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How does development affect culture?

An essay

by Marios Cleovoulou, June 1998

At the beginning of 1998 I spent three weeks living with the Tallensi people in a small rural village called Gbeogo in northern Ghana. I was there to view and report on the activities of a local development organisation called The Namalteng Integrated Development Programme (NIDEP) on behalf of the British charity Plant A Tree In Africa who had received funding requests from NIDEP. I was staying with the chief of Gbeogo who is the programme director of NIDEP.

There is no doubt that the Tallensi are materially very poor. The Tallensi Traditional Area is mostly open savanna, characterised by a large tree every two or three hundred metres with the land almost totally in use for the subsistence farming of grains. The Tallensi people live in large extended families in compound houses dotted around the savanna. These are a collection of round, straw thatched, mud huts with their outer walls joined together to form an enclosing compound.

The Tallensi are subsistence farmers. Each nuclear family in the compound house will farm about one or two acres, typically planted with cereals. The farming (wet) season runs for about four months of the year. During this period they will, hopefully, grow enough to get two or three large sacks of grain. One will be sold for typically ¢50,000 (~£13.30, $22) and the rest eaten during the remaining eight months of the year when it is too dry to grow anything. As the year continues they enter what is called the lean season, when the food stores from the last harvest run low and they have to go down to one meal a day or less

It took me a long time to understand the economy of the area. Basically this is because there isn't one. There are no jobs to be found and most families, amazingly, rely on the ¢50,000 they get from their surplus crop as their only financial source for the entire year.

There is no running water and no electricity. Bathing is done in the open air, behind a wall for privacy, and the fields are the toilet. There are very few health clinics in the area, and those few only offer very basic services like vaccinations. Education is also very basic, with some schools being held under an open grass canopy. Many of the local children simply don't go to school because, as one local woman put it to me, 

"If she had ¢200 (5p) and the choice of buying her child a pen or putting food in her child's mouth, what would a white woman do?"

The Tallensi have very few material possessions. Usually just their cooking utensils and a change of clothes. The signs of improper nutrition are evident, especially amongst the children. Health problems like blindness or deafness are common. Death usually comes by disease or infection and life expectancy is in the 50s.

Yet, despite their physical situation, the Tallensi are a very happy people. They are always smiling, joking, singing, dancing. They are interested in people and are friendly and hospitable. They have a very strong sense of community, and more than anything they value peace, both outer and inner, and relationships.

Why is it that it's always the poorest people that are most ready to share their food with you?

It is standard philosophy amongst western aid organisations nowadays that they should try not to change the indigenous culture or values of the people they are trying to help; that development should be done within the context of the local culture. This philosophy came about as a result of a couple of disastrous decades of trying to introduce western technology and methods into under-developed countries, and not understanding why it didn't work.

Observing the Tallensi and the contrast between their physical poverty and social richness, I began to wonder about them, about us, and about the philosophies of third world development.

Are we really doing these people a favour by helping them improve their condition?
What is it about their culture that leads them to be happy despite their hardships?
How will their culture change once development has improved their physical situation?
What is that defines a culture anyway?

Let's take the last question first: what is it that defines a culture? I suspect that most people would answer with a list of physical things: French food, Italian architecture, Greek music and dancing, the Welsh language. This is not surprising as most people's experience of other cultures comes from short-stay tourism which emphasises the physical and restricts contact with the local people to commercial transactions.

Travellers with more intimate experiences will probably have a more anthropological answer: culture is defined by the people, their values and their attitudes and approaches to life and to other people. In short, their personal beliefs and social behaviour.

Of course, both sets of answers are correct in themselves, although lacking without each other. We could go to a dictionary style definition of culture and say that it is those aspects of a society that are passed down the generations by non-hereditary means. This includes physical things such as food and buildings, and intangible matters such as knowledge and values. However, the interesting point, especially from the view of development, is how the material and immaterial sides affect each other.

While I was in Gbeogo I was lucky enough one day to be able to watch the villagers thatching the roofs of a couple of their mud huts. This is one of the activities they undertake during the dry season, and is an exclusively male operation. It takes about ten men a day to thatch a roof and the male children get into the act too, carrying bales of straw back and forth. The men involved are not only from that compound, but are helped by relatives and friends from neighbouring compounds.

The activity was interesting to watch, not only from the physical side of how they actually did it, but also from the point of view of observing the interactions of the group. They were relaxed, jovial and very interactive. They definitely gave the impression of having a good time, even though they must thatch dozens of roofs every year. It seemed to be as much an excuse for a social get together as anything else.

I have heard that in parts of western Ghana an entire village will be thatched in one go over a week or two with the whole population involved.

While I was watching the thatching work the chief drew my attention to a "low cost" model house that NIDEP has built close to the chief's compound. This is a three room rectangular house built from locally made mud bricks, but with a zinc roof. The chief pointed out that the zinc roof was far superior to the straw thatched roofs. It is fire proof, insect proof, better at resisting the weather and lasts for fifty years. Yet a grass roof can be re-thatched by 10 men in one day, needing to be replaced every three years; a zinc roof costs ~¢2,000,000 -- over 8 years typical pay for those very few locals that can get jobs. Hardly "low cost" at the current level of their economy.

Economics and perspectives of what is physically superior aside, I wondered about the cultural effects of the two types of roof. Certainly the straw roof is much more aesthetically pleasing. Much more important the thatched roof has a socio-cultural effect.

The shared labour provides a community bonding experience. The act of thatching is performed by neighbours helping each other out, building not only roofs but also community spirit.

Of course, it's not done out of pure altruism. As the chief told me "They help us with our roofs and we help them with their roofs". This normally unspoken trade of labour is implicit in their socio-economic structure. Without a western style economy and the ability to do things independently by simply spending money, helping each other is the only way to get some things done. This is not to imply that the Tallensi engage in such shared labour grudgingly, quite the opposite.

Still, when the local economy has developed to the point where everybody can afford a zinc roof, this particular community bonding experience will disappear. As they get materially wealthier other tasks requiring cooperative effort will be replaced by the plain expenditure of cash.

Friends are the family you choose, it is said. We value this choice of association highly. Yet maybe it is lack of choice that builds community. Our associations are based on pleasure, rather than need. We jump into our cars to drive miles to hang out with our friends, yet interaction with our neighbours is limited to a nod of acknowledgment if we happen to pass them in the street.

We return from work to the insularity of our homes and feel invaded if a neighbour appears at the door with the obvious intent of making more than a brief visit. We feel it is polite to phone our neighbours first to see if it's OK to drop in. Indeed, if we know or neighbours at all.

We value privacy over community. We value choice of association over societal bonding. We value personal independence over group obligation.

I couldn't help feeling, after observing the Tallensi for a while, that their friendliness, hospitality and, more than anything, their strong sense of community have come about precisely of the lack of choice in their lives. They have no privacy and no choice of association because there is no mobility. When a group of people knows that they will be spending their whole lives together they must make an effort to get on. Community bonding comes about not because of doing things together that one can walk away from when one is fed up, but when, like the Tallensi, shared effort is a necessity for survival.

In short, the Tallensi are not happy despite their hardships, they are happy because of their hardships and the social involvement these demand.

There's another possible, more intrinsic, reason for their happiness that occurred to me while watching their day to day lives. The Tallensi live an almost prehistoric existence, living in small tightly knit self sufficient (OK, barely) dispersed communities taking their needs from the immediate environment. It struck me that this sort of life is exactly what several million years of evolutionary selection designed Homo sapiens for. In this sense the Tallensi live much closer to the intrinsic nature of mankind than those of us that live in post industrial societies.

How will their culture change once development has improved their physical situation? There is one single development item that is promoted by every organisation and government and will result in a massive change in the culture of developing nations. Education.

Education is extolled as the way out of poverty for future generations. However, there should be no doubt that it will result in enormous changes in culture. When Tallensi children reach maturity with a decent education behind them, it's unlikely that they will want to be subsistence farmers like their forefathers. Instead they will look for a job behind a desk in a bank in Accra.

With education comes mobility, and with mobility comes a weakening of the sense of community. Educated people will relocate to go to university and to find a good job. Inevitably they will move to the cities. Cultures based on closely knit rural societies, i.e., most of the third world, will become diluted, fading into being the preserve of a few hobbyist traditionalists, like maypole dancers, who have no first hand experience of the totality of the life and culture they are enacting small parts of. Once it gets going this transition will happen much faster in the third world than it has happened in the developed nations.

It is, of course, not totally true that all agencies are trying to promote physical changes without affecting the local culture. Cultural change is the clear objective in some cases. Consider female genital mutilation, or female circumcision as it is incorrectly known. Is this a tradition that we are happy to shrug off saying it's part of their culture and we shouldn't try to change it? I think not. This is a maybe extreme example of cases where would we not only like to change the physical culture, the act of the cut, but also the values of the culture, the way women are regarded in the society.

A less emotional example comes from NIDEP's reforestation projects. The Tallensi Traditional Area was mostly forested just a few generations ago; now it is almost treeless due to population growth. The Tallensi have no tradition of planting trees. This is due in part to a lack of historical need, but largely due to superstition and taboo. Local beliefs state that trees represent spirits and it would be bad to interfere with the natural course of the spiritual world. I heard several myths along the lines of, if one plants a tree and picks the fruit/sits in its shade/sleeps under it, one will die soon after.

NIDEP engages targeted villages in a one year proselytising and education programme to overcome cultural resistance to tree planting. It is specifically working to change the local culture to in order to improve the economic and environmental conditions of the Tallensi. Some people will say that this is OK as it is local people trying to change the culture of their own communities. I would argue that this is relevant only in the fact that it is more effective than the white man trying to affect the same changes.

We must remember that culture is a living thing, and like all things living, change is of the essence. Changes in culture are inevitable when the living environment changes. This doesn't mean that agencies should go in bludgeoning indigenous peoples with western values. Cultural sensitivity is needed, if nothing else in order to be effective.

Most of all, indigenous people must have not only the choice, but the control over the developments that will affect their lives and change their cultures.

Are we really doing these people a favour by helping them improve their condition? It's a patronising question really. I don't know anybody who would say, "hey, they're happy now, let's deny them education, health care and better living standards in case it stops them being happy". How they will integrate improvements into their society is a matter for them to decide.

If the Tallensi and others succeed in keeping the social aspects of their culture, their friendliness, hospitality, and strong sense of community once they are anywhere near close to western living standards, then we will have a lot to learn from them.

Also see:
3rd World Development/Appropriate Technology Projects Index


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