posting this comment. Lisa

Anonymous said...

If you live in your island (small space)do you not become inquisitive ?

Like that fwd of the loony kids chanting 13,13, 13.The passer by looks through the hole in the fence and gets his eye poked! 14,14,14

If you are rural , cant you dream or imagine ? A bigger cow ? more donkeys?
Go one step fwd to see...