New Internationalist

A bit of healthy non-competition


We can learn by the way indigenous children play. Photo: andrewlaparra, reproduced under a CC license.

I love London, it’s one of my favourite cities. So I was delighted that the Olympics went off superbly and everyone seemed on a high.

It didn’t surprise me terribly; no-one does pomp and pageantry with as much panache as the Brits - which is why their royal weddings have the whole world glued to their televisions.

Olympians give people hope, they inspire the young, set spirits soaring. For a while, everyone can forget the daily grind and sit entranced by ordinary people achieving impossible dreams.

But there is another, totally different, world view to that put forward by the Olympics. That is the philosophy that competition is unhealthy and, on the whole, brings out the worst in people. You only need to watch an India versus Pakistan cricket match, or angry football fans attacking each other and vandalizing everything in sight, to get my point.

My husband Stan has just returned home completely rejuvenated by the Adivasi [indigenous peoples of India] children who’d just joined our school, Vidyodaya. The kids were not attending school, so the government asked Vidyodaya to teach them, as part of a new scheme.

Stan was fascinated by the kids’ games; they enjoyed themselves thoroughly but without winners or losers. Kids jumped in and out at will and threw their heart and soul into games. They laughed and ribbed each other, but without the faintest desire to prove they were the best.

Adivasi sport is mostly like that. Some 25 years ago, we were amazed when an archery competition was held with a rolling coconut as the target. Someone shot it, smashing it into smithereens. Everyone ran up to the shattered coconut cheering then proceeded to hand out tiny fragments to participants and bystanders alike. No ‘winner takes it all’ here.

The same logic of ‘share everything’ is part of a centuries old philosophy of indigenous people. It’s fast getting lost, with the onslaught of modern ‘civilization’.

I once watched a little African boy on a German train. He held an enormous bag of chocolates and his face was a picture of bliss as he popped one chocolate after another into his mouth. Then, as if suddenly remembering his manners, he got up and solemnly walked around the train compartment, offering everyone one of his precious goodies. The passengers, both black and white, were flabbergasted. The boy seemed puzzled when everyone said a polite no thank you. Some of the Germans were frozen in embarrassment, most not quite sure how to react. A clash of two cultures.

It’s truly a joy to watching Adivasi children play. British teachers, who regularly volunteer in Vidyodaya, always comment on this. The kids share sweets, toys, books with no problem at all, because it’s just normal and natural for them to do so. You never see a fight.

I’m not given to romanticizing an Adivasi utopia. All cultures have their glitches, their daily share of problems. But one thing these people have got completely right is how to bring up their children. When I see spoiled city brats and middle-class kids having tantrums, I wish we could bring them to the Adivasi forest villages.

Unfortunately, it’s not a philosophy that can survive. Modern civilization is hell-bent on making the Adivasis pale imitations of ourselves and that is a true tragedy.

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