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The big and small of it all

Small Villages, Big Imaginations

I am big shit in this tiny farming village in rural South India. I am a foreigner and I have the default status of being knowledgeable in everything from computer programming and how to run a local NGO despite my educational or occupational background. I also have the added advantage of being black among the chocolate hued people of Tamil Nadu.

Holding their forearms up to mine, natives contently comment, “Same color.” They are thrilled that someone from the big big foreign land where everything is more developed, where there are jobs with higher wages, and where everyone is richer and more educated, with bigger houses and nice cars, is the “same color” as them.

In villages this small, imaginations are big. Most women get the news from their neighbors as they fetch water from the street pumps in the morning. Most don’t know where Europe is.

The men are more aware. They read newspapers, watch TV, and talk about the latest strike with their morning tea at the local kiosks.

They often leave their wives and children at home, and move to Malaysia, Singapore, or the Arabian Peninsula to rake in higher wages in the booming market for unskilled and semi-skilled Indian laborers. Daily, I am asked if I would sponsor someone to my country to find a job and work. I am then grilled about the types of jobs, working hours, salaries, and the visa procedures for an Indian coming to my country for work.

This is despite the fact that I currently have no job in India or at home in The Bahamas.

Though 99% of Tamil Nadu’s population has access to education, the tendency to drop out is still high. Teenage boys want to leave asap to start making money. Girls, who often achieve higher test scores and are generally more interested in learning, are often taken out of school because their parents deem their education not a worthy investment since they will just be married off to live with their in-laws.  While the West views tertiary education and health as indicators of development, the new wealth made through the emigration process is often apparent only in the size of the house, its fixtures, and the types of vehicles (car? motorcycle?) owned. The men who return build lavish two story concrete mansions across the street from their neighbor’s grass huts, thereby fueling the imagination of the youth to take the chance and go abroad.  Life must be better in this distant land.

Even the people working at my NGO seem to get some sort of guilty pleasure out of the popularity they garner from their association with SCORD. My friend Gunar said that everyone knows her and Nadiya (her partner) as the two SCORD field workers always riding their bikes around the area counseling and collecting data. The men like the officiality of sitting behind a desk, writing checks, and managing projects in a village where the main occupation for men is farm labor. They too, are big shit in a small town.

The Exposed Village

I have terrible reactions to people trying to rip me off in the market. I take it personally when someone tries to sell me fruit for twice the normal price. Our experience in Vietnam was almost shattered by the people who would raise prices suddenly in a restaurant or overcharge at a hotel. I called these people greedy. An Indian I met on the train describing Indian investment in Africa called them good businessmen.

The world is globalized. Every dusty pint-size village we rode through in China had internet bars loaded with youngsters playing online games.

People in villages tucked behind the coconut groves that curtain the rice paddies of South India have cell phones. Companies like Airtel and Vodafone have even tapped into the Self Help Group (microfinance and rights focused groups for the marginalized) and NGO market as a way to link village women to banks and networks with clusters and federations.

People who live in thatch houses on stilts leaning against the splintering wind of passing trucks on Laos’ highway 1 have TVs. I sat with about 25 villagers in the living room of such a family who let me sleep on their floor as the sun went down in Laos, and wondered what a shampoo commercial featuring a Laotian woman with white skin and smooth thick hair had to do with the sarong wearing, lice-infested, brown woman with six children, and a coughing husband at whose house I rested.

In villages this small, the internet, TV, and cell phones are magic wands that stir big imagination. It is the same as putting upscale apartments across the street from the projects in New York City, or mansions in Santa Barbera overlooking the slums of Oakland, California: when people see wealth, they want to have some. Even if they’ve sufficed without it for most of their lives, looking at all the jewels the world has to offer gives us more to shoot for, broadens our horizons.

And shouldn’t it? Isn’t this how it’s always been? Haven’t people always tried to achieve more, work harder to give their children what they didn’t have?  To strike it rich, haven’t people always moved?  Migrants in China move from the rural areas to the cities to find jobs. Indians move to nearby countries with more jobs and better salaries. Mexican migrants have populated rural Minnesota to provide farm labor.

The rags to riches story has spread through the wires of transnational companies and their factories and outsourcing agencies. Schemes to achievement (migration) are as quick as the instant exposure (TV, mobiles, internet) which provides instant gratification in a world of increasingly shorter attention spans. 

Perhaps this deserves more research than I am willing to present for this blog, but I tend to look at lavish hip hop videos as manifestations of this romance that the marginalized or traditionally poor have with instant riches.  For the young person sitting in the window of an apartment (or trailer park) crowded with dysfunctional family members, no clear way of achieving his or her dreams, a hip hop video with all its profligate scenarios, its hot women, its tight beats, is an escape, much like the 1930s Gone with the Wind and Shirley Temple musicals were Depression era escapist movies.

And like TVs and cell phones, they give people a heightened view of the riches that exist in the world.  They put people who resemble target audiences, only prettier, more bejeweled, lighter skinned, and with more lustrous hair, in front of cars or kitchen appliances, and sell an image of self-betterment, which comes arbitrarily with the message in fine print: what you have is not good enough. Get better.

Village Voice

Being black in dark-skinned Tamil Nadu, I suppose I am an image of that very same message. Only, I am real. I can talk and explain things, dispel myths. Reveal to the people at my NGO that even though I do have a college degree, I am in fact less skilled than they are at handling the computer or organizing a grassroots level NGO sensitive to the needs and rights of the people of their own community, people who they’ve gotten to know and respect through countless field visits to counsel and organize.

I can tell the people in my village that I have no idea who the famous West Indies cricket player, Brian Lara is (but where would the fun be in that really?).

I can tell them that not all Caribbean people like to or can dance well. That all black people are not from Nigeria, nor do they run.

I can tell them that contrary to the images taken out of context on the big screen, Western women are in fact not easy. And the fact that we are educated make us less easy, more in control of our sex lives, and not to messed with. That not just because we choose how we dress and we like to feel sexy doesnt mean that we actually want to drop trow right now anyhow anyway.

And I can tell them that though the currency is stronger and the salary is higher in The Bahamas, the cost of living is through the roof, and that there may not be provisions to protect the rights of illegal immigrant workers.

When I first started this bike trip, I had a serious issue with our philosophy and the fact that we even had a philosophy. I mean, who gave us the right to “spread cultural tolerance”? I promote cultural tolerance everyday as a black woman living internationally for the last 9 years.  To promote biking as an alternative to cars or planes… in China or India?  Such a project, I thought, would be better felt in the US, where people are dependent on cars.

But having seen how people in the West – through media, transnational and international cooperations, and globalized products – are often producers of what people strive to attain in most developing countries (The Bahamas included as a developing country), I now see the point of setting a better example. Here, face-to-face with people who look up to me, I see the power I have to influence, to alert people of the consequences of energy excesses of hyper-industrialism in the West. To give people confidence in their own slow mode of transportation by riding around the world on a bike and loving it. To give people confidence in thier own simple towns and cultural life by riding there in the first place instead of just sticking to the five tourist spots mapped out in the guidebooks. 

 I have the power to dispel racial myths and fantasies about Western women built up through movie and music images taken out of context. Doing this in India and in China is even more important as these countries’ influences on the global economy and business environment will grow exponentially in years to come.

Spreading a message on a slow-moving bike, without aid of loudspeaker, is the most grassroots way of silent and peaceful protest against the world’s energy excesses and cultural hang ups. And I am more of a small-steps-kind-of-girl than big-shit-in-a-small-town.


2 Responses to “The big and small of it all”

  1. Netzy Says:

    Nakia, you are so right on - peace comes to the world one person at a time. Your examples will influence others for the rest of their lives. Keep riding. N

  2. biceps without weights Says:

    There is noticeably big money to know about that. I assume you made certain nice points in characteristics also.

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