Friday, August 26, 2011

I will never meet the Sentinelese (repost)

Have you ever imagined taking a sailing trip through the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal? I have. And though I hear the scuba diving is excellent and the sunsets are spectacular, my greatest interest is not in the water or on the horizon but for the little known island of North Sentinel. What would it be like to step ashore, I've wondered.

Welcome to a version of the Stone Age, where sure death is the answer. For on that tropical islet, among lush vegetation and behind a ring of white sandy beaches, resides a group of people for whom outsiders are unwelcome, and time has stood still --- meet the legendary Sentinelese.

In visiting North Sentinel, one has to move cautiously. In an article on the website AtlasObscura, it is reported that two fishermen who made the mistake of illegally casting their lines within the shadow of the island were killed in a barrage of arrows. Even the helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies nearly fell prey to the tribesmen's expert shots.

No, the Sentinelese don't take to strangers, and for that and other reasons, their idyllic speck of real estate has been declared off limits by the Indian government, which oversees the area --- and that has been the saving grace of their society and culture.

When we talk about culture, I like the definition set forth by Lederach (1995) in the book Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures: "Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them" (p. 9). 

The social reality for the Sentinelese, we might surmise, is one in which the idea of in group and out group is very strong. If you are one of us, you look like we do, you act like we do, you speak like we do, and you live in the lean-to next door --- then you're safe. If you don't fulfill those criteria --- you are a danger for us, and if you get too close, you will die.

The Sentinelese "perception" of outsiders as dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows has been corroborated by the experience of other islanders in the Andamans. Without the protection of the Indian government, the Jarawa, the Onde and others have been individually and collectively exploited, their social universes broken apart in much the same way as those of the native Americans from the 17th through 19th centuries: men forced into working as cheap laborers, women conscripted into the invaders' kitchens and beds, and children stripped of their sense of identity as the tsunami of outside influences rushes in.  

There are different perspectives, of course, on what action a government can and should take in this case. Some would argue that it is better for the inevitable to happen, that the assimilation/integration of "primitive" groups to the dominant, more "civilized" society is social evolution, a necessary stage in historical development, and the sooner the better. That argument gains strength when one considers, for example, the advantages of giving these people access to modern health care. 

Still, as the experience of the Penan in East Malaysia and countless other tribal groups from Borneo to West Papua shows us, forced assimilation -- with reneged upon promises of health care, housing and formal education -- can come at a high price: thwarted expectations, dire new living conditions and cultures in decay.

So India's current policy of enforced protection of the isolation of the Sentinelese stands, and my dream of visiting their island will never be realized. Good for them.

For more information on the culture of various tribes in the Andaman Islands, see this link.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nonverbal versus Verbal Communication: A False Dichotomy?

Imagine this scenario: It's dark in Cebu City, 7:45pm. On Mango Avenue sits a well-lit bookstore. On the shop front, a sign reads 10am-8pm.

Two potential customers arrive at the front door. They are obviously not locals, and perhaps are not aware of the norms of the store. They try to enter the main door but find it locked.

Inside the shop, a store security man stands at attention as a cashier rings up a final customer. Outside, the two would-be customers stand in surprise when they note that the door has already been locked nearly 15 minutes before the end of the opening hours stated in the language of the sign.

One of these potential shoppers becomes angry. Without a word, he waves at the security guard, points at the shop sign, grimaces, then tugs at the door handle. The guard looks on but doesn't move. The would be customer throws up his hands in frustration, looks directly at the guard and points yet again at the sign, and when he receives no response other than an indifferent look from the guard, he turns and walks away.

What has just happened in this mainly nonverbal exchange? Why is there a problem?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Imaginary Jukebox

9 to 5? Work deadlines? Doctor bills? Mortgage payment? Taxes?

Those are all burdens that we adults have to endure. Just for a second, wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again? How would that feel?

Of course, it wasn’t a painless experience, but when I remember how carefree I felt at particular times during my childhood, especially during my teenage years, circa 1972, and most especially when I was hanging out on my beach towel at the swimming pool in Thornville, Ohio, on lazy summer afternoons, a big smile comes to my face.

Part of that pleasure was retiring to the pool for a swim. Another part was ogling the young ladies.  But just as important was hearing the music blasting away from the pool jukebox, that oversized, coin-operated phonograph that kept the pool crowd swinging.

A quick Google search shows that the “juke” in jukebox derives from “juke joint,” the often rowdy drinking and dancing establishments that catered to workers on plantations in the southern states of the US in the early 20th Century. (The word “juke” is apparently from the Gullah (Georgian Sea Island) word “joog,” meaning wicked.)  By the middle of the 1940s, 75% of all the records produced in America – and that was millions of records -- found their home in a jukebox.

The jukebox at the Thornville Pool stood right at the front of the concession stand, opposite the wading pool. For a quarter (25 cents), you could choose 3 songs from the 100 or so titles that were presented on a menu within the display case top. Some of my friends would probably spend 50 cents every time they visited the pool, enough for 6 songs. If a guy had a buck and a half, he could line up 18 songs --- and if my memory of 1972 serves me correctly, they might have included anything from War’s recent release “Cisco Kid” to the oldie but goodie “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters. Of course, there were also hits by hugely popular groups such as The Doors and Chicago and by cool singers like Cher and Marvin Gaye.

For some of us though, it was about more than music; the jukebox at the pool was where we learned so much about hipness, about style. Listen to the words and catch the vibe from songs like the “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to see what I mean.

Tune in to Daddy Peet Expresso on on Saturday night August 20/21 midnight and Sunday morning at 11am for this program.