When Carol arrived to the village in rural Indonesia to begin her anthropological dissertation research, she was shocked at the frequency of “feasts” that took place in the village. This was not a phenomenon she had come to study, and frankly, she became a bit annoyed at how she perceived it “disrupted” village life, and presumably her work. They would involve everyone and much effort and time went into these all-day events.
Carol shared, in the qualitative research methods class in which she taught me, that over time the true nature and reason for the feasts were revealed as she observed what really went on there. What she initially viewed as a waste or a distraction, from her Westernized vantage point, changed drastically.
What Carol learned was that “feasting” functioned somewhat as a guise for the sharing of food among families who did not have as much in the village. In essence, the feasts allowed for food and other items to be redistributed in a way that not only preserved the dignity of the recipients of assistance, but also included them fully in the social life of the village.
When I was working for corporate NGOs and attending food distributions in southern Africa, I often remembered Carol’s story as people queued for their CSB [corn-soya blend], having to verify not only their identity, but their declared and/or determined vulnerability.
Mind you, the logistics of moving and distributing tons of grain within a country like Malawi is quite different than a few hundred villagers coming together to cook a large meal. But I always wondered, how can we bring more intimacy to delivered food aid? Coming from a U.S. state whose surplus contributes greatly to the supply of food aid around the world, I wondered, how can the giving and receiving be made more personal? Can people be made to feel as if their global neighbors are extending care to them?
So why is this important?
It’s the difference between a hand-up and a hand-out. It’s the difference between acknowledging a person’s personal struggles and giving them hope, rather than just assigning them a number.
On this Blog Action Day, let us consider: Does the food received at a village feast versus a distribution of flag-emblazoned sacks nourish the body any differently?
But where it differs is in the nourishment offered to the soul.
To Carol McAllister: I always suspected that the skills you taught and the humanity you modeled were more important in the field as an aid worker than say—macroeconomics. (Gasp!) The life and work of a caring and skillful teacher will always live on. RIP.