Wattle and Daub
A Three-Day Ethnography, Thoughts on Vandana Shiva, and True Confessions from the Development Fast Lane.
(Another Version of El Último Pueblito en el Río Santiago: This time I may even have outdone myself. Imagine a remote, humid, tropical country. Close to the equator is good. Little visited by tourists is even better. Drive at least half a day from the capital city. Then go into the bush by four-wheel drive, boat, horseback, walking…there is where you will find Claudia.)
Day One, Evening: On this trip I have my Discovery Channel/National Geographic/Margaret Mead moment in a canoe speeding upstream and running rapids deeper into the Choco Andean rainforest corridor for an hour. The river is serpentine, swift, boasting white water on every curve. Rocky banks are dotted with small villages of ten, twenty shacks, which banks shortly give way to steep vertical shores of dense green impenetrable jungle dotted with waterfalls.
In between overhanging vines and palms as tall as three-story buildings I glimpse a flash of neon blue that I assume is a bird. It’s a butterfly the size of a bird. Our driver reads the water and threads the rapids with the skill of experience and the high-speed freedom of youth. Over our heads dart more butterflies. I glimpse one the color of lemon curd. Another is fire engine red.
Playa de Oro is a village of families. Children under five play on every available dusty space and tree. A not at all shy 5-year-old, Mercedes, establishes herself as my welcoming committee after boldly watching my clumsy disembarkment from the canoe parked now at the stone and cement, manmade dock. Older girls and women are washing clothes, slapping large wooden paddles on top of soapy mountains of laundry, on the quiet shoreside eddies of the swiftly flowing, grey green river. Adult men, and some women, have walked out to their fincas with their bright yellow gumboots on, to tend to plantings of cocoa and bananas amidst the rainforest. An old man sits in the middle of our conversation, attentive, quiet, diffidently smoking a cigarette. Even the chickens come to fuss over our arrival and introductory conversation.
Bernardo, my driver, guide, and travel companion has become very solicitous and protective now. True, I am exhausted from the altitude sickness in Quito, dizzy from the twisting mountain curves descending 9,000 feet in five hours. I am probably dehydrated and I am definitely bone tired. I find out after we have left Playa de Oro that Bernardo is also concerned with me as a way of hiding his own shakiness from posttraumatic stress due to a previous encounter in this same village, fifteen years ago, which left him terribly distressed.
In the meantime, Bernardo arranges that the ‘ecotourism cabins’ are quickly outfitted with clean sheets, and stained but clean towels, and most importantly, mosquito nets. Think lovely, but No Star Accommodations. The cabins that rarely see tourists are constructed like the village houses, on four foot stilts and made of wood with zinc roofs. There is an internal bathroom that is not very clean, but with running cold water. I wash off the quite dried evidence of the last occupant’s bout of diarrhea from the toilet, and then drink as much bottled water as I can, as quickly as I can.
We meet in the village for a hot lunch of squash soup with cheese, stewed chicken, and rice, made by Doña Elena. We eat to the hum of the electric generator in the yard. The local “restaurant” allows itself all day electricity when there are guests. Neighboring children trickle in and out to play with a ten-month-old scooting around the linoleum floor in a walker. The older children ask politely for ice from the freezer, which is freely given. Based on the quiet, bashful stares from the children, some of the errands seem like good excuses to check out Claudia and Bernardo, the strangers in town. The lunch is sumptuous.
The morning’s coffee and hot chocolate prevent me from a nap, but the headache and dizziness are leaving. In the afternoon I listen to the river, which I have a clear view of from the porch of my cabin, flowing swiftly past the village houses. I observe the birds flitting in and out of the palms, and I sink deeply into village life tranquility, watching barefoot preadolescent boys climb trees and race back and forth inside of their own ready-to-hand dramas.
Day Three, Daybreak: I’m sitting under the tented mosquito net on a double bed. It’s too hot for blankets or covers, and I wrap myself with a damp sheet of indeterminate color. Day Two began with the insistent crowing of the village roosters, who had been importantly strutting around the village impotently attempting crowd control with their respective hens. Judging by the stewed chicken we again had for lunch these free ranging chickens are well cared for.
Now I am sitting under the mosquito net, altogether awakened by the moon shining full and bright on my face. The moon had left me alone all night in her bed of clouds, giving me a three minute blessing just before daybreak. I am bathed by moonlight coming in at an angle through the netted ventilation at the top of my cabin. Night falls and day rises with the speed known only at the equator. Twelve hours of daylight, twelve of darkness. Always.
Last night’s meeting with the village council, 13 men approximately ages 18 to 40, went seemingly well. At lunch yesterday the village headman sat with us and exchanged the pleasantries and bantering teases with Bernardo that seem typically permissible with long and amiable acquaintance. In the last two days I have felt mostly reactions of warmth, welcome, curiosity, and a reserved respect. Judging by observed interactions between the village’s children and adults I assume the deference is due to my age.
Right before our official meeting I had been watching, from my porch, an entertaining, humorous thirty-minute reality drama involving four young girls and two pigs. I also had a chance to ask Bernardo if there were alligators in the river (no) and if the name of the village meant there was gold in the river (yes). Black Ecuadorians, Black Gold, who knew? The almost magical legend of this village, nearly 500 years old, riveted me. I have collected stories already. There are more to come.
Day Three, Late Morning: I awoke feeling happy and healthy for the first time in many days. The good, fresh, simple food, a warm vibe, the cold bucket baths, rest, the hum of the river. I watched carefully at the restaurant, which is also the cook’s house, as Doña Elena, her husband, the village headman, and the cook’s daughter took turns nursing the daughter’s 10-month-old son who seems to have a stomach bug and is vomiting breastmilk after every feed. I cannot help intervening to give my opinion on the medications the baby has been given by the doctor. The family agrees to go back to the clinic and get something more appropriate. I notice the ease with which the baby is passed around, especially back and forth to the men, who seem happy and comfortable with this bit of nurturing.
I am intrigued and hunger for more tales.
My friend Stan, from Brooklyn, coined the term “Development Fast Lane” which expression he and I sometimes traded for “Expatriate Fast Lane” as terms of endearment and derision for the life we shared for four years in Dhaka. Our children were in the same class in the international high school, and Stan and I were in the same development line of work – family planning, reproductive health, and girls’ education. Both of us were directors of two of the dozen or so multimillion dollar projects being financed by the US government and the World Bank in 1989 in Bangladesh. Stan, his wife and daughter lived within walking distance of where I stayed with my three sons.
I have no embarrassment for the role we played at a unique time in Bangladesh development history. The USAID mission was dynamic and knowledgeable and inclined to say yes to any good ideas. Our Bangladeshi colleagues were well educated, superbly skilled, and along with key partners in the Bangladeshi government they were committed to the work of bringing reproductive freedom and reproductive health to the multitudes of their fellow citizens in abject poverty. We listened to our hosts, explored with them the farthest reaches of this beautiful, water-soaked delta, and ran interference with the bureaucrats in the Embassy, USAID, Washington DC, and our respective NGO headquarters. It was a heady time. We had huge projects, large budgets, fleets of four-wheel drive Toyotas, we were accountable, we worked hard.
Bangladeshis and expatriates, both, we felt we were making a difference to the intolerable and unnecessary injustices of hunger, poverty, ignorance, disease. In the midst of doing such interesting, important work that, it seemed, was what development work was meant to be about, it was impossible not to get caught up in the politics of The Development Fast Lane. Soon after completing my post in Bangladesh I moved on to Southern Africa and Stan moved back to the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia. During my time in Bangladesh development work started to change in form and process if not in intent.
I would maintain that the intent of development programs was always more than a little suspect. Development had to be seen, at minimum, as the neocolonial project of assuaging Western guilt for the plunder of natural and human resources that fueled the incessant demands of colonialism and post-WWII capital for production and growth while leaving the cultures from which these resources were pillaged in social, economic, and environmental tatters. It was always that way, and Stan and I, along with many of our colleagues, were aware of this.
Development was never solely a project of the benevolent sharing of resources. It was ever a political project, an economic ideology that supported the core beliefs and aims of Western, twentieth century capitalist globalization. Indian scientist, activist, and feminist, Vandana Shiva, in her book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, has said, “The ideology of development is in large part based on a vision of bringing all natural resources into the market economy for commodity production.”
However, in the early 1990s development work definitely started to change in form and process. The change started gradually, as a seemingly benign demand for project efficiency and effectiveness. Underneath arguably useful structures and requirements for program evaluation lurked an insistence on development projects’ role in the opening of markets to global corporatization and commercial capitalism.
In the new efficient development, services, communities, and the environment were increasingly commoditized and privatized rendering ironic and futile the very attempts to lift the poorest out of misery so that they might be made consumers of their basic needs – health care, education, agricultural commodities, fuel, and water. Lifting the standards of living of all communities maintained a veneer of humanitarian feel-goodery, while simultaneously attempting to hide the real scheme which is the necessity under neoliberal economic growth models to expand consumerism beyond the already saturated commodity markets of the West and North, along with the insatiable demand of commodity capitalism for natural resources.
The marriage of development and business led to increasingly bureaucratic, imperialist organizational structures in the headquarters and field operations of the government and large non-government institutions that were leading the organization of these corporate-friendly development programs. Non-government agencies’ boards of directors became less influenced by charitable interests and more business dominated, with the promises of funding that new types of board members could bring to governance and decision-making. As boards became co-opted, so too did the structures, staff, and projects of these agencies. One need only examine the history of American conservation and environment NGOs and their cooptation by government and big business funding to see an example of the direction these alliances assume.
Over the last two decades the forms and processes of development program management moved from an emphasis on bureaucratic efficiency in development projects and institutions, to an insistence on alliances with the corporate sector in managing development work, and finally to the management of development projects by global corporations and their consulting divisions, funded by government/corporate partnerships that epitomize development program implementation today.
By necessity the corporate project of development is at odds with the basic needs of the communities that are the “beneficiaries” and victims of development projects. Global capital demands production and consumerism while the poorest communities continue to struggle with unmet basic needs of food, water, and shelter. Perhaps more important under the development/corporate alliance it is impossible to create an incentive for a fundamental shift in thinking that would make it possible for a still, but barely, resource wealthy world to realize success in improving the lives of all of nature, including humans. Shiva has described it as, “Their (the poor) new impoverishment lies in the fact that resources which supported their survival were absorbed into the market economy while they themselves were excluded and displaced by it.”
I’m back in the field teaching the fundamental principles of entrepreneurship and small business management to unemployed women in the poorest rural community in South Africa. We have been diverted from the lesson plan on cash flow and balance sheets and are talking about the politics of development instead. I’m well known in the community, but I am and always will be a representative from another world. “Mom Claudia, Baba Tutu says we Africans had the land and the Europeans had the Bible, and after colonialism the Europeans had our land and we had their Bible. What do you think about that?”
I know a loaded question when I see one and my usual strategy is to walk right into the fray with some shred of courage. I recount the story of the land and the bonnets. When European missionaries and colonialists entered Africa they came bringing their cultural and religious baggage with them. The intruders often encountered southern African women toiling on their large subsistence agricultural plots, exposed to the unrelenting African sun. They found the men waiting at the community tree, occupying that space between the timing of the hunt, construction projects, and governance issues. This greatly displeased these Europeans. They convinced African men to take over agriculture and introduced land tenure for commercial and export intentions. They clothed the African women in European printed cotton, taught them how to curtsy to the monarch back home, and made them sit in the shade of the village tree weaving baskets, sewing bonnets, and reciting the Bible. It was the best the immigrants could do to bring their idea of the superior project of European womanhood and economically motivated gender relations to savages.
A moment of ponderous silence is rapidly terminated by uproarious laughter and a cacophony of voices in English, Shangaan, and Sotho all shouting to make heard their opinions of development, colonialism, and tradition. “Mama Claudia, it’s traditional for us to curtsy when we serve our men!” I shoot back, “Yes, but where did that tradition actually come from?” We never make it back to our scripted curriculum on small business accounting
I will end, with something that Vandana Shiva said that demonstrates how we have gone astray. “The act of living and of celebrating and conserving life in all its diversity – in people and in nature – seems to have been sacrificed to progress, and the sanctity of life been substituted by the sanctity of science and development.”
I have much more to investigate regarding Vandana Shiva’s brand of ecofeminism. I am going to move from this brief exploration of Shiva’s critique of development, through an examination of her deconstruction of science, and on to an analysis of Shiva’s and other ecofeminist writers’ ideas on the ontology of the feminine in achieving balanced living. It’s too much to explore in this one, rambling, essay.
“There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for some people’s greed.” Mahatma Gandhi
 Wattle and daub (or wattle-and-daub) is a building material used for making walls, in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. Wattle and daub has been used for at least 6,000 years, and is still an important construction material in many parts of the world. Many historic buildings include wattle and daub construction, and the technique is becoming popular again in more developed areas as a low-impact sustainable building technique. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wattle_and_daub
 Thailand, Burma, Laos area.
 Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: http://www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au/cartoon_2842.html
 Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London: Zed Books, 1989), 9.
 This is a fascinating story that is beyond my experience or expertise and I will not discuss here.
 Shiva, Staying Alive, 13.
 Shiva, Staying Alive, introduction, xiiii.