(A little background here: I wanted to visit China as a child but not as a tourist so I took the VSO – Voluntary Services Overseas – route and became a teacher. I didn’t get to China. Tiananmen Square got in the way, to be crude about it: VSO withdrew its entire China programme contingent in response to the Chinese authorities’ reaction to all potential ‘educators’ and their input. I watched all this from Hungary, behind a veil of Trabant fumes and while dodging between posters of babies representing the new hopes of democracy. They offered me an alternative post: Port Sudan. I took it. Years later, by a circuitous route, I came to live in Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya).
It’s quite a shock the first time you find out there are alternative cultures for whom things you find absurd, obscene or disgusting are utterly acceptable. The difference is best illustrated by comparing two imagined scenes, one in which a Greek philosopher (representing the view from the global North) asks, when presented with a new and interesting phenomenon, ‘what is it?’ while a Chinese philosopher, presented with the same phenomenon, asks, ‘how do you cook it?’ With apologies to anyone who finds this caricature offensive, the point is simply that there are different approaches out there. It’s even more shocking when you find out that the things you do yourself that you think are harmless, benign or attractive are viewed by others as abhorrent. But perhaps most shocking of all is when you have woken up to your own ignorance in these regards, and begin to question some of your own activities and particularly their implications, only to find that now, those who had, originally a different set, have now adopted your old cultural norms: worse, not only have they adopted them, but they’ve aggressively adapted them to suit their own circumstances. Galling, isn’t it?
My own appreciation of the importance of understanding what makes people want the things they do grew from my fascination with the question, ‘how to live?’ against the background of working in the global South. Traditional pastoralists recognise that it is having a balanced relationship with the ecology that stands people in good stead with their environment. However, traditional pastoralists have been sidelined for generations by development imposed from the global North and backed up, later, by exploitative national governments. Traditions in South communities and cultures become more and more hidebound by their own conventions as a result of their impoverishment and marginalisation; their lifestyles become more difficult to maintain, more disparaged. Why ought they not have development that others, living in relative luxury with the prospects of meals, an education for their kids, even a holiday, take so much for granted?
I’ve long understood that for every gain that growth and development bring, be it in the form of Aid, or through the exploitative mechanisms of the technological revolution, something is taken. I’ve also lived close enough to destitution to understand that without some kind of institutional infrastructure to protect people’s basic survival needs, and offer some route to self development, there is no point in waxing lyrical about ‘the old ways’.
What we need, what I’ve seen that’s worked, is technology used to smooth the way, to make it possible to have the leisure time to think and write and talk, which, nevertheless, does not detach us from the need to understand, appreciate, respect and work within the limits of the wider environment. Technology can be a tool for fragmenting, dismissing and disrespecting traditional cultures and ways of life, bleaching and disinfecting our homes until they shine, until ‘we’ become markedly different from ‘they’, but it can also be a means to develop symbiotic, synergistic systems that work in tandem with existing systems. It can also revolutionise, reform and complement the traditionalism we’re so ready to dismiss.
Within refugee camps there have been projects to harvest rainwater that have allowed people to grow much needed produce in gardens, keep ducks, create something to trade with, develop an economy and the independence and opportunity that economy affords. These projects are most successful when traditional herbalists and others who know about the soil and the conditions are consulted about what native native plants and animals thrive in various conditions. Solar heaters that require no energy input at all, are clean and work efficiently, are used widely through the camp, can be made from recycled metal, and allow people (OK, women) to develop and share cooking skills, create traditional and new dishes, produce goods for market and, again, develop economic independence.
And so to the plan to dam the Omo, reducing by as much as 80% the flow into Lake Turkana. Turkana is where our ancestors’ first footprints were discovered. It is one of the oldest freshwater lakes in the world. It provides food, water, an irrigation source, recreation, cleaning and medical resources to traditional pastoralists all along its rim in Ethiopia and Kenya. Damming the river could cause the lake’s level to drop by as much as 22 metres (the average depth is 30 metres) effectively draining this, the largest desert lake in the world. The dam will affect the entire biodiversity of the Turkana region, including threatening migration patterns of animals, as well as destroying livelihoods of peoples. Those livelihoods are precarious, however, and the massive agriprojects that the dam will irrigate promise employment and a way out of poverty. Nothing that critics of the dam based in the global North do is bringing jobs to the area, nothing offers an alternative economic solution to their problems.
You can bet that the profit will go to the multinationals. On the other hand, a trickle down effect will take place and for people living right on the edge, that trickle is the difference between survival and death. As stark as that is, the people of the global North, people whose cultures created the technologies that now allow dams of the kind to be build in Ethiopia to be planned at all, had better think carefully before imposing their views about the impact this project will have. There is no point in criticising from some comfortable office if the critic cannot offer alternative solutions.
Of course, I believe that the alternative solutions are as practical and implementable as the ones I saw being used in refugee camps (which, by the way, are themselves lousy solutions imposed on the people they purport to serve). Nevertheless, this boils down to a political question: why should the Ethiopian government listen to biodiversity experts from the global North offering alternative microtechnologies as a route to development instead of going with the multinational, multibillion dollar project that is the dam? Can the shocking turn-around in what has become acceptable for ‘them’ but which is manifestly horror-show for ‘us’ complete another revolution so that we are no longer polarised, but begin to see things from the same perspective?
I suppose the answer depends upon how diplomatic the approach might be and also, more cogently, on whose interests are best served by any alternative. Money talks, certainly, and it’s hard to believe that any microtechnological solution is going to make as much money for anyone, particularly in government, and particularly as quickly, as the dam. Yet stranger things have happened. A good argument is priceless. Amazing stories came out of India lately to do with rice production using organic, biodiverse methods and recent research shows that biodiversity projects have restored land in an enormous number of countries, bringing myriad local and national benefits to communities. Some of the glory even rubs off on the politicians. Could the same thing be done for Ethiopia and Kenya? Come writers, let’s see who has it in them to crysallise the arguments so that the balance shifts and a more considered reckoning of alternatives can begin. Until then, we’ll go on being horrorstruck at gory pictures of dying elephants, and they will keep telling us to keep our noses out of other peoples’ business.