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Take it or Leave it

February 21, 2014

Since my early return home, I have been struggling to put into words why it was I left I place I truly did love, and a job that I have literally been working my entire adult life to achieve. This is the answer, as close as I can put it into words.

First, a brief literary lesson. One of the many books I read while in Ampondralava was Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. Among the many premises he outlines in this novel is the premise the world can culturally be divided into two main groups. These two groups can be identified as takers and leavers. Takers are the majority of Americans, or Westerners, or Developed People. They can be found in every corner of the world, and are characterized by an attitude of management. Management of other humans, natural processes, and these days even complex geological processes. They see the glimmering advantages of modern life and can’t help themselves.

Then there are the leavers. They are becoming more and more rare, as the takers begin to encroach their territories more and more. They too can be found in every corner of the world. Often they are characterized as Rural, Third World, or Underdeveloped. Some of these people make a conscious choice to leave the rat race. Some are joining globalized society more slowly because they are in some way oppressed either by social status, gender, race, creed, religion, sexuality, take your pick of the long, long list. Some will never join the “First World” because they are wise enough to see the problems and the heartache that comes from never having enough, there always being a new “must have”, the “mo’ money, mo’ problems” conundrum. They live their lives and measure their happiness by a completely different set of values than those that Developed societies embrace.

Back to the narrative of why I left,I came to realize that the work I was doing in Madagascar was harming the very core of what made my neighbors and friends who they were. I was selling Taker life, while they were choosing to be Leavers, at least as much as they had any choice in the matter. Their view of life and death was drastically different than ours, and this difference lies at the core of helping to define Takers and Leavers.

Takers will do anything to save human life. They are in it for the existence of our species, and our species alone. Whether they behave consciously or not is not important, it is a fact. Leavers understand that humans are simply another species inhabiting this large world. The plethora of unique beliefs, cultural practices, and languages that form within small areas are a testament to this. Quinn notes in his novel that this is one of the ways humans were able to limit their population, by creating differences that would hedge in growth, enabling the co-existence of multiple ethnic groups and the trophic levels that existed underneath them, upon which they were completely dependent. Takers are largely freed from this dependence on nature. Their attitude towards it has been altered, in some places over a very short period of time. So in a world where there is, arguably, unlimited potential to continue producing food for a growing population of humans, what is the limiting factor for human growth? Now that the old systems of limits have been done away with in Taker cultures, what is it that keeps us, our population chained? And what happens when development efforts remove the limiting factors of population growth, but do nothing to address this critical issue? In short, ending childhood mortality means more survivors, more mouths to feed over a longer time frame, and them having lots of children, all of who will continue this cycle.

When working on food security projects, anti-malaria campaigns, clean cookstoves, we have to ask ourselves WHY? Why are we doing these things? And who is actually asking and benefiting from these interventions? Is it really the people living in small, unlit villages pulling water from the well, washing clothes in canals and rivers? Or is it the more educated classes in these same places, working for a way of life denied to them by colonizers? Or is it the development workers themselves, and their respective societies who benefit the most?

This is not to say there aren’t development programs that work, and work well. And that some people in these unlit, back road places don’t genuinely want the trappings of wealth. From what I saw, and what I experienced, it was clear that culturally, on the whole, my community was not ready for big D development. They liked who they were, they celebrated and clung to their traditions with a fierceness that forced me to take a cold, hard, unsettling look at what it was I was selling. There was a change in attitude towards how many children a household needs, but it still spells disaster in a generation or two.

What I was selling was change. I was selling homogeneity. I was selling loss of identity for them and I was selling Taking. I was selling survival of not just the fittest, but everyone, and that alone, without appropriate discussions on family planning would do more harm in a generation or two than people realize. This growth would mean humans above all else, and a correlating change in values that would have left their traditional celebrations nothing but empty shells echoing the ebb of time that stole the soul of the animal who used to live there.

I might be typing this out on my Mac, in a cozy cafe in North Idaho, but I’m now a Leaver. I Left my dreams, my ego, and my expectations behind, allowing my community of Leavers to leave the change I was selling and live their lives, the way they know how. If at any point they want to transition, and become Takers, there are any number of organizations there to help them. But I hope and pray they don’t. I hope and pray that they realize what it is they are really taking.

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