Philosophy graduate of USA’s Stanford University, shares her experience of the indigenous Ecuadorian community.
“…individuals can draw on the greater resource of their combined labor and improve living conditions.”
For a couple of years I lived in rural Ecuador where community is part of the way of life. The area is very remote, and the people are very poor (in terms of money.) So people rely on one another to accomplish tasks that benefit the group or an individual. There’s no money or machines to throw at the job.
A ‘Minga’ in the indigenous language Quechua, is a work gathering that any member of a community can call in a time of need. Community members take time off from their personal work and rally together to complete a job. The work can be for the benefit of an individual, or for the group; to build a house for example, or clean a trail. The communal work day has a long history in the indigenous Andean societies. It persists into the present in rural areas and also amongst the indigenous population.
Once I tagged along to a Minga where the men of the community (here community is demarked by physical location – the cluster of farmhouses in a particular nook of a valley.) I worked all day hacking at the ground with picks to level it in preparation for a house to be built on top. The hostess had killed a pig (a special occasion!) which she fed to her workers throughout the day. I have a vivid memory of the pig’s decapitated head hanging in the doorway though that is an unrelated fact.
The Minga is a way that individuals can draw on the greater resource of their combined labor and improve living conditions. In such societies people only have one another to rely on. Life is simple and revolves around the basic facts of food, illness and death. People are easily sympathetic to one another’s’ situation. A work day can be seen as a strategy to make life easier in a difficult environment. But as people work side by side, a sense of community and camaraderie is reinforced.
A tendency to share and pool labor/resources first arises as a response to the environment but then this becomes a cultural attitude – a way of acting. I think of a time by Tabatinga – a Columbia/Brazil border town along the Amazonian river, when my girlfriend and I built a fire to roast a big fish we’d bought from a fisherman. It was roasting away (it was very big so it was taking a while) when a couple of indigenous ladies speaking in an unfamiliar tongue hovered by us. They then literally scraped half the wood and coals out from our neatly lain, delicately balanced fire, and laid their own fish out to cook. It was hard not to be angry. That was OUR fire. But I put it down to cultural difference. They didn’t have same sense of ownership that we did.
This interdependence in developing countries also extends to cities. The majority of people who work in the informal economy selling gum or street food or agricultural produce live day by day and will probably never achieve economic security. In such a society there is no stigma attached to living with your parents your entire life. People share space more easily and readily. The economy is not strong enough for everybody to ‘make it on their own.’ There are no old people’s homes or government handouts or welfare so people rely on one another more (they are one another’s safety net) and form stronger social bonds. For example, when one of the farmers I lived with in the countryside rented a room in the city with his two sisters, they shared the room with any extended family passing through. Three hulking men would cram into a bed without any complaints or annoyed comments.
The role of community in an affluent society is very different. People specialize in work and perform their specific function and ‘plug in’ to the economic apparatus which can provide them with whatever they need (materially) in exchange for their labor via the medium of money. So people look to society and money, not their neighbors, to sustain them. Community ties dissolve because people do not rely on one another. Food and other necessities are obtained in faceless ways, through a long production line of strangers and machines.
Since it is assumed that society and the economy can sustain each person at a materially high standard of living the individual is motivated to try and tap into the wealth and ‘make it’ on their own. We become individualistic. Any hard working citizen can own a car, a house and a dishwasher – says the American dream. So material wealth shows a person has a good work ethic and is enterprising. Sharing and interdependence then becomes seen increasingly as a failure and symptomatic of a person’s bad character.
But we now know that environmental constraints mean that not every hard worker in the world can have all the paraphernalia of modern life. There is a housing shortage. But still we are like the lone farmer with a pick, determined to level the land all on his own. The unintended consequence of soaring material wealth and comfort is that people feel more isolated than ever. I hope that we can find a way to rely on and help one another again, if not for economic or environmental reasons, then because everyone needs meaningful relationships and to feel sometimes like they’re not alone.
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