Monday, March 23, 2015

Notes from my first indigenous integration: part 2

Below is a letter I wrote a friend about my last week with the Shuar family. 

The candle comes out
I brought your last email back to my hut in the woods. If you can imagine, it was late at night with the rain coming down outside, Seaver and I both laying on our backs looking up at the barely-lit ceiling, talking of things large and small. I said I'd gotten an email from you and read it to him to share your vision for the Permaculture/poetry fusion - we're both psyched about your poetry ideas. I really hope you get a chance to share those with students.

Now, even though we had a candle, we were actually using a telephone flash to light our room that night since we were keeping our candle in the family eating area. Monday of that week, our last week there, the electricity had gone out at the house and in an instant, totally changed our experience with the family. We brought our candle in to eat dinner by, and the vibe completely changed. Usually the mother and her daughters, about our age, brought in our food and then left to eat and talk in the kitchen. Usually, two very bright white lightbulbs sterilized the eating area and kitchen of any normal human nighttime feelings. Not that night!

When we brought the candle out, the mother as usual went back to the kitchen to eat. After failing to get her to join us over dinner several times, I decided I wouldn't fail tonight. I went to her in the kitchen where it was pitch black and she was eating on a bench, awkwardly reaching over to the side for the food, her back to the wall and all by herself. This time it didn't take much prodding, and she finally joined us! The kids' vibe totally changed with the single candlelight too; the annoying energy, the attention-seeking, the rambunctiousness all dissipated. Instead, I asked one or two questions of the Mom to try to really know her and the family better, and in the candlelight she just poured out her life story to us! I'll never forget the power of firelight to bring people together.

She shared how she'd already had 2 children when she met her current husband and married him at 14. He was already married, and she didn't like and has never gotten along with his other wife, but she needed to feed her children. 10 more kids later, now she has 12, and her husband has been unreliable at times, making it hard for her to send her kids to school and feed them. While we were there, we saw one kid miss school a few times because he didn't have 50c for the bus, and imagining that going on for 3 decades was hard, especially as the other wife seemed to get more attention.

It also explained how the family was being civilized. The mother couldn't teach her kids everything they needed to fully function in their ecosystem, and the father wasn't around much.  The mother's main strategy, being mostly separated from other families and a whole culture, was to get her kids into school and into paying jobs. In this context, the civilizing process made total sense. It also explained why the girls seemed better adjusted than the boys, as she could mentor them and be a mother figure for them, but the boys had less of a father figure.

When companies are incentivized to pollute
Every night that week, even after the electricity came on, I convinced the family to turn the lights out, and the stories kept flooding out of them. And wow, this challenged my Spanish! The father talked about how hard it was negotiating with the government since their environment was so polluted that many communities actually depended on the government to provide clean water. I realized that for some companies, their waste wasn't waste at all: if they dump toxic sludge in the right river, 200 miles downstream a whole indigenous nation will be bent to the will of the corporate state which they'll depend on for water and the ability to work for money to replace the lost food from the river.  Recognizing that a corporation and government could view pollution as a major positive, enabling large work-programs and resource extraction by destroying indigenous resistance, was a hard moment for me.

Still, it's important to recognize when you're fucked. If I'm ever in such a situation, I don't want to let the pollution happen and wait months to years to defend my own little plot of land. I need to recognize that the negotiating leverage is lost when I become dependent on the forces threatening my land and family. We simply must not get to that point. Obviously I don't mean to put down this indigenous group or any of the other thousands that have been screwed in this way. I just need to learn every lesson I can so as not to repeat such mistakes.

How cultures break down
Another night, I asked the mother about how different things were now compared to when she was young. She said there were hardly any group ceremonies or activities anymore. I asked her why, and she said that it used to be common for people to come together when someone fell ill. A few people would come together to prepare or administer a medicine, properly blessed, and the rest of the community would gather to lend their collective support to the sick. When people started going to hospitals and using doctors, this major source of community togetherness was lost, as was some of the medicinal plant knowledge.

5 years ago, I'd have thought, "So what? Those people weren't having any physical impact on the illness anyway!" But consider how much they gained with that tradition of group support for the infirm:
  1. People's feelings actually do affect their ability to come back from illness. Knowing that you had the love and support of your tribe, that they would all take time out of their lives to be there with you, must have been incredibly strengthening.
  2. Similarly, knowing that the spirits, however the Shuar conceived of them, were working in their favor, must also have been a great aid to the ill.
  3. The sick became incredibly grateful to the community, reinforcing bonds between people.
  4. Community members who might see each other much came together to do something incredibly meaningful, having face-to-face time to talk, laugh, and do whatever else they did during these gatherings. For a culture that's traditionally very separated (totally independent at the household level), this must have been so important.
The list could go on, but the point is that this was all lost when the missionaries and well-meaning civilized got their way. Of course, depending on expensive doctors and hospitals only made them further dependent on the money economy rather than each other and their ecosystem.

The next step
Seaver and I are in Pisac, Peru now, on our way into the Peruvian jungle. We did lots of research to find relatively intact indigenous communities that still believe in 'partible paternity', the cultural belief that children can have multiple fathers. Based on our research, this seemed to be a good proxy question for a community that practiced some degree of polyamory, respected women (as they could be polyandrous too), had group-parenting, and generally functioned well as a whole, rather than a collection of separate nuclear families. We identified 4-5 of these in southeastern Peru, and after a short stop here in Pisac, (we've been on buses or in obnoxious cities for 4 days straight with no night's sleep outside a bus) we're headed further to the jungle.

By the way, I found an amazing deal: 35 Peruvian soles, or <$12 for a 20-ish hour bus ride. The next highest-cost bus line charged 70 soles, and others' prices were even higher. A friendly tip: don't go for such an outrageously low deal if you don't want to be packed on the bus like a teeny-tiny sardine! On reaching our destination poorly rested, we blew the money we'd saved on a nice meal to recharge and apologize to our bodies for treating ourselves that way! Seaver and I are good at taking all this in good humor though, so we've enjoyed the journey even when there might seem to be much to complain about.