Sunday, May 1, 2011

Third World Green Daddy Part 18: Musings on culture

This is a random blog with some of my recent reflections on culture here in Colombia, especially as regards children and childrearing and agrarian livelihoods.

In our hometown I'm accustomed to people being very baby-focused. When you walk down the street, a good number of the women you see are pregnant. Babies and children are everywhere you go, but their prevalence doesn't make them an unappreciated commodity. To the contrary, people in our town are baby-crazy. When we take our baby out for a walk or to run errands, strangers play with him, talk to him, tell us how lovely he is. Even people with kids already act as if your kid is the greatest gift to the world.

This is in contrast to Bogota. On recent visits I've noticed that there are a lot fewer kids in Bogota. As part of their general attitude of ignoring other people on the street or in public places, Bogotanos don't comment on your kid, don't play with him, don't even acknowledge your or his existence. Despite my having grown up in a big city with somewhat the same school of street etiquette, I am now somewhat shocked by the coldness I encounter in Bogota. I even miss the tiresome admonitions of people from our town, who always scold us for taking the baby outside when it's cold, or ask us why we haven't wrapped him in more blankets. An exception to this general trend is an Argentine with an empanada place in the neighborhood we stay in when we're in the capital. Ever since he first saw my wife pregnant, he has always inquired about the baby, and when we recently took Sam with us to eat there, the owner genuinely congratulated us, and loved talking to the baby.

Presumably the difference in attitude towards babies is similar to the rich world/poor world split. In our town we're still in a basically agrarian mindset focused on family and progeny, while in Bogota people are more focused on professions and consumption. Lately we've laughed a lot in visits to peasant friends who talk disparagingly about Bogota. They invariably have to go to the capital for certain errands, or to visit family that's left the countryside. It's striking to hear an old woman living in a dirt-floor house in rural Boyaca, remarking on the poor quality of life in Bogota. “How can they live all piled on top of each other, like sardines? And with no work! You can't even walk on the street in Bogota without spending money. How do they live?”

I suppose my wife and I straddle the two worlds, agrarian and professional. We're constantly traveling about and going to different work meetings with people, but often these people are farmers or advocates thereof. We usually take Sam along to our meetings, something that would be totally inappropriate in the shiny offices and bourgeois bustle of Bogota. But in our context, Sam is actually a professional aid. His presence defuses tension, breaks the ice, and helps us win the trust of the local people we deal with in different places. I imagine they reason that someone out to cheat them wouldn't bring along his family, wouldn't expose that side of his personal life. My wife Caro has even had requests from work associates that she shouldn't come to meetings without Sam!

Lately I have been negotiating to do some contract work in agrarian development in Haiti. The deal I arrived at with my employers is that they'll withhold the cash honorarium for my short-term assignment, instead assuming most of the costs to have my wife, child, and stepchild visit me. Initially they seemed a bit surprised at the suggestion, but I think in the end it will be a great experience, both in terms of exposing my family to a new place and culture, and in terms of exposing my employer to a more family-oriented way of doing things!

Along the lines of our region's traditional focus on family, my wife recently had an unorthodox reflection on dealing with troublesome adolescents. She noted that silly, wild, self-centered teenagers quickly fix their ways if they get pregnant. They simply no longer have the option of being irresponsible—the new baby forces them into adulthood. Obviously in many cultures having kids young means that the adolescent won't go on to college, but in Colombia most of the teen mothers we know have gone on to study and lead a successful professional life.

Of late my wife and I have been saddened by health problems that various friends were going through, especially baby problems. One friend lost her baby at nine months of pregnancy, another had a baby with weak lungs that will require surgery, a workmate detected a grave birth defect in a sonogram. I don't think it's due to our living in the Third World—these problems have affected middle-class friends in Colombia (even a doctor who was obviously doing everything a pregnant woman is supposed to, keeping up with checkups, etc.), and friends in the US. My mom had a friend who just died of cancer, and an old college mate was also diagnosed with cancer at 28 years of age or so. I don't know if this prevalence of problems is just a coincidence, or if I'm getting to an age where my peers stop being healthy youths and start suffering health problems, or if the world is in the middle of a turning point where all the benefits of modern living start to be overshadowed by the long-term damage we're doing to our environment and our health. Either way, we've felt a lot of empathic pain lately, though we've also been amazed at the resilience of the people going through these ordeals. It seems the human creature is innately conditioned to overcome adversity.

My reading material these days has been my great uncle's memoirs. They follow a fascinating life, from a prosperous agrarian Kansas, to the Dust Bowl, to fighting in Guadalcanal, and even to a post-war soil conservation job in Nigeria! It is fun to learn about my family's history, and to get to know better an uncle I only met once. The book also makes me nostalgic. My great uncle describes an era when small agrarian towns were prosperous and self-sufficient. The wealthy ran grain elevators or ag equipment stores, the middle-class were farmers or craftsmen, and the poor were farm laborers. But even the poor weren't destitute, and there didn't seem to be a huge gap between farm laborers and respectable families. Town families had a few cows, an orchard, a vegetable garden to supplement their regular jobs. You could have a car for no more cost than a few dollars and the smarts to fix it up. Though my great uncle and many others like to talk about how hard things used to be when everything from milking cows to starting a car to heating a house involved manual labor, I for one would much prefer an age of hard work leading to prosperity, over today when everyone's fat and at ease, but there's no work nor money to be had. Another reflection from my uncle's memoirs is a really positive role for the government. While my great uncle speaks somewhat negatively of FDR's welfare programs, his employer for almost his entire life was the federal government. First in the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Depression, then in the Navy Construction Corps, then in the Soil Conservation Service (after studying on the government's tab to become an agricultural engineer). My uncle lived and worked in an age when the government was healthily involved in improving farming, livelihoods, education, and the natural environment for lots of people. Luckily he retired in 1972, just as the government was starting to sell out the welfare of farmers and the populace in general.

Anyway, I wish the US today had more in common with the US my great uncle grew up in (without of course the lynchings, the immigrant sweatshops, and the environmental pillaging). I wish people were more connected to their livelihoods, whether agrarian or not, as opposed to today's prevalence of a sub-sub-sub-contracted workforce in retail stores and offices providing services of dubious social value.

Here in our part of Colombia, I appreciate that people are more or less socially equal, and that many earn their living from their own small businesses. There are farmers, food processors, and a whole army of small artisans and repairmen serving the needs of our cities and towns in Boyaca. There are also larger employers in the steel, mining, and cement industries, another aspect of the US workforce that has long disappeared.

For instance, a week ago we had a baby mattress made to order for a friend. The man who made it has his mid-size workshop and his house in a semi-legal industrial park on the outskirts of our town. There he hand-makes mattresses using Colombian fabrics and recycled cotton and foam stuffing. With this work (in which he is aided by his family and a few hired workers), he is able to secure a decent living for his family, and apparently to send his sons to school. This is a real accomplishment in a world where so many can't feed themselves, and even compared to other regions of our country, in which often people don't even have the basic means to employ themselves and contribute to society. For me, this vision of small, self-sufficient business owners is what we should be aiming for, in Colombia as in the rest of the world. There is of course a place for larger enterprises and high-tech sectors, but we in Colombia shouldn't make the mistake that my great-uncle's generation made in the US, of replacing humble yet stable and productive enterprises with an economy so sub-divided and high tech that there are no more jobs, and no more connection to the actual fruit of our labor.

The other day, during a stroll in Bogota, we ran across the Doctors without Borders office for Colombia. It's located in a nice, calm historic neighborhood near my sister-in-law's house. Seeing the office, I recalled how I've felt when I've worked in exotic tropical locales like Benin or Haiti. In my experience, it's always a treat to return to a well-furnished office or residence in the capital city after a long spell in the field. I wonder if the Doctors without Borders people feel the same way, seeing Colombia as this hot, exotic, dangerous country that they need an occasional break from. It's funny to imagine an outsider viewing your home as a weird, out-of-the-norm place. We locals spend our days buying groceries, getting our car washed, fixing things around the house, going to work, without appreciating how new and exotic our own surroundings may seem to others. In Benin I've been the outsider coming in and marveling at a wild new place, and now in Colombia I've been the boring mundane person feeling like my place isn't that new or wild. Surely it would be interesting for people on both sides of the relationship to interchange impressions. I feel that in Latin America such an exchange is a bit easier. We're essentially a Western culture, with plenty of literate people to describe the local reality to outsiders. On the other hand, much of Africa still consists in semi-literate peasants that cannot easily make their voice heard by others. Even Africa's burgeoning crop of new writers hails largely from the literate, urban existence that is alien to most of their countrymen. This is of course changing, as even rural Africans access the literacy and the media that allow them to communicate with the rest of the world, and at the same time as Africa becomes more middle-class and urban, such that urban writers are speaking to a larger part of the reality. I certainly look forward to hearing from the African Garcia Marquez, the African VS Naipaul!

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