Thursday, June 18, 2009

White Guilt and Renewed Hope

This is another emotional rant about my time in Greece and seedy lessons.I will write more concise, logical entries later. Just in case any of you want to read this, here it is. I mostly write these journal entries as a way of therapy for myself and to not forget.

I have been in Greece over two weeks already. Peru seems like a distant land and my mind is still slowly adjusting to another new culture and way of life. As I sit to write I look out over a perfectly still blue sea. Bells ring quietly in the lush hills surrounding me as goats move about gingerly to find their favorite food. A hen moans loudly as she lays her egg and two cars crawl up the dirt road.

My first few days here I was utterly amazed by the beauty. I frantically picked wild oregano and thyme, bought some old men in the village a beer and tried to ask them about their farms, rubbed myself in potent wild lavender, and frolicked through colorful hills. Despite all this, there was something nagging at my soul, pulling my emotions into confusion or depression. I was walking down the hill, staring at the sparkling sea when the wave of confusion first struck. I felt so happy - the sun of my face, gazing out into infinity, the music from my recently acquired iPod sung in my ear. However, soon after feeling this great joy I found myself lying on the ground- curled in a fetal position, crying and frantically running my hand through my hair. Dark images of this past year began flashing in my head.

I remembered teaching a group of children in India with distended bellies how to give a high five. I remembered crying with women who told me about their son’s death or hugging an orphaned boy as he showed me photos of his mom. I can still feel the desperation from the group of Ethiopians as they ask me what America can do to help them. For days after this strange crying session in the gravel road I struggled with my white guilt. My dreams were filled with memories of hungry children and oppressed communities. My heart felt so heavy that even wine and Greek dancing did not bring a smile! I couldn’t stop asking why. Why are some so wealthy while others struggle to survive? Why are the dark skinned people of this world
continuously abused and oppressed? Why are we as white men given so much freedom and power? How can I spend a Peruvian mans salary for a month on one meal here?

These questions gnawed at my insides day and night. Repressed memories from this year and before wouldn’t leave me alone The calm sea outside my window reminded me of the still ocean I dipped my feet into only hours after the Tsunami ravaged entire villages and families (four years ago in Thailand). I couldn’t eat the food on my plate without thinking of all those kind souls I met who will go to bed hungry tonight. I felt angry at myself and the wealthy Greeks around me. Instead of enjoying the gorgeous hills I was deeply saddened by the abandoned farmland which people in Peru or Ethiopia could use to survive. Despite all this, the wave of emotions receded almost as quickly as it began. I was asked to show some pictures to a group of people here. As I scrolled through the thousands of images, my mind became clear and I realized again what this year has really taught me. I remembered the Ethiopian children with no possessions in the world as we laughed and skipped through dry, rocky fields. I yearned to spend another cold night surrounded by 12 Peruvian children after a great meal of potato soup. I couldn’t help but smile thinking of all the proud farmers with their seeds- especially the old woman in the Himalayas who had never met a white person before. She fed me until I was sick and filled my pockets with seeds, chasing after me to give me one last variety of holy barley she had forgotten. I was reminded of the young Ethiopian couple with over 42 varieties stored safely in their house: including sorghum called “The one which saved grandma” and a teff variety that made the other women cry out in jealously after they tasted it. I remembered the meetings in the Andes about the importance of protecting native potatoes and the excitement in children’s eyes as they told me about each new potato variety we unearthed.

The white guilt faded as I realized that not one farmer this year has regarded me with contempt or anger. The traditional farmers and seed savers have opened their hearts and homes for me. Countless families have sacrificed their best food stores to prepare a feast for my arrival. I have participated in coffee ceremonies, goat slaughters, rice harvests, farmer field schools, organizing meetings, dances for native millet, songs for Himalayan mixed crop systems, and much more. I have experienced extreme hospitality in every rural place I’ve been. Dozens of farmers have been excited to give me their seeds and teach me not just about their propagation: but also about their uses, histories, and the importance of sharing. Repeatedly, I’ve seen the power of pride and local sufficiency.

I know now that community is the most important aspect to life. Money, fame, beauty and even health fade but community or a strong social network is what keeps us alive and happy through all the hardships. Some of the best moments of this year have been laughing with old men in languages I don’t understand, visiting neighbors to chat and stare into each other’s eyes, or sharing tea after a hard days work. At first I saw the beauty in these rural villages and couldn’t help but criticize the USA. In America, we have become slaves to our jobs and our material possessions. True health or happiness is sacrificed for our work. We have been programmed to think that we need a huge amount of material goods, and we keep working to acquire these. Many of us get sick from working too much and lose our connection to friends and family. We then work more to pay for our health insurance and forget our loneliness. We become stuck in a vicious trap. It doesn’t have to be like this and for many it’s not!

What I meant to say when I started this whole rant is that the kindness of farmers, their innovativeness, and passion for healthy, happy life overrides any white guilt I was struggling with. Guilt is a worthless emotion which helps no one. Instead of wallowing in sorrow or confusion I must seize the day and life in a way that benefits the earth. I was born a privileged, white boy from New Jersey. I can’t deny this. But, I can use my privilege to help those around me. All the people I have encountered this year who live in the most challenging situations do not sit and complain, sinking into misery or jealousy. They figure out a way to work together to improve their community.

I will forever remember a talk I had with Umendragi after ten days of visiting farms in Punjab. He told me that he was confident their natural farming movement would spread across the whole state and they would win. He was sure the Multi-National Companies would leave Punjab and they would restore health and pride to the people here. After all I had seen I could not believe these ridiculous statements. There was a train each day that took hundreds of cancer victims from one village to the hospital. I saw massive fish kills and stayed with various orphans or widows. Advertisements for fertilizers, pesticides, new seeds, and tractors were everywhere. Farmers took loans they could never pay and sprayed chemicals which we ban in America. I asked Umendra how he could be so confident. He laughed and told he had no choice. He instructed me to close my eyes and envision a happy, ecological, and spiritual life returned to my homeland. Umendra asked me to envision the world I desired (filed with equality, diversity, healthy people, good food, strong communities, and dance parties). He then showed me that I had no choice but to fight for that and believe I will succeed. It is important to put things into perspective, but to also have an undying passion and hope in what we are doing. This is what kept Gandhi going and this is what keeps Umendra going. Umendra knows that many say it is not realistic to teach natural farming in Punjab. However, he takes joy from each smile he helps to create, and feels inspired by each new member or successful meeting.

I left this conversation feeling that Umendra was too radical and idealistic. Since then, I have seen enough to convince me he is right. There are enough of us questioning the system of oppression, environmental destruction, and unfulfilled lives. We may not have all the answer yet, but we will prevail. It is not a fight against something, but a movement for a positive future. As long as enough people are asking similar questions and deciding to work together for a better life, there is hope and infinite possibilities. Statistically, in Punjab and much of the world things couldn’t get much bleaker. When you remember the statistics, but focus on learning from all the inspiring people of this world – your attitude can change drastically. I find hope in the farmer field schools in Thailand, Potato Parks in Peru, Slow Food Presidia, and Sustainable Developments in Ethiopia, village led seed banks, and endless festivals. Around the world people are asking why we must follow this one path of development. Why must we live the way in which the elites and corporations dictate? I have seen in 8 countries that there is more which unites us than divides us. We all value family, health, friends, rewarding work, and celebration. We all want a good life for us and our families. Movements are taking hold in nearly every country to restore culture, put local ownership and control back in people’s hands, value good food, and live a life connected to the ecology around us.

I hear Umendras' voice in my head and I know he is right. For much of this year I have lived with people who have no material possessions, but are rich in social capital. They always have friends and family who will lend a hand, share what food they have, exchange the best seeds, prepare a warm drink, and make each other laugh in times of need. I have seen that our movement may not have to money or power to fix all the villages that desperately need help. However, we have the social capital. We have people from all walks of life who are willing to question the system and give everything they have to improve our lives. Seeds are food. Healthy, affordable food is a right and a necessity for every human on this planet. Working together we can make our dreams a reality. I have seen enough smiling faces, dark seed banks, colorful dances, and passionate meetings to know that we will win!

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