On Irritating Poor People

Or, How to Prey on Each Other Nicely

Playing in a village, Solomon Islands. Photos by Brett Matthews

Not long ago, while recovering from whooping cough picked up on assignment in the Solomon Islands, I found a bench with a rare patch of shade in the Queen’s Mall in downtown Brisbane. As I sat and sipped a thick mango-kiwi-carrot juice, an older man seated himself at the other end of the bench.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked, with an affable smile.

It turned out Andreas was born in Germany, but migrated to Tasmania as a child, right after World War II.

“I was getting as far away from the war as possible” he went on. “In those days you could be free here. Life was great here. Nowadays Australia is falling apart. Too many rules. You can’t do anything anymore.”

He soon became very curious about what I do. I told him I was self-employed, my vocation is fighting poverty, and my current assignment was in the Solomon Islands.

“There are nearly a thousand islands” I explained “and it is very costly to travel between them. So my client has asked me to look for ways for local people on each island to form groups that allow them to save and borrow from each other.”

Andreas politely expressed his doubts about the usefulness of this.

“People have their own lives” he commented, dragging on his cigarette. “Why do we all seem to feel the need to change them?”

Years ago, I often heard a similar sort of remark from affluent university professors who demanded that I stop corrupting poor people with capitalism. Today I hear it increasingly from ordinary people like Andreas, whose views are more disturbing, albeit far less tinged with hypocrisy.

School of life: a village in the Solomons works with cash, calculators and finance.

“Your ‘hands-off’ philosophy sounds very tolerant and wise” I said, politely exaggerating my thoughtfulness. And the Solomons — a two-hour flight from Brisbane — may well be, of all human communities world-wide, among the easiest to leave alone. Poverty in the Solomons is not like poverty in Ethiopia or the Sudan or even Bangladesh. Typical villages have very few households — perhaps fifteen or twenty. Most are near the Pacific, often beside a beach. They are surrounded by dense forest carved out, at the villagers’ convenience, for household gardens. A few hours of fishing in the family dug-out canoe can usually snap up several days’ supply of fish, which teem near the shoreline. Coconuts, pineapples, breadfruit and other foods grow exuberantly in the nearby forests. And with a little hard work and prudent gardening a family can eat a wide variety of fresh vegetables all year long, maintain an abundant store of yams, taro and pana, and even catch and feast on the occasional wild pig, etc. Not only do the villagers not ‘need’ the modern world, some might be quite content if they never saw it again.

“But don’t forget” I went on, “that we’ve been changing their ways of life aggressively for centuries. Even if the villagers wanted to go back to their ancient ways we would never let them. So why not help them adjust to all the stuff we’re doing to them?”

The world is highly specialized, with many reasons for meddling, some better than others: natural resource extraction, trade, sexual exploitation and pedophilia, religious conversion, scientific research, entertainment and drug dealing, to name only a few.

“They are very primitive people” he responded. “If they were genetically our equals, they would have a civilization like ours, too. So there is no way we can change them, even if we want to.”

The bustle on the Mall was muted by tranquil dabs of sunshine. When I was growing up in Canada in the 1960s and ’70s the long shadow of World War II still silenced this sort of talk: Nuremberg, eugenics and the Holocaust were still too close. But now outright rejection and membership in the local United Nations Association no longer cut it. Under the weight of years of collective forgetting, we liberals have to start earning our way in the world — and our freedom — again.

There are surprisingly good libraries in villages in the Solomon Islands.

“They came out of Africa around the same time we did” I said, “perhaps fifty to a hundred thousand years ago. Their genetics can’t be fundamentally different. There haven’t been enough generations for that.”

A patch of sun began to warm my shoulder as I took a last sip of mango-kiwi-carrot. “In any case we can’t leave them alone now. The world is too globalized.”

I told Andreas about Vassula Ryden’s recent visit to the Solomons. While I was there she arrived on tour, preaching to rapt local crowds. Whatever their private beliefs, few Christians dare to talk about hell and Satan in the West these days, but those old chestnuts still get roasted regularly where people are less equipped to defend themselves. And the message of missionaries in poor countries is usually, at its core: “our God is the only God. Would you rather accept a God that so loves His people that He gives them mobile phones, writing, long lives, and nuclear weapons — or would you rather worship paltry gods that leave you with stone axes and dug-out canoes?”

“Christianity disgusts me” Andreas snorted. “I’ve been an atheist most of my life.” And the conversation moved on to the religious views of our families, and how we both left Christianity behind, in very different ways.

As we spoke a man approached very close to us with a very large camera, pointed directly at us. I looked up and smiled.

“What are you photographing?” I asked.

“You” he said, smiling. He showed us the camera screen and the shot he had just taken: a close-up of Andreas in full flow. The lines on his face were deep and beautifully etched.

“He looks very wise,” I remarked.

“They’ve always said I look young. But you don’t know” Andreas told us. “Underneath this face, everything in my body is rotten.”

“Do you exhibit?” I asked the photographer, whose name was Paul.

“Sometimes, but not usually” he said coyly.

“Are you a journalist?” I asked.

“No.” Paul smiled. “I’m just an amateur.”

“Well” I said, “I am here to see some art galleries, so if I see his face in an exhibition, I’ll know how it happened.”

They both smiled again, and Paul left. Shortly afterwards Andreas bid me a cheery goodbye.

Lau Woman by Riaz Maninga (Collection of Brett Matthews)

It occurred to me that Andreas had not objected to Paul’s intervention, though it was abrupt and unexpected. Paul took a chance. Had either of us objected, it is very likely he would have deleted the photos. Precisely because such a common understanding exists it becomes easier to trust each other.

Good development equips locals with the resources to survive encounters with, and adapt to the presence of, the world’s most dangerous predator — homo sapiens. Advanced societies involve complex balancing acts of mutual predation and cooperation, supported by the most advanced cognitive and technological resources on earth. But without the individual and collective resources — schooling, accountable institutions, money and technology — to play the game, we get eaten for lunch.

Adaptation is one of the greatest of human capabilities, and humans at the back are quickly catching up. But it is in the interests of all of us to make this process as fast and easy as possible. Modern urban culture didn’t evolve from the African savannah in a century. Cultures and institutions, grounded in identity and livelihoods, can catch up in a few generations, but rarely less.

I look forward to the day when no one will ever use DNA as a rhetorical bargaining chip again.

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