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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  1. #1 jane 23 Aug 12

    Brilliant. That is how all life should be like. Thank you for sharing that with us. Now it needs to be shared with governments, start with the local committees/councils, then local governments and work upto the top. Let us spread this way of life instead of exterminating it.
    I am biassed. I dislike competition, always have done. Hence I ignored the Olympics as I do not comprehend this rat race to be the best at running or whatever. It is on a par with power and politics. I considered it a waste of time and money. How much better it would be for those who are good at something to share their skills with others to help them. Maybe I am a minority thinker.
    How can we get western and city children to see the benefits of the Adivasi children? And then spread these benefits with adults.
    Is there a video that could be used in schools?

  2. #2 sruti ghosal 23 Aug 12

    wonderful article. brings out the innocence of tribal groups and how they have kept themselves aloof from the complexities of modern society.

  3. #3 sneha banerjee 24 Aug 12

    The fact that parents these days give everything to their kids without any qualms has actually made so called ’well bred’ kids selfish and unethical. Today every youngster wants privacy and priority. The competition is getting so harsh that people aren't happy with someone's success. The stiffness of urban life has caused u to become ruthlessly competitive as everyone wants a 99.9% to enter the best college and have a peaceful life.

  4. #4 Shreya Pareek 24 Aug 12

    Great article. Simple to understand and leaves a great impact on mind. Today, when everybody is racing to grab the first place, we have completely forgotten the value of sharing and team work.

  5. #5 Sakshi Saxena 24 Aug 12

    Truly a joyful story.Often urban life do force us to be 'competitive' in each and every step that we take.And because of this situation,for a while we often feel to escape from the realities of life. Don't know about others but at least I do.

    Enjoying life with people you love is the most important thing for me. And I guess it's the same for these Adivasi people.

    Got to know a lot about them so thank you for that.

  6. #6 Prabir 24 Aug 12

    And as adults too. The non-competitiveness of discussions (panchayat/ village council) where everybody has a say. Consensus democracy is slow to change and is often criticized as being ’resistant to change’. But it can also be an eye opener to those who are tired of the fight-win-lose of ’first past the post’ elections and rule by ever changing majority mobs

  7. #7 Kriti Khandelwal 24 Aug 12

    Blame shouldn't be given to the spoit brats of the city, rather the parents who use a certain way to bring their children up. It's not the kids at fault. The parents needs to realize the differences between right and wrong that will help their kids grow up a better being. A great read.

  8. #8 charles 24 Aug 12

    This is very true I grow up in the same way thanks to my parents and friends may be that is why i don't go crazy when i watch India vs Pakistan cricket match but always felt my local team cricket players are far better from the international cricket players.

  9. #9 Sabita Banerji 24 Aug 12

    Thank you for this heartwarming reminder of how humans *can* cooperate. Reminds me of the workshops I've done with schools in the UK(which I think I may have mentioned on these comments before) inspired by Adivasi trading practices; role playing trading competitively the atmosphere was all aggression and noise. Role playing trading co-operatively suddenly the noise level drops and everyone's treating each other with dignity, politeness and respect. But I don't want to share your pessimism about the survival of this way of interacting... I repeatedly hear and read that a cooperative approach to trading (and thus, hopefully to life) is becoming increasingly popular post-credit crunch as people become aware of what competition can lead to. Here's hoping...

  10. #10 Aloke Surin 24 Aug 12

    How strange that I was discussing this very concept (in a different concept, but having its roots in the same underlying philosophy)this morning as I dropped my 22 year old son off at the bus stop where he boards the bus to work. We were listening to the news on the radio and he was incredulous that a fatal homicide in Surrey, BC, Canada was being described by the newsreader as ’it appears to be a shooting’! To our minds, a shooting is a shooting, there are no illusions about it. As we discussed the event, somehow we ended up asking the question:Why does modern industrialized civilization appear (the word is used here deliberately!) to be so fragmented and descending into social chaos, inspite of the great gains made over the last hundreds of years in health, prosperity etc?

    I propounded the theory that the root cause is the ’I,Me,Myself’ principle so beloved of all those who propagate the cause of individual freedom. Yes, competition also stems from this burning desire of the self to be the best,to run faster, jump higher,etc. This philosophy has certainly given birth to incredible achievements by individuals and groups, but also contributes to a sense of isolation amongst those who cannot, for some reason, be the best. And that includes the majority of the human race!

    The non-competitive style of living is perhaps a happier way of life and certainly leads to more contentment for more people.In that sense, the indigenous people throughout the world had got it's a pity that we all want to be Olympic Gold medallists!

  11. #11 Ludwig Pesch 24 Aug 12

    Great fun to read, and thought provoking.
    So if we ever MUST go for some utopia or other, I'd probably opt for the Adivasi's time proven version, especially after having witnessed some of the scenes described here myself.
    Thanks for this piece, looking forward to reading more first hand accounts on this subject!

  12. #12 Jan Nerurkar 24 Aug 12

    Sad but true. See it happening all over the world. This ’winner take all’ and comming second is the same as comming last mentality is non-sustainable. I'm afraid the future for all species looks very bleak at the moment. Just hope we can turn around in time. Take care.

  13. #13 Raghu Tantry 24 Aug 12

    Competition begins at home. First child, male child, fairer girl,taller boy, better job, better student, better player...these themes are grilled into kids by their parents, family, extended family, society and so on.Competitive spirit is so high that they learn to speak competitively to make a point. So debating and arguments are encouraged.Today, people are not singing and dancing for happiness - they participate in reality TV shows. The excesses of competition is seen in bullying, sarcasm, argument, casteism, racism, apartheid, colonialism. A refreshing break is required from time to time - a bit of healthy non-competition is needed for looking within, for meditation, for reviewing the worthlessness of competition. I titled my published book of poems as A Quiver of Flowers - a quiver of arrows that was recycled into a flower-vase, by throwing away the arrows and filling it with flowers.

  14. #14 Deepu Aby 25 Aug 12

    It is time for us (privileged classes) to introspect how ancestors struggled to find their way towards today’s so called “civilized” society before contesting the same humble classless, race less fellow being. It will be this outlook where all auspicious difference of future depends upon.

  15. #15 XAVIER DIAS 25 Aug 12

    Mari why don't you also post it on yur FB site for then I can share it on mine too.


  16. #16 Enakshi Ganguly Thukral 25 Aug 12

    as usual enjoyed....


  17. #17 Marina DCosta 25 Aug 12

    Dear Mari

    It is been really a long time that i follow your post at the Internationalist.
    I feel really proud the way you write.
    We all need that Sense of humanity that we have lost.

    Keep writing and Inspiring many.

    Thanks and Best Regards,
    Marina D'costa


  18. #18 TT 25 Aug 12

    Great article. I went to school that went to great lengths to be non competitive, and was often criticized for producing students who were ’too soft’ - unable to deal with the ’real world’. Right after we graduated school, I remember many of my classmates struggling to cope with a culture of competition in university, and many of us felt let down by our school, for not preparing us adequately for the cut throat culture in colleges where everything was based on grades and marksheets. But today most of us are doing well, in jobs we love, and find that the ability to cooperate and work well with other people, is actually really useful in the real world.

  19. #19 Rekha Soman 25 Aug 12

    Well said Miss Mari. There are certain things that we often forget to keep up and you have pointed it out. The mentality of sharing things and being happy with the smallest of the toy. We all need to learn it from these children.

  20. #20 Anthya Madiath 25 Aug 12

    Marie: you have picked an unusual subject and written so well about it!

  21. #21 Abraham Joseph 26 Aug 12

    Regarding the modern culture of competition, ( your theme of the blog) induced by the Darwinian theory of the 'survival of the fittest' , I attempted a blog recently, viz. 'The leading intellectual dogmas of the modern world' . Hope you would be interested to share ! The link is :

    Abraham Joseph

  22. #22 Shreya Mukherjee 26 Aug 12

    This is a wonderful article. It reminds us the basic value of 'sharing life' which is on the verge of oblivion as the incursion of modern civilization. The article reflects a kind of innocence which still persists in the life of adivasi people and this is something which distinguishes them from the complexities of the modern society.

  23. #23 Kakoli Mukherjee 26 Aug 12

    For me, the phrase ’healthy competition’ has always been an oxymoron, and this article confirms my belief. Nothing can be termed ’healthy’ if it teaches you to pull another fellow being down. Perhaps, if we can still learn the art of celebrating winners and losers alike from these Adivasis, and share our fast-depleting resources, the widening gap between the ’haves’ and the ’have nots’ can be bridged to a certain extend.

  24. #24 Geeta Damle 27 Aug 12

    Reminds so much of the movie series.. ’God must be crazy’.. Incredible as this article is..

  25. #25 Deepthi M S 27 Aug 12

    Even with modern civilization, most households in our society stress on inculcating the habit of sharing things among children. The story reminds of home. Even to this day, I am made to share anything that is edible with my brother.It is not something that I want to but a force of habit.
    The question of 'spoiled city brats' arises when parents believe that westernization is modern civilization.

  26. #26 Cherishma Shah 27 Aug 12

    I agree to the you that the kid's are the most innocent with a pure heart having no competition.I equally disagree to the point all the rich and middle class kids have tantrums. If you observe many born kids belonging to this class also go through a lot and they cannot be completely blamed for their behavior.

  27. #27 urmi sengupta 31 Aug 12

    what a beautiful article it is. worth reading..

  28. #28 Maureen Lobo 01 Sep 12

    So much to learn from the 'non competitive' of these Adivasi kids!

  29. #29 Lucy H 06 Oct 12

    Heartwarming stories of the adivasi perspective on life, Mari.

    However, much as I agree with you that taking a consensual, loving and sharing approach to life is ultimately most beneficial to fostering community and harmony, I disagree that competition is always unhealthy.

    The overwhelming lesson from the Olympics for me was that people from all nations could come together peacefully to compete in a way that celebrated diversity and valued all competitors, not only the winners.


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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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