New Internationalist

Where the third World is First

Issue 083

Overdevelopment’ has an outside chance of making it into the top ten issues of the 80s. If so, then the usual lip-service will be paid to the idea that the rich nations have much to learn from the developing countries. For a glimpse into what this might mean, Anuradha Vittachi looks up the classic Third World autobiographies and reports on some of the advantages of growing up in the poor world.

Photo: Lesley Adamson
Those children who are malnourished, who are not sheltered, who cannot read, they at least have that single positive element of being brought up in a society where human relationships are still viable, where human beings consider themselves as brothers and sisters, and where these ties still pull them together in times of need. Photo: Lesley Adamson

When Mother Teresa last visited Britain, those who flocked to listen to the ‘Saint of the Slums’ were shocked to hear her say that the industrialised world has ‘a different kind of poverty, a poverty of loneliness, of being unwanted, a poverty of spirit’.

At about the same time, five thousand miles away, Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba, Head of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, was making a statement about the International Year of the Child in which he said: ‘Overdevelopment has led to a rupture of human relationships. The pressure on time caused by earning money to buy what are perceived as needs but which are really wants converted into needs by advertising, means that a man cannot spend half an hour to check up on a friend who is sick. Eventually he cannot even spend half a hour to check up on a father or a sister or a son who needs him. I consider this inhuman.’

Fortunately these ties are still strong in the "under-developed" world’ he continued. ‘The children who are undernourished, who are not sheltered, who are not clothed, who cannot read, they at least have that single positive element of having been brought up in a society where human relationships are still, viable, where human-beings consider themselves as brothers and sisters, and where these ties still pull them together in times of need. My hope is that in the process of development, these values will not be lost as they have been almost lost in the industrialised nations today.’

Meanwhile, Rafael Salas, Head of the UN Fund for Population Activities, was speaking on the same topic in New York. ‘The developed countries’ he said ‘have a lot to learn from the developing countries about values - especially values about children. There is less human feeling among and for the children of the developed countries than in the developing countries.’

Back in the United Kingdom, former Prime Minister James Callaghan recently made a speech in which he lamented the ‘loss of fraternity’ which seems to come with increasing prosperity.

The Good Life

The idea that something has been lost, as well as gained, by the process of development and modernisation should not be allowed to sentimentalise the grim statistics of poverty and deprivation. But statistics, like newspapers, find it difficult to record what is good.

The ‘facts’ about the positive aspects of life in the developing world are not to be found in government documents. But they can perhaps be glimpsed in the work of the Third World writers who have recalled their own experiences: in Camara Laye’s ‘The African Child’; in Sahle Selassie’s ‘The Afersata’; in Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s ‘Ambiguous Adventure’; in George Lamming’s ‘In the Castle of my Skin’; and in the work of Carlos . Fuentes and many other African, Asian and Latin American writers and autobiographers.

Perhaps the most obvious strand which runs through all these writings is the close and constant contact between children and their parents. The child in the rural areas is usually, surrounded and supported not only by mother and father but often by grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours.

By contrast, figures recently released in the United States show that there are now one million latch-key children who go home every day to an empty house, and that divorce rates have risen to a point where one child in every three born in the United States in the 1970s will spend at least some part of his or her childhood in a single-parent family.

It is not normal, for example, in most villages of the Third World for mother and father to go miles away each day to do incomprehensibly abstract work in offices, shuffling papers to make money mysteriously bloom in banks (telling the child that he or she will understand ‘when you are older’). Instead, the child sees mother and father, relatives and neighbours, working nearby - and often shares in that work, growing into it as his or her strength grows. Camara Laye writes about his role in the rice harvest: ‘My young uncle was wonderful at rice-cutting, the very best. I followed him proudly, step by step, he handing me the bundles of stalks as he cut them. I tore off the leaves, trimmed the stalks, and piled them. Since rice is always harvested when it is very ripe, and, if handled roughly the grains drop off, I had to be very careful. Tying the bundles into sheaves was man’s work, but, when they had been tied, I was allowed to put them on the pile in the middle of the field.’

A child growing up in such an environment learns and defines his or her role through real participation in the community’s work: helping to dig or build, plant or water, tend to animals or look after babies, rather than through playing with water and sand in kindergarten, collecting for nature trays, building with construction toys, keeping pets or playing with dolls.

No Wrist-watches

Another ‘fact’ which seeps through such writings is that children who live in the villages of the developing world often grow up with a less oppressive sense of space and time than their brothers and sisters in the industrialised world. Set days and times are few and self-explanatory, dicated most often by the rhythm of the seasons and the different jobs they bring. A child in the rich world, on the other hand, is presented with a wrist-watch as one of the earliest symbols of growing up, so that he or she can worry along with their parents about being late for school-times, meal-times, clinic-times, bath-times, bedtimes, the times of T.V. shows … A family from an ‘under-developed’ village wouldn’t descend into angry confusion if the alarm didn’t go off one morning. This lack of time-tabling means that children do have ‘time to stop and stare’. When Camara Laye remembers walking to the next village with his uncle, he writes ‘he would take me by the hand, and I would walk beside him. He, out of consideration for my extreme youth, would take much smaller steps, so that instead of taking two hours to reach Tindican it would often take at least four. But I scarcely used to notice how long we were on the road, for there were all kinds of wonderful things to entertain us on the way’.

Small children are not usually cooped up indoors, still less in high-rise apartments, and are not nagged about littering the ‘non-child’ areas of the house with toys. Instead of fenced-off play areas and dangerous roads and ‘keep off the grass’ signs and ‘don’t speak to stangers’ there is often a sense of freedom to wander and play. Parents can see their children rather than observe them anxiously from twenty floors up. Other adults in the community can usually be counted on to be caring and helpful, rather than indifferent or threatening. Throughout George Lamming’s book he expressed the sense of security he had as a child, from the awareness that the villagers treated each other with dignity. He contrasts his deeply ingrained certainty with new anxieties introduced into the village from the west. ‘They live really splendid together. Everybody says there never know in all the village from top to bottom a set of people who live in love an’ harmony like them. Then like a kind of nightmare, a white woman comes to live in the village. Some say she wus a German who wus comin’ to take some notes ‘bout people. Some kind of notes ‘bout the way they live, but nobody believed that, ‘cos nobody don’t take notes about human beings. You may take notes ‘bout pigeons and rabbits an’ that kind of creature but we never hear in all we born days ‘bout people comin’ to take notes ‘bout other people who was like themselves.’

Contact with the environment can also be more direct and exhilerating than that experienced by most children in the industrialised world. George Lamming and Sahle Selassie describe how they and the children of their villages roamed freely in fields and woods, swam in rivers and seas, ‘slipping down wet muddy hillsides on bare buttocks’ instead of down metal slides into concrete playgrounds and swimming in the glory of the Caribbean sea which no swimming pool can match.

Most elusive of all but crucial to the quality of life was an impression of a ‘weightlessness’ about childhood as decribed by these autobiographers. Despite major physical hardship or possibly because of them, they seemed less burdened by petty irritations and by oppressive dread that comes from half-knowing a great deal about a frightening world.

Does development and modernisation mean that this must be traded for anxiety which, in West Germany alone, now sees fourteen thousand attempted suicides every year by children under the age of fifteen and one child in five under professional psychiatric care?

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