Wednesday, December 19, 2012

12/13/12 A sense of community isn't always a good thing

When people talk about life in developing countries versus life in the U.S. or other highly developed countries, we often talk about community versus individual, or connection versus isolation. Often we talk about that sense of community as something that we’ve unfortunately lost in America. We don’t have the close relationships, physically and emotionally, with our extended families as people often do in developing countries. We don’t have the support of a small, tightly-knit community. It takes a village to raise a child, we say, and in the U.S., we no longer have villages. In contrast, Americans are often more isolated. We may not know even our neighbors, and much less are our lives intimately interwoven with theirs. It’s not uncommon for even nuclear families to live great distances apart—parents divorced, children living far from home—and extended families may rarely interact. Sometimes this sense of distance is blamed for the loneliness and unhappiness that many Americans feel. We need to regain small communities, many people seem to think. We need to return to the village.

In Vanuatu, village life is everything. Family and community play a hugely important role in personal identity. Isolation is virtually impossible, even if you wanted it. It’s true that I can see a lot to admire in this strong sense of familial and village community. I see a joy, and comfort, and generosity that I think would be wonderful to reintroduce in the U.S. But I think we often overlook the negative side of community. There can be definite repercussions to a system in which the family or village unit is seen as more important than individualism or self-interest. 

There was just recently some fighting on Tanna that escalated precisely because of the paramount importance of community in Vanuatu. Man Tanna has a bit of a reputation for fighting, and unfortunately, sometimes they earn it. The story was somewhat hard for me to get straight, as I heard it all just from rumors and gossip, and in the extremely imprecise language of Bislama (example: killim, or to kill, can mean anything from lightly slapping to actually killing—it took me a while to figure out that in fact no one dies in this story).

It goes like this: some guys from Tanna are living in Vila, the capitol city on Efate. Two of them start to fight over a girl, and one hits the other one. Possibly someone also hits the girl. These boys are from different parts of Tanna, and so their friends join in the fighting, with men from the south versus men from the west. Sporadic fighting continues to break out over the next few days. Then, some of the men from the west get on a cargo ship headed for Tanna. They come down and go into Lenakel, our little town where all the shops are closed because it’s Sunday. They break into the shops that they know are owned by men from the south, cutting electrical cables and slashing open all the products. Finally, extra police and some of the VMF (Vanuatu Mobile Force, or army) are sent down to the island to make reports, and hold a big meeting with the chiefs and all the men involved in the fighting, and—reportedly—everything is put to rest.

Did you see what happened there? Because sense of identity is so closely bound up in one’s community, a fight between two guys on another island migrated to Tanna and turned into a bunch of men from the west trashing the stores belonging to men from the south. That wouldn’t happen in America. If Guy A and Guy B were in a bar and started fighting over some girl, maybe their friends would jump in and throw a few punches, but then it would end. Guy A wouldn’t go home and rally everyone in his apartment building to go drive a few hours and loot a store belonging to another guy who went to the same high school as Guy B. It would be absurd. Yet that’s not too far off from what happened here.

(Interestingly, what community causes, community must fix: in spite of the impressive presence of the VMF, holding semi-automatic weapons that I’m not entirely convinced weren’t Chinese-made plastic toys, I don’t doubt that it was the chiefs’ discussions and interventions that laid the matter to rest, not the official authorities. Part of the reason there are so few police on the outer islands—in some cases, no police—is because they don’t actually have much authority. Power doesn’t lie with the centralized government. Power lies with the communities, which is to say, with the chiefs.)

Sometimes the downside of community is less dramatic and more complicated. I have a friend in my village, a woman in her twenties, like me. She’s smart, funny, and not afraid to speak her mind. She has a job, and is forward-thinking and determined. She wants to go back to school, or maybe go live with a family member in Vila who might be able to find her an even better job. But she can’t do these things. She lives with her father and is the main caretaker of five children. The youngest child, a small boy, is hers. If she only had to look after him, she could probably pursue other opportunities. But she’s also obligated to care for the four children who belong to two of her sisters. Her sisters were single mothers like herself, until they found new men that they began relationships with. They left their children with my friend, their sister, and went off to live with their new men—presumably because the men had no interest in living with a child that was not their own. And it’s just expected that my friend will take care of these kids.
I know that this isn’t so unusual; there are plenty of people in the U.S. taking care of children of family members. What strikes me about my friend’s situation is that no one seems to think it’s in any way remarkable. No one ever comments on how much she’s doing. It’s just expected of her. Family and community come before the individual.

Community can be very powerful, and positive. But it can also have a downside. And it can sometimes prevent individuals from acting in their own self-interest, or stepping forward, or trying something new, or leading, and that can wind up harming the community itself. 

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