Watch excerpts from Anna's trip to the Amazon jungle and the high Andes, distributing lights.
I recently spent a few weeks in Peru – part of the time, deep in the Amazon jungle with the Huachipaire and Machiguenga villagers, and part with a home-stay family at a rural and forgotten potato plantation in the high Andes. It was a grueling trip but enriching at the same time. The most fascinating part of it was that the trip made me rethink many of my preconceived notions. I had gone there thinking that I would help alleviate poverty but I ended up wondering who was poor – them or us? I had thought that education was good but ended up wondering what is education?
I pondered the question of poverty. What really is poverty? Jacqueline Novogratz of The Acumen Fund defines it in the context of the region and the relative change in someone’s life from one state to another. But I question the very need for the change. If a person can live off the land and survive without money, should we make them dependent on money? We in the western world cannot survive without money. If we don’t have money, we die. However, for someone living in the jungle, if they don’t have money, they can still live. They can eat fruit from the jungle and build a house from the wood. If they have no money, are they poor?
I thought I was going to help eliminate poverty but I came back feeling poor myself. These people live in mud huts with virtually no modern amenities. They live off the land in homes that are cold and dirty. There are animal droppings and the general grime of daily life all around them. But they don’t seem to notice either the cold or the dirt. In fact, they seem to be living in perfect harmony with nature.
My time in the Amazon, made me wonder about our life, constantly ‘on’ with computers and TVs – so ‘connected’, to what? Constantly unhappy and wanting, wanting more, wanting something, wanting anything. We are living in a harsh concrete jungle that we call a modern and developed city, dependent on our artificial and fabricated gadgets, rules, and even food to survive. Who was the richer and who was poor, I wondered.
And education – so fundamental to development and growth, I thought. But when I asked Alberto, the village leader in the Amazon community of Huacaria, what he thought about education, his answer surprised me. He said that education could be good or bad. In the Amazon region, they believed there were two kinds of education. The kind that we all know and are used to – language, math, geography and other subjects taught in a school and then there was the ancient education of the jungle. The kind that is passed from generation to generation. Alberto knew the medicinal value of over 1,000 plants from the jungle. He had treated people with diabetes, snake bites, arthritis and many other diseases with these plants. He felt that this was critical education that must not be lost. But students who studied in schools were not interested in learning about this type of medicine. These students often left town after their schooling and were lost to the community forever. This was the downside of education, Alberto explained.
I realize that this is a view from my rose-colored glasses. They have a lot of disease and many critical needs that are not addressed. They are trapped between an ancient life style and a fast moving world around them. These people are also the first to feel the effects of climate change. The impact on their environment is closely tied to their life, which, in turn is fine-tuned to every element of nature. Century old practices that have helped them adapt to their harsh living conditions now need to change. More on that in a later blog.
They gratefully accepted our gift of solar lights – harnessing the power of the sun into electricity was in perfect harmony with their life.