They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

To read or to eat? Is that the question?

To read or to eat? Is that the question?

By Edgardo Civallero

It happened in 2003 in Salavina, a little village lost in the middle of the dry forests which border the Dulce River, in southeastern Santiago del Estero (an Argentinean province). I was there presenting an advance of my work with aboriginal libraries, in the Annual Congress of Quechua Language and Culture (Quechua is the old language of Incas, and Salavina is placed inside the region where the only Argentinean dialect of Quechua is still lively spoken). During my speech, someone among the audience raised the hand and, in a quite high voice, told me that my work was really nice, but that "poor Indians didn't need books, but food and that sort of things..."

After some hours and despite the "consolation" of several colleagues –who supported my ideas and my work with warm and very logical speeches– I was still stuck. Had I been so blind? Had my work been so useless, so utopian, so ridiculous, so stupid?

The question on discussion goes as follows: is reading a useful tool for the development of communities and peoples, or maybe it is just a luxury which could be relegated to a last place when compared with more urgent needs?

I built the answer (the one that I was not able to deliver back in Salavina) after a good number of months working within the harsh reality of rural, indigenous and disadvantaged urban communities.

The priority, urgent, physical necessities of an individual or a society can be satisfied through humanitarian aid... if a more convenient way is not previously found. Many hands would give this help willingly: NGOs, religious groups, (some) governments... The problem, as an old peasant of northern Cordoba (the Argentinean province where I live) funnily told to me, is that "shoes and peas tin cans do not breed". Indeed, once the tin can is empty and the shoes are worn out, people go back to the departure situation of crisis, waiting again for the aid resources. This chain of events usually leads to unfortunate and dangerous relationships: all kind of manipulations, and even social, political, and religious control. Several examples in Argentina and other South American countries clearly demonstrate this point.

The primary needs of disadvantaged communities (food, house, health) must be covered in a balanced way, but this must necessarily be complemented with education and information (and these services could be implemented by means of a public library). Education allows the construction of roads to the future, the recovery of lost identities and dreams, the knowledge of rights and duties, the finding of solutions to problems, and the understanding of the power of the own hands and the own work. It allows avoiding today's fall to be repeated tomorrow. It allows building hopes and projects, and breaking chains of humiliating dependence. It allows giving the fish to the hungry people today, while teaching them to catch tomorrow's fish. It allows learning how to breed cattle, to manage seeds and plants, to take profit of natural and human resources, to create work and an infinite spectrum of other possibilities.

So, I believe that there is no such a disjunctive between books and food. We do not have to leave aside the important matters because of the urgent things. We must keep in mind both of them, giving a just treatment to each one. Reading and writing skills –and the roads they open– are essential acquisitions for every human society. Without them, personal and social development is neglected, and even stopped.

But it seems that, as usual, the future and its chances are horizons that can be seen just by a few visionary minds. The rest –including a good number of librarians, and authorities, and governments, and powers, and...– remain solving immediate problems. They cannot see that, by doing this, they are closing lots of doors leading to a future growth.

And sometimes, as I have stated before, this kind of help ends in domination and harmful relationships. Just ask to the indigenous communities in northeastern Argentina: they are paying with their votes the water they drink, and with their prayers and their faith the books their read. American and German evangelist books...