issue 192 - February 1989
Peat cutters and cruise ships
Eva Fleg Lambert expected to write about her visit to Mali.
Instead she saw her home in the Inner Hebrides with new eyes.
When I wrote to the NI suggesting I might submit something upon returning from six months in the Sahel region of West Africa, they said 'it should arouse the interest of people who really don't see why they should know anything about this part of the world'.
Right. I returned inspired, with a plethora of possible subjects jostling for position in my head. There were the many government and voluntary agencies vying with one another to supply Mali with services that were often redundant. And there were the trigger-happy tourists treating the indigenous culture as an object to capture and take home on film.
But I returned. To here: the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. And was handed, along with my ferry ticket, a pile of bumpf advertising hotels, teas, tweeds, tapestries, socks, sailing, walking, whiskey and Wrangler jeans.
I returned the bumpf. 'I live here,' I explained with a pained smile and drove off the ferry behind a large tourist bus. Later that day I came across the same bus at a standstill, its load of bestrapped and belensed and bemused tourists lined along the verge snapping pictures of an innocent family digging their peats.
Wherever you are in the world, tourism makes the local culture an object, something static, something to photograph. It is as if the local culture must remain static to satisfy the needs of the tourist. And the tourist industry that exploits this is usually from outside too. Locals generally provide the seasonal work but not the cash nor the facilities.
In Mali and Niger the hotels were often owned by Europeans or Lebanese who saw the local culture as an object to sell. On Skye the hotels are owned by Scots and incomers but rarely by locals so the same problem prevails. In Mali and Niger, as in Africa and the Third World in general, 'local' means different coloured peoples, different customs and languages. Up here on Skye the differences are not so easy to spot. Gaels look just like other Brits and the Gaelic language is spoken more in the home than in public due to generations of persecution. But they are marginalized nonetheless.
The local tourist office puts out brochures with quaint pictures of old ladies in shawls and long skirts sitting before thatched cottages at their spinning wheels or men bent over sheep with large shears. The truth is that hardly anyone (only one old lady on Skye, in fact) lives in a traditional thatched cottage and most sheep are shorn by electric shears.
An acquaintance visiting from London expressed dismay that a local tannery was being built out of cement blocks rather than local stone. I do not know what the local stone is in her London borough but I'll bet my bottom dollar her home is not made of it. Other people expect to be served traditional hand-prepared oatcakes instead of bread for breakfast despite the fact that they take ten times as long to make.
So our expectations rule us. In our urban locale we can live in cement block houses but up here we must have the local stone (preferably placed in position by pipe-sucking men in dusty cloth caps); at home we can cook packaged food in microwave ovens (after all we have such Important Work to do and cannot spare the time to prepare food) but up here we demand the 'authentic' since, after all, time is different.
We constantly have a double standard. Whether it is the Third World or the rural part of the First, those of us who are used to being in control in the centre of population insist that local people should abide by a different set of rules. It is as if those in rural areas must pay penance and keep balance on behalf of those who wield the power and control the finances - and produce the pollution.
In Morocco, in transit to the Sahel, I saw an old couple standing on the beach some miles north of Agadir, that tourist Mecca of North Africa. They were pointing at a cruise ship sitting between sea and sky on the horizon in the same way, I felt, as their parents would have watched the passage of geese. The advent of the first cruise ship of the season meant it was time to pack up and travel to Agadir to find work, much as the first V of geese would have told their parents that it was time to pack up and head for the next season's grazings.
Here on Skye some wait for Easter: that is the time for the first influx of tourists. It is also the time for cutting the peats.
Eva Fleg Lambert has lived on Skye since 1971 where she has a sheep croft and weaves rugs.