Sunday, October 24, 2021

Ethics and Greed

When Budi died, his family was heart-broken. They are still in mourning. They tend his grave and spend time there with him. They put a roof on stilts above the grave to protect it from the elements. They suffer when they recall Budi’s slow and painful death. They miss him because he was the backbone of the family.


The only known photograph of the old village.

Budi’s village moved three decades ago from a self-contained spot beside running water to an open, windy place beside a new transportation artery. Like many villages. If the running water and the pond offered a bathing hole for humans and buffaloes, and a ready source of water for the gardens and every other need, the new road offered access to the market. And money. The old village had vernacular architecture, symbolism and history. The buildings were built in a cluster. The were no roads, only paths to neighbours, gardens, rice barns, water. The village had an intuitive, organic layout and the paths traced daily life. Its logic was local. Everybody in the village was related to each other either directly, or indirectly through marriage. It was a tightly woven  community. The weavers shared their knowledge with each other; the twine-makers helped each other twist the fibre into long ropes; the water was communally owned and used; the surrounding woods as well. People helped each other in their gardens and there were rules about how to share the yields. Everybody had the same lifestyle. There was hierarchy, certainly. It related to birth order and relationship to the primary clan, also talent and character traits. But the hierarchy was local and not too stretched, its extremities still in view and under social control.


People say that the village moved when the government refused to install electricity that far from the road. To have electric lights, the people had to move closer to the main thoroughfare. The new location is built on a grid, the village roads filled with potholes and mud when it rains, but nevertheless still usually accessible by trishaw. The shacks and bungalows line those pockmarked roads. They are built on privately-owned land. Most pieces were purchased at a premium from a local speculator. The owner of each plot must find his own source of groundwater and nobody goes back to the old stream and ponds except the occasional water buffalo herder  Each family unit pays for its own electricity. The family unit has superseded the village unit and the communal forest has been chopped down. It’s every man for himself.


That’s what Budi described. His home was one of the shacks along the new pockmarked road.  He and his wife talked about life back at the old village and they missed it. “People were nicer,” they said. “They helped each other; there was trust. Now there is only jealousy.” When one person gets ahead, the whole villages hates them while plotting, at the same time, to either better them or bring them down a notch. Jealousy and resentment are the norm, the response to the other one’s success. It has become dog eat dog. Avoiding the shame of poverty and failure is a prime motivator, and dodging arrows the task when there is success. Social face has never been more important than in this dirt-poor village. 


The village is still the frame of reference for daily life but external factors have come into play: the church and its often corrupt access to village money, school fees, taxes. Locally-run shops, but especially the multinational chains with their modern, cool appearance, suck the money out of the village. The local land speculator amassed his initial capital from his hardware shop. Cigarettes are another suction strategy, plotted by some of the biggest multinationals in the world, insidiously hooking the hapless farmers to ensure a steady income for the state and the tobacco industry.


Budi died recently from smoking. Not just his last cent was sucked out of him, and he left behind a wife and five children, the youngest still in grade school, as well as a smoking-related debt. He didn’t have an easy life. He was an orphan, so he never knew parental support and he inherited no land. He was condemned to poverty – and to face much shame, therefore, in the village. During the early years of his marriage he lived in a hut in a garden, not able to afford a home. He was proud to finally be able to  inhabit a house, even though the roof leaked. He was always careful about how he presented himself. He taught his children important values: to respect the community, to be honest, to be respectable despite living in poverty. He could be heavy-handed to enforce these values.


When he died, the family was stricken. His daughter told me about his goodness. "He never turned away a person in need." If there was only a single can of rice left in the sack and someone came by to ask for food, he would command his wife to give away the last bit that they had. The family often ate cheap tubers when their rice ran out. They knew hunger, too.  They could identify. For Budi it was a source of pride as well as adherence to village ethics to give to those less fortunate. He did it above protests from his wife whose focus was on providing nutrition for her children. “How can we eat if somebody else is going hungry?” Budi would ask. He maintained the values of the old village. Life was better there, even if there was less cash. People were kinder; you had more security, you could trust your neighbour’s heart. I wonder how much reciprocity Budi’s values met after they moved to the road? “Life is not fair,” I say to Budi’s daughter who is negotiating her way in this world, “but we have to be true to ourselves; otherwise we have lost everything.”


Budi’s widow has only one piece of land. It is located far from the village, symptomatic of her family’s penury. To get to it, they have to cross the plots of others but right of passage has always been normal and unquestioned. There are worn paths skirting the boundaries of the gardens granting the access that everyone needs. And people tread those paths respectful of each other’s gardens. Budi’s widow’s plot has been farmed for generations and she feels attached to it. “I have harvested corn here with my mother,” she says. The significance of her words is self-explanatory for her. She is saying that her bond with the land is eternal and irreplaceable. She is also steeped in the values of the old village. She knows her heart. A woman of few words, she says what she knows, simply and directly. "I don't want to sell my land. Nothing could replace it." She herself knows no malice, but she feels the pain of malice deeply. It is incomprehensible to her.


Now somebody wants the land far away from the village because it has a nice view. The government is pushing tourism as a local industry. It is supposed to generate modern wealth for this impoverished region. The local rich man, who garnered his wealth through his shop, and then made a killing by buying up and selling the land where the new village stands, smells new profits. Now he wants to play with even bigger boys: investors in the tourist industry. He has bought up all the land on the escarpment from the poor farmers and he can expect to rake in the profits when he resells to the developers. He has local police and politicians behind him, all expecting their ‘right’ of cut. He is not afraid to use pressure tactics to acquire his land. He has enough land now to be able to deny right of passage to farmers who want to reach their plot. He can secretly destroy their crops. He is rich and will get richer. The extremities of hierarchy are becoming more distant. He is a member of the village lineage but he compartmentalizes his values. “Business doesn’t know family,” he points out. “Business operates by different rules.” The old village is still dying.



When I think about what is needed to create a sustainable world, to push back against the hand of capitalism, I feel discouraged recalling what has been tearing this village asunder for generations, and knowing who is holding the ‘apparently’ winning hand, a hand that entails  suffering and decline of every kind for everyone else.

No comments:

Post a Comment