This is going to be a very difficult post to write. Social issues like these are inherently very complex, and I’m struggling to write about it in a way that doesn’t oversimplify it to the point of being irrelevant. Additionally, I’m afraid that if I don’t approach it right I will simply come off like an asshole rather than someone who has given genuine thought to some first hand experiences. Given all that, I’d still like to give it a go with the caveat that this is just the result of my personal recent observations and experiences heaped on top of my already solid yet somewhat flexible worldview. Nothing more.
In our travels across the pacific we have had the good fortune to come in contact with many different Polynesian and Melanesian peoples who have rich histories and who are struggling to hang on to their traditional cultures. One of the things I’ve noticed that has been worth pondering on is that it seems that the more exposure a particular village or island has had to westerners (tourists, missionaries, expats, cruisers, etc.) the more likely they are to view us strictly as a source of money and stuff. We have been to villages in the heart of tourist areas, and in those we have been blatantly and shamelessly just asked for stuff. Anything from fish hooks and batteries to snorkel gear and gasoline. And we have been charged outrageous prices for abundant items (like coconuts). These are the places most other westerners are able to get to, and they often walk away from the experience partly feeling sorry for the local people, thinking them so poor they must ask for things, and partly being annoyed by them, simultaneously thinking them lazy and greedy.
In contrast, we have been to remote islands that have no tourism and even very few visiting cruisers, and in those we are treated with generosity, as if we are personal guests of the village. We are invited to share meals with people and offered those things they have in abundance without even hinting at an expectation of something in return. We have had such great experiences in these places, and I’d even go so far as to say we’ve made a few friends. In these places we have found people with their dignity in tact, people who most certainly aren’t looking for handouts. For example, there was an island that was completely out of certain provisions like rice and flour because a supply ship was months overdue, but they weren’t asking us for anything, rather they wanted to trade us things like papaya, pumpkins, and handicrafts.
So, the obvious question is, why the difference?
Like I said, I’m sure it’s a very complex issue, but I can’t help but draw a somewhat obvious conclusion based on my observations of how some of our fellow cruisers tend to behave with the locals. Basically, we tend to show up at island villages and walk around with stuff to give away. Candy and balloons for the kids… Eyeglasses, needles, fish hooks, t-shirts, sugar, coffee, etc. for the adults. We actually stock our boats with items to give away to the people that we’ve judged to obviously be in need. We do it out of the goodness of our hearts, because we are good, generous people and we want to make a difference in people’s lives and give them some help. But the thing is, if you step away from your own life context and all the “stuff” that even we cruisers seem to fill our lives with, you might realize that these people aren’t really needy and they don’t really need your charity.
Now, don’t get me wrong, charity definitely has a place in this world. Obviously we shouldn’t stand by while someone is suffering or starving, but in my opinion charity should be of a much narrower scope than it’s often applied. Just because someone isn’t living a life consistent with our western material standards doesn’t mean that they are needy. And I think that by treating them like they are we help to create the culture that we then grow to despise. Helping someone who needs help is a good thing, but helping them when they don’t isn’t good for anyone.
I think we need to support others in keeping their dignity. People are much better off when their dignity is whole, and we don’t need to try to take it by assuming that we are better off than them just because we have more or better *stuff*. The people in the more remote places we’ve been to haven’t yet been informed that they are needy, that they need the stuff we have for them, so they treat us normally, like equals, offering to trade if there’s something they want, and giving to us things they think we might like. And although from our perspective they have a lower standard of living than we do, I’m convinced that we lower their “satisfaction with life” level when we turn them into charity cases.
I was with some fellow cruisers once while they were walking around a village giving things away, and they gave a woman some reading glasses. She was so happy to be able to see up close again and she was so thankful, but she clearly hadn’t gotten to the point of understanding that she’s in need of charity, because she was offering something in return… coconuts, pandanas fruit, taro…all was declined by her benefactors, I mean, what do they need those things for when they have a boat stocked to the brim with provisions? I was watching her closely and I could see the dejection on her face. Of course she wanted the glasses, but everything she offered in return was declined, so she resigned herself to just accepting the hand-out. I decided to speak up, and I told her I’d love to try some pandanas fruit, but that I’d never had it before and could she show me how to cut it and eat it and all that. I was rewarded with a huge smile and we ended up sharing a moment together as she showed me all about pandanas and we talked for just a little while. That day was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me when I started to see this behavior of playing Santa Clause to the local villagers as actually a bit of subconscious arrogance simply cloaked as selfless generosity.
We westerners tend to judge ourselves superior with all of our money, modern conveniences, and stuff. However, through our travels we have come to see the people of the islands as very rich indeed, when you realize material wealth isn’t what makes you rich.