“When we stop giving birth, we hold our heads up high. There is no pretending; no lie. We say ‘Now we are old!’ and that is what we want to be. That is our way. Wanting to be called young by others, like the foreigners, is not part of our tradition.”
I read these words, from an Omo Valley tribeswoman, in a small ethnographic museum in Ethiopia a few years ago. I had spent the morning in a nearby grass hut village meeting women from one of these tribes. Women whose lips and ears were stretched by clay plates to symbolise fertility and eligibility for marriage, and whose bare breasts hung long and low after many years of feeding children, but whose chins were held high with pride. If only, I remember thinking as I worked my way through the dusty museum, the women in my life back home and I could see our wrinkles, spots and slackening skin as symbols of a life lived fully, as these women did, rather than features to be hated or obliterated. This thought has stayed with me ever since, and continues to echo in my mind whenever I look in the mirror.
It wasn’t the first time I’d learned an important life lesson from a remote community on my travels. As I’ve journeyed through regions as diverse as the Andean Mountains of Peru and secluded northern Indian villages, I’ve realised that the remote communities living in them have something we in the ‘devel- oped’ world usually don’t: a much deeper connection to what it is to be a human being – physically, spiritually and culturally – and to planet earth. If we pay attention, this is something us curious travellers can learn an awful lot from.
In 2015, while on a travel writing assignment in eastern Mongolia, I spent a few nights out on the wild, endless steppe with a nomadic family who reminded me how little in life you need to be happy. The mother and father and their two small children all lived in a tiny ger (a circular framed tent, which can be dismantled daily) about four metres wide, with all four of them sleeping on two single beds. They had a small chest of drawers for all of their clothes, a central wood fire for warmth and a little shrine for worshipping. Nature provided them with everything else.
The nomads took only what they needed from the earth. A goat was slaughtered for dinner one night, but no piece of it went to waste. The skin would be used as a pelt; the offal they hung
in the yurt would be eaten at a later date. The milk from their mares was used to make their airag alcohol, cheese, cream and butter. Small solar panels were used for the little electricity they needed, and water was hauled from the river for washing and cooking and drinking. If we could all learn to walk this lightly on the earth, I remember thinking that night as I fell asleep in my ger, we might just begin to heal it.
Last year, while visiting Guatemala to cover a five-day weaving workshop, I learned to weave from local Mayan women who had spent their whole lives mastering the craft. Guatemala’s weaving traditions are integral to the country’s history and culture, and all across the highlands women still wear their spectacular national costume, including handwoven huipil blouses, full-length skirts and head wraps, as everyday attire. Learning from these women and observing their arduous creation pro- cess, one that has changed little since their ancestors discovered it in pre-Columbian times, was a potent reminder of the value of carefully made, handcrafted goods – something that’s especially important today, when 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced each year.
The most potent life lesson I’ve absorbed on my travels, however, came late last year, when I met the women of the Himba tribe while on an assignment in northern Namibia. They welcomed me into their village and introduced me to their customs, including how they covered their bodies in ochre paste to stay warm and protect themselves from the sun, then showed me into their tiny, windowless mud hut homes. My first reaction was one of sympathy; their homes were the size of my laundry room. But as the afternoon wore on and I sat and watched the women talking and laughing and playing with their children, with an intimacy and relaxed joyfulness that I’d rarely witnessed between women back home, I had to ask myself: who should really be pitying who?
I still don’t have an answer. What I do have, though, is an altered perspective on what it means to live a good life, which just might be the most important thing of all.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN THE JULY ISSUE OF PEPPERMINT MAGAZINE