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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Sometimes I cannot help but feel as though I was walking down the street one day, minding my own business, when I accidentally slipped into a wormhole, traversed 12 dimensions through space-time and wound up somewhere on this planet but eons back in the dawn of human civilization. In the year 2009 I live among a village of Bambara farmers who live and die according to the whims of the rain spirits, who use primeval methods to till the land with simple hand tools, who build their most complicated structures out of mud and rocks and sticks. A short walk away from my hut is a thatched mud hovel where old men gather in the middle of the night, slaughter a dog and drink its blood to impart the wisdom of the animal spirits. The inhabitants of this village tell me that they are an advanced society – they look down upon other tribes which are known to conduct ritual human sacrifice.
It is though I have gone back in time to 8,000 B.C. – but somehow these Bambara villagers got a hold of cheap Chinese-manufactured televisions which transmit these messages from an alien civilization 12 dimensions and 10,000 years in the future, and they grasp the basic concepts of the aliens’ advanced technologies.
These alien peoples on the television set do not have to farm because they have these paper boxes they put in a big plastic box, they push a button, and then food comes out! One craggly old man is convinced that we Americans have so much money because we have invented machines where we push buttons – and the machines give us money!
The farmers in my village know of these things such as “Jumping Boats” which every couple of months fly over their fields and cause everyone to stop what they are doing, crane their necks up and stare. These “Jumping Boats” are peaceful, but some of those farmers know that others exist which are divided into the subspecies of "Jumping Boats Which Jump to the Moon”, “Jumping Boats Which Kill Arabs” and “Jumping Boats Which Fight Other Jumping Boats”.
“One day we will have these things too”, I am told by my most optimistic neighbors. But these developments are spoken of in the future tense, the far future tense - as in “One day we will have commuter rocket ships to Mars” – the developments which America and Europe conducted in the 20th century are for all intents and purposes science-fiction for the village of Sanadougou in the year 2009.
There are times when everything I try crashes and burns and I feel that Western interventions are intrinsically doomed and we should let the Bambara society remain unblemished in its natural state. I think of when Homer Simpson stuck his fork in the toaster and with a loud zap found himself transported to the Cretaceous Period. Homer recollected the ancient wisdom which Grandpa Abraham Simpson passed on his wedding day, “If you ever go back in time, whatever you do, don’t step on anything. Even the slightest change can alter things in ways you can’t possibly imagine.”
At first Homer tried his best to heed Grandpa’s message and tiptoed carefully around the dinosaurs, conifers and ferns. But then he heard a "crunch" and realized that as hard as he tried he squished a beetle. And then as mosquitoes start to bite, he slaps them, and in a rage Homer knocks down a few trees and clobbers a giant sloth. When the toast finally pops out of his magic toaster, Homer returned back to his kitchen in Springfield – but the ripples which he created in the space-time continuum have completely altered existence as he knows it!
The purpose of this analogy is that in all honesty I don’t feel that I have been doing all that much “work” in the 20th century American capitalist, sitting in a cubicle making copies sense of the word. I don’t feel that I have changed much of anything at all. But consciously or not, I have stepped on a lot of things, and I have swatted many a mosquito. And according to the chaos theory, even the smallest of ripples of energy can cause a chain reaction which gathers momentum and accelerates and transforms into a giant tidal wave of societal-institutional change!
It is really quite difficult for yours truly – straight from the ivory tower where “economic development” refers to a web of complex macroeconomic issues like globalization, trade deficits and currency exchange rates – to come to terms with the fact that none of those things have much bearing on day-to-day life in a subsistence agricultural society. Here where the majority of a family’s caloric intake is derived from fields which they hoe, they seed, and they harvest, one can go an entire lifetime without trading in a market economy.
And in such a fashion, over the centuries there has been progress in Sanadougou. Here in an isolated backwater which has seen so little change in its means of production over the past countless millennia, the introduction of new seeds from faraway lands has constituted major “economic development”. From time immemorial until about 1880 people in this village really only grew millet, rice, peanuts and onions. About a hundred years ago the French colonial Commandant exhorted the villagers of Sanadougou to farm cotton. Though as le Commandant and his family tired of the monotony of indigenous staples, the colonial bourgeoisie imported for their own use cabbage, cucumbers, garlic and beets, as well as New World crops like corn, squash, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. At some point in time the colonialists shared some of these exotic foods with their servants who liked them so much that they kept the seeds and began to grow them too. In the 1970s General Moussa Traoré brought to the Malian people yellow melons which now bear his name.
So now the Bambara people are still by and large subsistence agriculturalists, but they now subsist on a slightly diversified number of crops. The change has been modest indeed, but the Bambara apparently like it so much that they have continued the practice themselves – that is what we call “sustainable development.”
After four months at site, I have learned that the problems of disease and poverty in my village are overwhelmingly vast and I want to actually shake things up for the long run. And so I am thinking small – microscopic, unicellular, nano-level small…
(...To Be Continued!)