Monday, April 7, 2008

"Poverty... It is life near the bone, where it is sweetest" -- Henry David Thoreau



I've been thinking recently about "poverty"... from different perspectives.

We've just finished watching Living with the Mek on the Travel Channel. Two adventurous Brits, Mark Anstice (a former soldier who studies survival techniques) and Olly Steeds (a journalist curious about the stories and legends of indigenous peoples) spent several months living among the Mek, an aboriginal tribe living high in the mountains of western Papua, New Guinea. The setting is pristine, with sweeping panoramas of lush green jungle, towering cerulean skies, cottony clouds woven among verdant mountain peaks, and breath-taking sunsets that sear the sky with coral, pink, and gold.

I realize that, in this series, all is not as it appears. We see two towering white men alone among hundreds of tiny, nearly naked, primitive black "savages"-- but someone is translating, filming, recording, and possibly even locally producing the footage that is then distilled into the cable television fare to which we're finally privy. Still, it's extremely interesting to watch as these fellows strive to become a part of this still-ancient culture-- including the wearing of apparently painful penis gourds! The men appear to be welcomed with a degree of suspicion, but eventually earn trust and respect. They learn to work-- and play-- in the ancient, time-honored 'Mek way'.

Near the end of the series, the two men are prone to reflect upon what they portray as the primitive, sometimes silly, sometimes dangerous ways of the Mek. The Mek expect to join their ancestors after their lives are finished, fear evil spirits (called suangis) that will tempt and bewitch them, and ascribe sickness and misfortune to evil deeds or thoughts among their tribe members. Now, I don't know about your families, but that all sounds pretty white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant to me.

Mark and Olly are also forced to consider the poverty in which the Mek live daily, and the fine line between plenty and hunger that these people continually walk. Then I saw something that made that entire line of thinking seem more than a bit ridiculous.

Before departing for home, the Brits crossed the river valley and traveled to the village on the next mountain to buy pigs (the prize of all Mek wealth, pigs are virtually currency) for their hosts as a "thank you". That nearby village cheated the white men-- and then mocked them for their stupidity. But, more interestingly, that village was far more "modern": Full of baseball caps, t-shirts, cargo shorts, and tin-roofed buildings instead of huts topped with palm frond thatch. These folks considered the other Mek tribe, with their huts and nakedness and their superstitions and penis gourds, to be the 'country bumpkins' of New Guinea.

And what was stunning was the poverty in which these "well off" Mek obviously lived. They appeared dirty and their "modern" clothes were shabby. They seemed less happy, or at least less content, and even went out of their way to make sure Mark and Olly overpaid for pigs. To my eye, the people who had "more" actually had far, far less.

Then, today, I opened Sidney Poitier's autobiography, The Measure of a Man, and read this about his youth on page three: "Life was indeed very simple, and decidedly preindustrial. Our cultural 'authenticity' extended to having neither plumbing or electricity, and we didn't have much in the way of schooling or jobs, either. In a word, we were poor, but poverty there was very different from poverty in a place characterized by concrete. It's not romanticizing the past to state that poverty on Cat Island didn't preclude gorgeous beaches and a climate like heaven, cocoa plum trees and sea grapes and cassavas growing in the forest, and bananas growing wild."

The Mek seem at first blush "innocent", almost childlike, but upon consideration they are just powerfully genuine. They do have jealousy and adultery and theft and rape and arson, and the perpetrators are often dealt with in unimaginably harsh ways, at least by our standards. But they also have a finely-developed sense of community, of family, of fairness, of purpose, of happiness, and of being part of an infinitely vast tapestry of Earth and time and heaven and family and ancestors.

We see poverty. But they do not as a rule spend their lifetimes wrapped up in worrying about what they don't have and how to get it-- unless what they don't have is food or a good spouse. And, in a culture with no immediate medical help and a 50% infant mortality rate, they simply want their children to live, to grow, to flourish, and to carry on living in the traditional way with the traditional values intact. They want their own culture to survive, and don't simply hunger to be force-fed ours... although that often perplexes us. There's dignity in that, I think, not poverty. These people accused of having so much less-- virtually nothing-- seem to have, in their own way, so much more.

From The Measure of a Man, page five: "Poverty notwithstanding, I was lucky, and the reason I was lucky was that I wasn't bombarded with contravening images and influences that really didn't have any direct connection to my nurturing. I didn't have to digest television-- children's shows and cartoons. I didn't have to digest the stuff on radio and have to ask, 'What are they saying? They're talking about selling me something. Why are they selling me something? I don't have a job.'"

Poitier's observations about how we nurture our children and incorporate them into our society (Page six: "We put our kids to fifteen years of quick-cut advertising, passive television watching, and sadistic video games, and we expect to see emerge a new generation of calm, compassionate, engaged human beings?") really hit home when one looks at the "modern", t-shirt and ball cap wearing, cross-river Mek kids who are beginning now to approximate us. Yet, they're the ones that look impoverished because they, at this point, aren't us-- at least not the television and advertising version of 'us'.

Well, I'll take the 'bumpkins' version of the Mek any day.

And I hope that we, as a world culture, stay the Hell out of their lives and let them live in contentment, just as they have for millenia. I am not in favor of poverty at all, mind you. But if the aboriginal Mek are living in poverty-- a "poverty" that seems to fully meet their physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual needs, and always has-- perhaps we, ourselves, as a culture, need to re-define the word.

And if we do insist on continuing to visit them, let it be for us to learn to be more like them!

No comments: