Whitney started playing as we raced across the flatlands of the La Guajira desert. Sebastian instinctively turned it up to full volume. He began coughing quickly as an afterthought, on the pretense that reaching for the CD player was somehow involuntary.

Sebastian was one of those tourist-hating tour drivers whose nonchalance was meant to insult.  He rarely spoke. When we talked amongst ourselves he would always glance out of the window to diminish us.

On rare occasion he would point out something unremarkable – a small excavated desert hole, far off mining equipment corroded by sunlight, a contorted cactus.

The open plains were eventually cut into by rocky terrain on one side and lifeless flora on the other. Sebastian slowed down as the drivable land narrowed into a particularly winding section of Colombia’s northern peninsula.

We stopped completely as we approached two members of the Wayuu tribe, indigenous to La Guajira, standing either side of the only available pathway to drive on. They were two boys that looked around 15, the first people we had seen in almost two hours.

They had erected a makeshift barrier across the path by driving two thin sticks into the ground either side of its most slender section and tying a thin cord in between them.

Sebastian told us to expect this. We handed him the bag of butter sweets. He stuck his hand out of the window and shook the bag at the boy on his side.

On receipt of his sugary currency he walked over to the barrier and loosened the cord knot tied around the top of the stick. It slumped to the floor, inviting our crossing.

I continued looking at them as they both walked, backs turned, away from our 4×4 and towards their mother under a corrugated iron bus stop like shelter. There was nothing else around.

They sat down next to her on the iron bench, looked up, and facing our car again, saw me watching them. Now in possession of the sweets they looked at me more naturally and with no interest. Both had the same expression of calm, too easy to be intentionally confronting. I looked at them for a while. They were devoid of intensity. I had a strong sense that their lives were their own and I felt inadequate and jealous.

We all have a lazy tendency to attribute a foreign inner life in some vaguely fundamental sense to someone from a very different culture and who does not speak your language. I felt I had not fallen foul of this here. They were experiencing a state outside my register of emotions and effortlessly.  Their actions were governed by different impulses, by a different conception of survival.

We all have a lazy tendency to attribute a foreign inner life in some vaguely fundamental sense to someone from a very different culture and who does not speak your language.

The Wayuu community is under real threat. The Cerado Dam, constructed in 2011 to provide water for nine municipalities of northern Colombia, has drained the Rancheira river, the Wayuu’s only local water source. They are forced to walk three hours to the nearest well for water that is often contaminated with salt and bacteria. Drought has stymied agriculture over the years and child mortality is high. They sit well below Colombia’s poverty line. They have no commodity abundant enough to save. Mochilas, the Wayuu hand-crafted bags sold to tourists, often take 3 weeks each to weave.

By being unable to accumulate the means to improve their lives in the future, there is little that the Wayuu can do now, financially, professionally or socially, to secure a materially comfortable future.  This has important psychological consequences in two respects.

Firstly, the Wayuu’s conception of themselves bares no relation to their ability to create a more satisfactory life for themselves through accumulation.

Secondly, there is therefore no need, on an individual level, to develop competitive advantages over other members of society that would allow for this satisfactory life to be obtained.

Threats to the Wayuu come from the natural world, government policies that harm their environment and from bandits – all three of which stand outside of their community and accepted as beyond their control. Wayuu, for example, regularly sing to their cattle in the morning. What may seem to many in the West as a pleasant, idiosyncratic feature of Wayuu culture is to the Wayuu, a genuine, albeit gentle, economically motivated coaxing of nature. Singing indicates reverence to the natural world and also, in its inherent playfulness, the limitations of their ability and place to dominate it.

Firstly, the Wayuu’s conception of themselves bares no relation to their ability to create a more satisfactory life for themselves through accumulation.

Modern Western society has to a far greater extent felt the need to overcome its physical environment as a hallmark of progress. It has built an infrastructure where collective action is no longer needed to ensure physical survival. In its place lies a system that enables us to all, in theory, accumulate wealth, knowledge, technology and status, which should necessarily create a life more comfortable, enjoyable and fulfilling.

Such is our dependence on accumulation to bring about this contentment, that it is accumulation, utterly superfluous to actual survival, that our sense of survival actually centers around. We need to survive emotionally and it is a zero-sum game. It is an anxiety more unreal, unnecessary and sadder than the Wayuus.

It is also more pervasive. One way of seeing its effect is in our respective attitudes to boredom.

Such is our dependence on accumulation to bring about this contentment, that it is accumulation, utterly superfluous to actual survival, that our sense of survival actually centers around.

Muslim scholar Ziauddin Sadar, makes an observation of Bedouins similar to my impression of the Wayuu. “Bedouins,” he writes, “can sit for hours in the desert, feeling the ripples of time, without being bored.”

Anthropologist Henry Harpenden, fluent in Bushman, discovered during his extensive 20 year fieldwork in the back country of Africa, that the language has no equivalent word for boredom – the closest he got was an unsatisfactory word for tired.

It makes sense. Boredom is a state of tension, where you lack the stimuli that will bring you out of this state. If you are not in a state of tension you have no need to be relieved of it.

In a society suffering from survival anxiety we have a scratch which cannot be itched. No matter what we choose for entertainment, we often have the uncomfortable foreknowledge that we will be standing slightly outside of the experience, bored.

Mark Grief, in his excellent essay “Against Exercise” illustrates the tragicomic tenacity to which we try and scratch away regardless – “we leave the office, and put the conveyor belt under our feet, and run as if chased by devils.”

It reminds us that much of what we choose to do in our leisure time has no longer become a free choice for us. Exercise is driven by the anxiety to control our states of internal and external wellness. We have reached the stage where to abstain from it, like to abstain from other forms of control, is sadly without being dramatic, to be complicit in our self-destruction.

No matter what we choose for entertainment, we often have the uncomfortable foreknowledge that we will be standing slightly outside of the experience, bored.

It’s a great irony because instead of advancing in any meaningful sense, we lose so much to this way of thinking. To experience the undisturbed minds of the Wayuu was to be confronted by the words of Seneca – “how much have you lost through groundless sorrow, foolish joy, greedy desire, the seductions of society; how little of your own was left to you.”

O. A. Clarke

O. A. Clarke

O. A. Clarke is a writer whose journalistic work focuses on the psychology of social injustice.
O. A. Clarke

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2 thoughts on “Left To You

  1. Excellent. Yes the Bedouins or similar tribes-people can sit for hours because their relationship with life is fundamentally and directly different. They feel and see directly what we cannot. We are full of words and ideas and pretensions that are constantly projected out onto an illusory stage, separate to the ground of life. We are not connected to life directly, but via a layer of “intellectual” pretension and interpretation. We are petrified of fully being ourselves as we constantly act out each other’s expectations of success and normality. We conform to agreed societal norms and act our parts, in public and on social media. We are cattle farmed by corporations and governments to consume, behave and think as the farmers want us to – to keep us satiated, controlled and at a minumum level of individuation so as to be productive while we are milked by taxes. We work and pay bills and stress about savings and pensions, constantly in thrall to a system that is not actually required to be happy or free. In fact we are the opposite of free, and tension is how we are controlled. Even our “free” leisure time is a schedule of more tension, stress, control and consumption. We are human be-ings, not do-ings or pretend-ings or shopp-ings.. Merry Xmas!

  2. But those Wayuu basically its seems took advantage of you by presenting you with a man-made problem for which they had the answer – following payment.

    SO…what we call ‘extortion’..?

    Much-maligned modern western society (developed by the horrible, nasty white European male) has developed laws to prevent that kind of thing, has it not?

    I wonder what those 15 year-olds would have taken if they’d had AK47s? Not just your Werther’s Originals, I’d wager. Some serious rose-tinted spectacles been donned by the author of this piece it seems!

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