I should have made a better effort here, but it's a spin-off from the Sudan story and I didn't want to put it off longer. Please forgive the poor effort of an aching brain.
The journey I took to Sudan benefitted me personally in many ways but it also troubled me a great deal.
My friend Tim and I were fascinated by different societies, by anyone who was not like us. When he suggested going to visit the Nuba people, I was delighted at the idea, but when I think back now I am ashamed that I was ever so naive.
In my mind there was nothing wrong with going to visit other societies, in the way that Tim and I did. We wanted only to meet different people, to see how they lived, and with their permission, to photograph them. Certainly, we meant no harm.
It should have been so obvious that nothing but harm could come from primitive societies being contacted by “the western world”.
White men carried their diseases to all parts of the world long ago, and there are very few people left now that have not been exposed, although there are some.
The few Nuba we met in Sudan had been acculturated, meaning that they had adapted western-influenced ways, and they had been contacted by missionaries. They had given up many of their traditions, and this made them no longer belong in their own society. Had they become Christians? I suspect in many cases they just did what they thought would win them favour with the white man. But is it really possible to erase the beliefs one grows up with? And having been “converted”, then what? Their only option was to move to a city where they would be shunned as outsiders.
Why do we assume that it is better for everyone to adapt our ways? Why do we believe our “advanced” ways are so much better? Are we really happier? I think not.
In my youth, like most I suppose, I was idealistic. Surely, after two world wars, mankind would have learned better ways? I thought, for a long time, that it was a wonderful thing for people to travel, to broaden their horizons. I still think it was so.
But now? Maybe because I have withdrawn to a quiet corner, everything seems so chaotic, “out there”. Places that I visited 30, 40, 50 years ago, as little back waters, are now covered in skyscrapers and neon, and noisy bars crowded with visitors all clamouring for drinks, dancing as if demented. Creating so much waste.
While not far away, the poor people still starve.
It looks to me as if the world is becoming a conglomeration of neon lights that are all blending and blurring together. The world seems to be moving at an always escalating rate. Like a merry-go-round gone mad.
It brings to mind the Roman Empire that flourished and thrived and conquered the world and then degenerated into corruption, immorality, excessiveness, perversion…until it was destroyed, like all the other great empires.
I thought we would have learned from those lessons but I don’t see it.
What I see is a world that is grossly over-populated and apparently intent on destroying its one and only planet along with all the creatures that have the misfortune to share it.
Why does no-one speak of population control? It is so obviously the only way to begin to save the planet.
My remaining time here is limited, and I have no children, but still it saddens me to think of what will be, unless the likes of Greta Thunberg can succeed.
In retrospect, I was glad that we never contacted the genuine Nuba people. Tourists ought never to have been allowed to go and gawp at tribal peoples anywhere.
Tourism is big business, but how cynical is it to invite the world to see your “tribal” people, as if they are some sort of lesser species?
This was brought home to me on one of my later trips, when I was on an “explorer cruise”. We were sailing from Australia to Indonesia and our route took us via New Guinea and Irian Jaya, West Papua as it is now called.
We had with us Tobias Schneebaum, who was a wonderful anthropologist. Passengers crowded to hear the lecturers he gave about the time he spent living among the Asmat people of Irian Jaya.
Tobias had gone to learn from the people of the Asmat. He lived as one of them, and had great affection for them, which was touching to see.
The fact that we were allowed to call at Merauke and go to visit Tobias’ village was a great privilege.
On the day of our visit, Tobias briefed us, asking that we not trade T-shirts in the village as the Asmat people did not wear clothes and knew nothing of washing such items. Ringworm was rampant and the wearing of T shirts would merely make things worse.
Imagine my disappointment when I witnessed one of my own friends exchanging a T shirt with one of the villagers. I could not believe it.
Then, as I walked through the village, feeling very much an intruder, I saw a man wearing a woman’s underpants, on his head. The man had no way of knowing what type of garment he had and apparently it seemed to him a suitable piece of head gear.
I had already been thinking that we had no right to be in that village, a group of tourists with their cameras and fancy clothes. One of the girls had a walkman and thought to place her headphones over some child’s ears. He was not afraid, but had a glazed look.
Back on the ship, I felt guilty of trespass. But worse was knowing that this part of the island of New Guinea was now controlled by Indonesia, a vastly over-populated country. The Indonesian Government was persuading people to transmigrate to Irian Jaya with the offer of land. The migrants were mostly Javanese Muslims and could not have been more different to the Papuan Christians. The land in Irian Jaya itself was alien to people who cultivated terraced paddy fields. It was a true recipe for disaster.
Perhaps it is encouraging that so very many years later, Irian Jaya/Papua is still relatively pristine, with ecologists battling for its preservation.
According to WWF, 5% of the world’s species live there, in 1% of the world’s land space, with 602 bird, 125 mammal and 223 reptile species.
Perhaps there is hope for them, if not for their human cousins who have now been fighting for their rights for 50 years.