Posts Tagged ‘Development’

The crazy, frustrating world of ours

October 23, 2010


I’ve been back in Sydney for some time now. With all the trips back and forth over the years, it is no longer strange to be jump between these worlds, which are so different from each other.

I keep thinking of Vanuatu. In particular I’ve been thinking of the big question of development there, the tourism development or whatever development for that matter. As I had mentioned in past posts I photographed some people and places in order to help promote a couple of the lesser known regions to tourists, in a sense to develop tourism there.

Before I left Vanuatu I managed to get a photo story into Air Vanuatu’s inflight magazine “Island Spirit”. Besides being on the airplanes the publication can be found at every single hotel and guesthouse around the bigger towns of the country. That will be a good little push for George and South West Bay, hopefully. But I keep thinking about where the potential development, where all that interaction with tourists and all the building of new guesthouses, new facilities will lead. Will it really be positive, as I perhaps naively hope? To be totally honest, the country for most part is perfect, or rather it would be perfect, if there weren’t these conflicting views that the modern, developed, “white-man” world is bringing.

Prior to leaving the island of Santo I met an interesting young anthropologist. He had a very cynical view of where things might head. History, he said showed that development had never been good for societies similar to that of Vanuatu. Urban drift, alcohol consumption, increased crime rates – these were all byproducts of the so called modernization. I could only imagine in horror how the wonderful places I’d been to might be affected if things don’t go quite as planned.

In some ways I agree with the anthropologist, but another part of me feels that at times the thinking and reasoning of academics is quite unrealistic. He suggested that it would be better to keep things as they are, the locals don’t need all this crap that we have, they’ve been living for hundreds of years without it. Agreed. But then I had been in Vanuatu long enough and had spoken to enough locals who lived in between these two worlds – the modern and the ancient and they were desperate to see more of our world, to do those things that the “white-men” get to do. Young, a good friend I made on the very remote Rah Island had worked in Port Vila – the capital of Vanuatu for a few years, he acquired a taste for TV and he desperately wanted to see different parts of the world. When I told him that what they have is special, that they don’t need to seek happiness elsewhere or to change things at home, he replied “Yes, but I want to see why it’s so special here. I want to see other countries and to be able to decide for myself.” Fair enough, I think.

He also said something that was very simple and ultimately really insightful. “The white people used to come here and say – you must all change, become modern, wear clothes, stop your rituals, worship Jesus. Now they come and say – go back to the ways of the past, become more traditional, we want to see more of your culture. What are we to do? We are very confused now! What is it exactly that you want from us?” What Young said reflects the way many young Ni Vanutu people from the islands must feel. He’s confused and somewhat frustrated, and; who’s to say that development will answer his questions? Who’s to say that Port Villa isn’t going to become the next Port Moresby (considered by many one of the least livable cities in the world)? If Port Vila is indeed heading that way, tourism will be a pretty small concern in comparison the multitude of serious problems that will arise.

And so I keep asking myself. On the one hand; what is the point of development in a place like Vanuatu? On the other hand; what is the point of preserving things, if all the young locals want to do is watch “Rambo” and “Lost”? Can they really be blamed? Are they lesser people than us that we should decide what’s good for them and what’s not? And then ultimately I ask myself; what is the point of doing what I started? Meaning helping the locals attract more tourists to their areas and in effect “develop” them.

I guess I find comfort in one story that was told to me by an American NGO worker who I met along my journey. He had the same dilemma as me at the beginning of what has now been a four year commitment to developing medical centers around the country. He once asked a more experienced NGO worker: “What is the point of what we’re doing? These people survived for so long without us. Are we just f–cking up their world, by pushing them forward and changing their ideology with what we are doing?” To this he got the following reply. “Development is inevitable, you aren’t going to be able to stop things or go back to the stone age, but things can move forward in different ways. Development can put everything on its head and basically destroy an entire society or it can be brought on more gently, more gradually and that will lead to a much smoother transition and a less disastrous result. You’re one of the people who’s trying to achieve the latter and that is a good thing.”

I hope that my involvement would put me in the latter category too. I should also mention that in Vanuatu development has so far only been “passed down” to the locals from the foreigners that have invested in the country (or before colonized it). The foreigners are in power, while the locals are mostly picking up the crumbs of the benefits of this “development” and they are often having to do this away from home, because development is centered only around the capital and the island of Espiritu Santo.

Tourism outside of the main islands, would actually put a lot of people in an entirely different position. They would not have to go outside to earn their money, they would become business owners (some already are), they would be empowered to make their decisions and whether that would be to go back to the ways of the past or to watch DVDs well, that’s a decision which I believe they deserve to make.

Well, that’s about it for this post. I needed to get those thoughts out of the system. I invite anyone who has read this post in full to share their opinions; whether cynical or not I am very interested to read what other people are thinking. What have some of you learned from your journeys or perhaps from living in countries which have seen rapid development recently?

You might not hear all that much from me in the coming weeks (though I’ll try). I’ve been busy archiving my collection with the aim of putting up on Photoshelter. I’ll also be slightly redesigning the website and the blog. Good changes are on their way. Stay tuned.

Floating Condoms, TVs in Mud Houses, or When Modernization comes Unexpectedly

November 25, 2008
Kym - the young lady who is participating in our private workshop photographing the rural Rajasthani life

Kym - the young lady who is participating in our private workshop photographing the rural Rajasthani life

You can all forget what I said about things not having changed much in Bundi District. We just came back from another overnight stay at a small village where another unexpected surprise awaited us. On the surface everything remains the same, but only on the surface. Last evening we visited the home of the lovely woman who became our friend almost 2 years ago and there we saw it – the flickering light of a TV set was shining from inside her stone and mud house, there was a DVD player too and the night’s flick was a B grade film based on a story from the legend of Ramayana. After seeing a computer in a similar village just a couple of days ago perhaps it should not have shocked me at all, but there wasn’t even electricity here the last time we came.
– Are you the only ones to have a TV in the village? We asked.
– No, there are four, wait five families as of today. Answered our friend’s youngest daughter.
As we came in and sat down the neighbors began to appear, some came to see us again, others to glance at the aliens from another world for the first time. This time the buzz and the excitement wasn’t quite the same as before though, there weren’t as many curious faces around, no endless questions. Perhaps it was the winter cold, perhaps the novelty factor had worn off, or it could be that our presence was simply not enough to get people away from the few TV sets around the village. It was a strange scene as we sat by the kitchen fire, Tanya and our friend’s eldest daughter cooked, some neighbors watched them, others were glued to the TV and the more energetic of the children played outside with what they thought to be balloons, but seemed to us like condoms. It was confirmed that they were indeed condoms, brought by some genius teacher to a bunch of seven and nine year olds under the premise that they would be used for sex-education. In reality in conservative rural Rajasthan to talk about sex is somewhat taboo and to tell children what condoms are really used for is not a task any villager wants to take on. Looks like population control will have to wait here.

Floating condoms/baloons and some entertainment technology in our friend's stone and mud home

Floating condoms/baloons and some entertainment technology in our friend's stone and mud home

The cooking and eating dragged into very late evening and going to sleep presented a bit of an adventure. The combination of a shortage of beds and the incredible Indian hospitality caused the following: A couple of families were woken up, children screamed as they were taken off their beds and bundled with their siblings and our friend gave away her only big bed to me and Tanya. I felt like the biggest ass in the world, realizing that we had caused so much commotion (and children’s tears). I didn’t even care about having a bed, but our hosts were concerned that rats, which frequented the school because of the bags of grain that were stored there would disturb our sleep. Still, I felt bad, but when I asked Hardik to thank the people that had accommodated us he said that they would be insulted, saying, “ You already know. “In India Guest is God” – a phrase which I have heard many times, but have never stopped to be amazed at just how much it means to the Indian people.
In the morning we woke up to the familiar sounds of domestic animals, the creaking of the water pump and the new, horrendous phenomenon – religious music blaring out of our friend’s home.
Our photo shoots around the area proved that the place is as photogenic as before, Kym was slightly overwhelmed by the opportunities that she was presented with virtually everywhere she looked, but as great as everything was, I felt little sad. I was reminded again; things will not stay this way for very long. We spent the rest of the day riding around the surrounding villages, visiting homes, getting to know our ‘photographic subjects’. At first glance everything was still the same, but a second look proved otherwise. A few less turbaned elders, a few more rings of the mobile phone in an area where one had to go to the top of a building in a specific spot just to get network coverage.
By the time I’ll post this I will be in Jodhpur – the blue city and a street photographer’s paradise. I’m actually writing this post on the train to Jodhpur, of all places. Turns out some sections of the train have power sockets. Well, I guess development aint all bad.

Hello Future

November 22, 2008

The private workshop is in full swing now. We are in Bundi. Thankfully not much has changed around here since the last time we visited, but then it has not even been two years. It is great to be back doing what I did for almost 5 months during our last India trip – riding around the countryside, looking for interesting subjects along the roads, out in the fields and in the villages. It is also quite fascinating and somewhat educational to be the onlooker and not the photographer, as I watch Kym – the workshop participant, do what I did in the past. For most part I avoid taking photos, as having two photographers in some of these remote areas would raise the people’s excitement to an unmanageable level and turn the whole thing into a circus. We have to be really careful with how we approach the situation.

I have recently been reminded that India never runs out of surprises. The other day we stayed in a traditional village – full of stone and mud houses. Many people here still dress in clothes from a different era. At the edge of the village there was a different kind of house, it seemed to belong to someone a bit better off than the rest of the villagers, it was more modern and used concrete elements. Seeing a house like this amongst traditional buildings is not unusual in India these days; what was unusual – was the computer inside the house. Even more surprising was the fact that behind the computer sat a boy of eleven. He typed Hindi characters using an English keyboard; he had memorized which Hindi characters corresponded to which English letters. As we chatted with his proud father we found out that there are currently only three computers in the entire region and his boy was one of the lucky owners. He had had it for only two months, but already knew how to use Microsoft Office and Microsoft Paint, Bill Gates would have been proud, although the software was surely pirated. The boy painted a figure with a mouse and when he made a mistake clicked Ctrl+Z (the shortcut for undo). Hardik, Tanya, Kym and I were all a little startled. A computer in a medieval village and a little wunderkind operating it: What better symbol of where India? The boy’s father asked if we wanted a print out of the picture than the boy had drawn. – What, there is a printer too? – Yes, laser printer. – Hmm, well, we don’t want to waste your cartridge, don’t go to the trouble. – No, no problem. Said the father and within a few seconds we were standing with a print.

I have mixed feelings about such changes. I feel sad that it is only a matter of time before much of what I have come to love about this region will be changed by the influences of the world where I come from. If these changes happen too fast for the people to really comprehend what is happening, the situation will become very ugly indeed. On the other hand I know that I don’t really have any say in how things should develop. If a family of cow herders wants their son to become a computer programmer; who am I to say that it’s not the best decision? Mud houses and nights by the fire may be a romantic idea for foreigners who visit India and come back to their brick/concrete electricity powered houses/apartments with running water. For people who have not seen anything other than a very basic way of living there is nothing romantic about not having electricity, running water and having to fix their mud floor every time that someone with shoes takes a large chunk out of it. Personally I wish there was a perfect balance, a harmony between the old, the culture that developed over hundreds of years and survived hundreds more and the onslaught of modernity. It’s unlikely that something like that will happen in the region of Bundi; but one can always dream right?