Dr Kusum Gopal: Why we are bakward
By Edwin Agola
16th December 2010EmailPrintComments
Dr Kusum GopalAn expert, with a grounding in gender issues, health, social development Dr Kusum Gopal, shares some of her insights on various topics including among reduction of poverty and political conflicts in Africa.
The expert who has served in various UN agencies as UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDAW says Tanzania – as indeed elsewhere in the world, a common feature that beleaguers post-colonial countries is the failure of its people being able to make a livelihood, have food, good diety and the conspicuous absence of indispensable civic facilities such as clean water.
She however says, while Tanzania is economically poor it is rich in social terms and has the spirit of egalitarianism stressing that the country's moral fibre of democracy is indigenous and deeply rooted. Excerpts...
QUESTION. What in your view are the most important criteria in understanding a country such as Tanzania?
ANSWER. Well, knowing the history in all its facets is paramount to connecting with how ordinary people feel and think in any country or region. But knowing history is not to read colonial or facetious write-ups. We need to share with people of the country, the many dimensions of their country’s experiences going back three hundred years or more, and with that, their sense of time and space. For example in Tanzania, indeed for east Africa we need to keep in mind Swahili time and space.
That is, in addition to the brutality of the colonial experience, to learn also about the pre-colonial history of Africa – in a wider sense-because that spans millennia and we find in that it is syncretistic – much like the ancient cultures of the Indian subcontinent.
That is to say people co-existed with each other , adopted each other’s beliefs and, race, or a distinct ‘ethnic’ identity of tribe were not important- but mbeyu or clan, not kabila was important as, most certainly, indeed, language. To illustrate inter-marriages between different groups of people have taken place for millennia --and continue to happen. There are also powerful democratic and egalitarian traditions that present in ordinary every day interactions. This is also important.
Thus, when Mwalimu Nyerere stated that all Tanzanians are one people – he was in fact invoking the pre-colonial understanding of what it means to be an African- umoja, hekima na amani. And, that has firmly rooted Tanzania on the path of peace as people seek to avoid conflict in everyday interactions-a model for so many African countries and indeed, for the world also in some respects.
Q. In Africa today we have so many civil wars that have caused genocides and still continue happening. Any comment on this?
A. Yes, land is valuable commodity as is water and natural resources. One famous writer – Wole Soyinka observes that in addition to the exploitation of peoples by colonialism, the ill-advised partition of Africa is at the heart of current civil wars, struggle for lands, water and other natural resources have caused immeasurable trauma and, hunger. And, he advocates dialogues between all warring factions to banish the pernicious legacies and bring peace as intolerance of people is antithesis to the African way of being.
Also, other great leaders such as Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela have spoken about indigenous cultural principles that underlie acceptance-The term ubuntu understood by most Africans, is the essence of being human or being a person. That is, every human being’s humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in another’s... to be open and available to others, affirming of others.
Thus, one cannot feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. Indeed, many parts of the world have much to learn from such ancient wisdom from Africa- “I am because we are” – and this is an entry point for dialogue.
History influences in as much as it is influenced by it--it is important to respect that human beings everywhere in the world are in culture- always. And, how any of us seek to learn and understand culture or cultures in these specific contexts is critical.
We need to not just accept but, also respect what is important to people – women, men, boys and girls belonging to different traditions, what they value and why they value what they do. It is necessary corollary to assume that the local populations, not the outsiders are experts in their own social and cultural environment. Societies and cultures are best understood holistically.
All societies are systematic, rational and, we need to value the integrity and worthiness of all human societies. That is also why cultures should never be viewed as barriers but always seen as enabling and contains the power to transform the lives of people through dialogues and discussions.
Q. We are now on Mkukuta II as the government is aware that what seriously afflicts our nation’s wellbeing is poverty. What do you have to say on this?
A. Mkukuta II will necessarily offer valuable lessons. To me the most pressing problem in the developing world is livelihood. Each morning making a livelihood is important and to be unable to do so and earn money keeping one’s dignity and respect is an anxiety that is impossible to measure – because it leads to an acute loss of confidence and then without money people are forced to resort to survival strategies that cause harm to themselves and their families.
I would say that in Tanzania – as indeed, in several countries of the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere a common feature that beleaguers post-colonial countries is the insufficient indeed, adversity lack of being able to make a livelihood, shortage of food, poor nutrition and the add-ons—the conspicuous absence of indispensable civic facilities such as water on tap – as basic hygiene and cleanliness of the environment are paramount considerations-for human dignity as indeed, social development to take place effectively.
We see repeated failures in structural re-adjustments, in various anti poverty policies as indeed, in the promotion of wealth production which increases impoverishment because we fail to grasp the social and cultural realities that exist in each society which influence oral and written traditions.
Human beings are always in culture and all human beings are indivisible and interdependent – much good can come from dialogues between policy making and cultural prerogatives – be they oral or written.
Q. You speak of poverty of health. What do you mean?
A. In several countries of the Indian sub-continent as also India, despite the globalization and Information Technology, economic poverty is severe.
We also have high rates of anaemia, helminthic infections, reproductive tract infections, maternal mortality and many other problems that afflict women and men here. There is a general lack of knowledge of the body even shame – and women and girls hide within themselves – and find it extremely hard to discuss or talk about their health problems. For example in India, in general, women’s patience to prolepsis, lesions, miscarriages and continence is marked.
Women are reluctant to report on odorous vaginal discharges, menstrual or sexual problems. In Vietnam, in contrast, women are much more open, for example, there are sixty common terms for vaginal discharges. These are important indicators on how women and men relate to each other in various cultures- and constitute a facet of human poverty that needs to be recognized.
Here, we need to bear in mind the Human Development Report 1997 that states that poverty needs to be conceptualized as ‘human poverty’ and it needs to be understood multi-dimensionally. According to this human rights based perspective the poor are those who are deprived of essential human needs and entitlements, resources and, opportunities such as education. It includes not just economic poverty but also, social and political exclusion.
Thus while Tanzania is economically poor, it is sophisticated and rich in social terms– the spirit of egalitarianism is particularly marked – people understand each other be it the President or the farmer: the moral fibre of democracy is indigenous and deeply rooted. It is indeed an enviable situation that cannot be said for most countries of the world I would imagine.
Also, programmes on democratization should take note of this and work with these givens to succeed. And, that is why there are tremendous potentialities for success to overcome poverty because dialogues would be fruitful.
Also, there is a marked respect for the old and children; people greet each other and strangers are also embraced into the community, regardless of what they look like or where they come from.
While in the affluent countries, people evade eye contact and pass by without speaking on a daily basis; strangers are to be avoided at all costs – it is about closed enclaves – and quite provincial in that sense. Also, there are many people who lead lonely lives shopping in supermarkets and go home only to watch television. This is particularly marked among the old people.
The mark of a sophisticated culture is respect of all people and acceptance of all people, regardless of colour, creed, age and so forth. That is why the ancient cultures such as those of the Indian sub-continent, Egypt, and certainly, the cultures of the African continent have a big advantage in this respect.
As one travels through this country, young girls and women of all ages also dress as they wish and do not bother about size or shapes- and they walk confidently and appear to love their bodies – and that is extremely instructive – because what is being celebrated is to be female, no matter what. And, I find women here, in that respect have much to teach the world.
Elsewhere including India – size zero is an obsession and so many girls starve themselves wanting to look like this or that Bollywood or Hollywood star: plastic surgery and the problems of bulimia and self-hate accompany such developments which cannot in the end make them love themselves.
All these issues need to be included in the measurement of poverty as the cultures and ways of seeing generated by such values or beliefs are integral to physical and emotional well-being of human beings in general.
Q. On gender issues, why should it be that women more than men should be at a disadvantaged situation?
A. Firstly, it is necessary to make explicit the difference between sex and gender. Most are born female or male and, everyone is a sexed individual. By ‘sex’ biologists mean the specific genetic and hormonal make-up of individuals and their subsequent development of secondary physical characteristics, which place individuals in the category female (XX chromosome) or male (XY). Biological differences do not and cannot provide a universal basis for social definitions because women and men are products of social relations.
Maybe not differentiating between sex and gender has led to a wrong but common belief that gender is about women- to add women and stir’ is seen to be gender-sensitive and, also as gender mainstreaming-to study women by segregating them from the men, i.e. to ghettoise women. Another common misconception is the concept of sameness, or the notion of universal ‘woman’ or ‘man’.
There is no universal concept of man or woman in analysing gender. To be gender sensitive is not to study just women but also men, as men are the other half of gender. It is very easy to evaluate gender for example, from the vocabulary and daily activities of women and men and how responsibilities are assigned.
In Euro-American context there is a commitment to the sovereign nature of individuals, to the coherence and rationality of their beliefs, lifestyles-- and, to their right to self- determination. And, this constitutes how gender identities are defined.
In the Indian and African contexts-the imposition of generic individualism is not in harmony with local understandings. For example, to uphold brazen individualistic behaviour is ubinafsi – selfishness that does one harm, bringing disrepute and, almost certainly, social ostracism.
Culturally, men and women, girls and boys are conscious that they are composed of substances from kin and constituted by relationships which they need to respect and need to fulfill the requisite moral obligations or face censure. And this informs how men and women relate to each other in the constitution of various societies.
That is why Gender needs to be viewed as a process rather than a category – the doing of gender rather than the being of it–Gruntdvig, a rather wise Danish philosopher noted "Life is of a double nature, whole only in man and
Q. What about corruption which is so widespread here?
A. Once again like poverty there are many kinds of corruption – but we can discuss economic corruption. Much has been said about greed and there is a lot of moral censure against such corruption.
Rightly so, What needs also to be borne in mind is that in many developing countries it is pervasive at unexpected levels mainly because there is no social security, no safety net that ordinary men and women can rely upon to secure free housing, a maintenance allowance, a free good quality national health service or live with the assurance of a good education for their children – all of which constitute benefits for themselves or their families in hard times.
Thus, in northern Europe, such services make for less corruption- there is a price – high taxation. As a matter of fact provision of essential services free of cost could in fact increase the per capita income in the long run, although it could be expensive in the short run.
Perhaps provision of social security is something all developing countries need to take more seriously. It would ironically speaking, certainly reduce the expenses of the government, minimize the corruption and, vastly improve the quality of life.
Q. In Tanzania we have so much of rich folklore and traditional wisdom that is sadly neglected although the government has made efforts to promote them. Do you have any comments?
A. We need to place equal value to oral and written traditions as we find memory is central to knowing and learning in Oral traditions as indeed, songs and all forms of entertainment which are indeed, very important in written traditions as well. Often ethical and moral sentiments that can promote collective action and transform civil society come from such oral traditions.
Q. What do you feel about Tanzania?
A. Mimi napenda Tanzania na lugha ya Kiswahili. (I love Tanzania and Kiswahili language)
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN