Walking backwards into the future

Ka Mua, Ka Muri(walking backwards into the future) is a concept from Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. It refers to appropriate acknowledgment and respect for one’s ancestors, their wisdom and their ways, even perhaps when those ways are not understood. Respect for the past has served people very well. If traditional wisdom comes from a  co-evolution of culture and environment it allows processes (e.g. ecological processes) that are longer than human lifetimes to be absorbed into culture. 

 A myth in saffron, green and white

A myth in saffron, green and white

To an extent we all walk backwards into the future, build our present on myths of the past and ignore present reality. I was reminded of this on August 15, India’s independence day. 71 years ago India officially threw off its colonial yoke and started to define itself and its own trajectory, control its own resources, allow its people to express themselves freely as Indians. On August 15 reedy voices ring out all over India as children sing the National Anthem, flags are raised, freedom fighters and non-fighters (Gandhi)  are eulogised, saffron white and green confetti is sprinkled and chai drunk. “Azaadi “ (freedom), and “Jai Hind” (victory to India) is joyously shouted.  

This year at my children’s school at the independence day  celebration the main speaker left the traditional script for the first time I remember.  He acknowledged the contribution of those heroes of 1947 to life today, but urged pupils to seize the day, use the gift of privilege and freedom to live a life centred on today. I liked this. You see I reject walking backwards into the future when the context is changing because then we will apply solutions evolved to fit past reality to a future unlike that past. It also blocks the acculturalization of new ideas (e.g. "women are equal to men" or "the world’s resources are limited"). Walking backwards into the future can build a present out of uncontestable myths. In the past India, for convoluted social reasons, developed a caste system that divided people according to who they were, what they should do, who they should marry. There may (or may not) have been good reasons back then. In today’s world it is abhorrent. Yet in Free India of 2018, the India across which “azaadi” rings out on August 15, matrimonial columns advertise a prospective marriage partner’s caste…in Free India of 2018  lower caste people have much worse health and educational statistics than upper caste. Poor children have no teachers in their poorly resourced schools and few doctors in poorly resourced health posts. India still walks backwards into the future on many social issues. People dividing (and discriminating) along religious lines is another strategy from the past. India, walking backwards into the future, boasts even worse health and education statistics amongst Muslims than lower caste Hindus.….

On 17 August Atul Bihari Vajpayee, a famous Indian politician and Prime Minister died. The school held a service at which the eulogy was given by the same August 15 speaker. Among Vajpayee's many achievements  he listed nuclearizing India. To me this was Vajpayee leading us  backwards into the future. Maybe there was a time when dividing people into geographically bounded nation states, each armed against the others, was relevant. Maybe. Whatever, today, in a world where finances, resources, the internet and CO2 do not obey borders and desperate migrants all over the planet wish they did not have to either, nuclearizing nation states is walking backwards into the future. Using past solutions for future problems. Anyway to me nuclear weapons within India's border alongside the world’s. highest rates of open defecation and children dying of diarrhoea is a matter of shame not pride.  

Ah, but we humans love this out-of-date way of organising ourselves with lines, weapons and wars.  As a New Zealand schoolboy I remember anthems resounding, medals glinting, and flags rising jerkily up poles every 25th April. Anzac Day commemorates thousands of young men who groveled in trenches killing Turks and being killed by them over a few metres of Gallipoli mud. Medal encrusted old men would  decry our politicians’ paltry spending on arms and encourage us into the glories of military service. Anzac Day gave me war as an uncontestable truth. Never a voice said “this was an awful and stupid way to resolve conflict- lets never repeat it”. Maybe some of my school mates “served” in Afghanistan when NZ groveled to USA by sending New Zealanders for post-invasion “peace-keeping”*.  There are so many better ways to serve the planet than wearing combat gear and brandishing weapons.

 Whose Freedom? The India of these Bihari boys with its nuclear weapons and massive economic growth does not offer them well rescued schools and health care.

Whose Freedom? The India of these Bihari boys with its nuclear weapons and massive economic growth does not offer them well rescued schools and health care.

Let’s not walk backwards into the future. Let’s look around and ahead then walk forwards. Yes eulogise Gandhi for the power and truth in ahimsa (a novel path to freedom), but lets also ask about discrimination, inequality and injustice crystallised Indian culture -questions he left unasked. Let’s question old solutions like defending borders of geographically defined nation states. Old solutions like investing in weapons rather than conflict resolution. Let's not walk backwards into the future carrying neo-liberal economics, a fine exploitation strategy for yesterday’s resource rich world but a disastrous model for seven billion humans on today’s little blue-green marble. 

I’m wary of walking backwards into the future. I work at local not global scales but always in dynamic contexts (that’s why the project is there, why I’m there). In changing contexts solutions evolved for the past are irrelevant . Of course I must understand and respect traditions (why are things done the way they are?) yet development projects are there to redefine behaviour attitude and relationships. Just because people traditionally do something does not mean they should continue to do so. Some traditions force girls into child-marriages, others keep resources and privilege in a few hands or resolve conflicts by power not justice. Stigma can be traditional, so too throw-it-out-of-sight waste disposal. Humans traditionally don’t factor biological realities into livelihood strategies. My work is about walking forwards without such baggage.  I want to facilitate finding beneficial ways for people to relate or organise themselves around resources that their predecessors didn’t find. I want to walk forwards. 

That’s development- looking behind to understand where we came from. Then looking deeply around at the negatives, positives risks and opportunities of where we are. Then looking ahead, visualising where we’re going and walking forwards into that future on a path we choose.  

What do you think- How relevant are our past traditions, our historical victories and retrospective myths in defining future development trajectories?

”Terminology: War” and “invasion” is others using arms (even if sold by us) or violating borders.  Our  men and women shooing, killing, or terrorising others in other places is “defence” or ‘Peace-keeping”.