Desert – for some it’s just a huge land of sand, for others home. I have always associated desert with nomad, travelling on their camels from one oasis to another in search for food and water. Brave Bedouins always ready to go for a new and unknown, armed with their belief and hope. They could be a perfect role model for all these who are afraid to take risk and start their life journeys and achieve what they need and desire. Since the Greek Civilization, western society has always admired great warriors, leaders, travellers, painters and writers. All these archetypical heroes who dares to transgress and cross the boarder of either physical or mental or artistic cognition. Society usually forgets about all the rest who remains at their homes and silently struggles to survive.
The life of inhabitants in Rajasthan`s desert seem to be similar to the life of mythological Sisyphus who was told by gods to push a huge stone up to the mountain with no chance for success. The traditional interpretation of this story tells us to sympathise with defeated man in his miserable and lost life. However it is just one point of view. Albert Camus perceives Sisyphus as a true hero, who in spite of realizing fighting loosing battle, every single day decides to face his life situation. The awareness of possibility to make choice in his life gives him feeling of freedom and dignity. It’s his decision about his life that turns his image from depressed lost man into a true hero. Although Sisyphus is still pushing his stone up to the mountain, he’s not a slave any more but a free man.
Obviously it’s western way of interpreting this story, which emphasizes the role of ego and free will in our life. It could be also interpreted as the acceptance of one’s own destiny and fate. What matters is that such decision either based on free will or acceptance determines the people’s life and have significant impact on their physical and mental health.
During my research field trip to Rajasthan stone desert in India, I visited plenty of small villages, separate family houses and schools. I also participated in community gatherings. There I saw people living in modest huts struggling to survive, with no electricity and no stable access to any water. Their households were built about 100m away from one another so to let goats use the space. In this area it’s the animals and special tankers for collecting waters the most crucial.
Locals I visited, turned out to be extraordinarily hospitable. However although most of them were smiling, laughing and were offering us tea or milk, one could easily notice pain and sorrow in their beautiful black eyes.
For thousands of years, thinkers all over the world have wondered how people who are living in inhuman conditions can remain healthy and keep optimal well-being. Ernest Hemingway once wrote about humans that you can destroy them but not defeat. In the villages I met women beautifully dressed with lots of ornaments. They didn’t resemble European farmers at all, rather women ready to go for a social meeting. They invited me to their tidy and decent huts. My first thoughts were: “People but you have nothing. Then why do you care so much about your dress and ornaments? You’re in the middle of nowhere…what gives you the reason to be happy?” Me, European, I naively lured myself that I have better life than them and because of it I should have more reasons to be happy and fulfilled.
But to be perfectly honest I felt a bit jealous about them. In my western world, people obtain much more but lots of them suffer deeply from the lack of their own dignity, meaningful life and eventually become sick first mentally then physically on so called “civilization diseases”. The other researcher shared with me his opinion about locals` life. “They are free. I really would love to live here.”. Live here…in the middle of nowhere, without any guarantee for getting water and succeeding in harvesting. With no future plans and virtually no long term perspectives. Then what makes locals` life so tempting in the eyes of westerns who seem to have everything what desert inhabitants could ever dream of?
It might be the case of feeling the desire for “existential experience” firstly described by sociologist Eric Cohen. Undoubtedly locals live their life in harmony with nature. The rhythm of nature constitutes what they do and when. It gives them the sense of rootedness and the increasing phenomena in western Metropolises of becoming subjectively homeless. Such lack of Blackwell’s “place attachment” results from the fact of being constantly on the move in search for job or better opportunities. Not belonging to local communities is then compensated by joining so called “imagined communities” for instance Facebook, or various internet forums. Recent game “Second Life ” through which people start realizing their needs and desires withdrawing from real world, could be sad but perfect example of it.
Another issue that should be analyzed is the feeling of doing right and useful things. Local in Rajasthan desert have no doubts that what they do and how they contribute to the community is necessary and essential – both for others and for themselves. Again that feeling is not so common in western countries, where lots of young people ask themselves “Why I do it? What for?”. Such questioning of one’s role and usefulness could be easily observed by increasing interest in NGO volunteer projects all over the world.c Cohen. Undoubtedly locals live their life in harmony with nature. The rhythm of nature constitutes what they do and when. It gives them the sense of rootedness and the increasing phenomena in western Metropolises of becoming subjectively homeless. Such lack of Blackwell’s “place attachment” results from the fact of being constantly on the move in search for job or better opportunities. Not belonging to local communities is then compensated by joining so called “imagined communities” for instance Facebook, or various internet forums. Recent game “Second
Life ” through which people start realizing their needs and desires withdrawing from real world, could be sad but perfect example of it.
Definitely inhabitants of Rajasthan desert left alone are probably incapable of surviving. They need external support to meet basic needs especially in the years without rainfalls. Volunteers from al over the world travel to India to help Rajasthan desert inhabitants in need. Controversial German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche perceived altruism as the most sophisticated form of egoism. In his opinion we help others in order to feel better and put ourselves higher on the social ladder. Nevertheless whether I find his statement true or not, there is one crucial issue that should be realized by all of NGO volunteers.
We all live in much better conditions but it doesn’t mean we live better lives. For what they do and for the way they live, we own them respect not sympathy. Secretly we long for some aspects of their lives just as they long for some of ours. Once we take Albert Camus way of interpretation we will start helping them without undermining their dignity and self-esteem.
- Anderson B. (1972) Imagined Communities
- Breakwell G.M. (1986) Coping with threatened identities
- Camus A. (1942) The Myth of Sisyphus
- Cohen E. (2004) Backpacking: Diversity and change
- Nietzsche F. (1886) Beyond Good and Evil