During my recent trip to Aitutaki, I noticed the differences between their society and our Australian society, and started to analyse the causes of these differences.
One thing I particularly noticed was that everyone there seemed to be happy, most of the time at least.
They have a few rules and regulations there, but they are more guidelines than enforceable laws. Could this be one reason for their happy disposition – they are freer? In our society, our freedoms seem to be increasingly eroded, usually because of fear of something or someone.
The crime rate there is very low. They do have a couple of police officers, but I don’t know what they do with themselves. I think there has been one robbery on the island during its long history. Being a small island, everyone knows everyone else, and what everyone else is up to. If someone were to commit a crime, even in disguise the person would be easily recognised, and if not, one of the perpetrator’s neighbours would notice that something was amiss.
This is one very major difference between our societies. With such a small population (just over 2,000), their sense of community is very strong. The larger community is made up of a number of smaller communities, but no one is a stranger there. This is one reason why visitors are so warmly welcomed: they just become part of the greater community.
Unfortunately, in our society, there is often no sense of community, and we often don’t even know our neighbours’ names.
My homework for my French class this week is to write a short essay about my attitude to our consumer society. When thinking about the difference between Aitutaki society and our own, I realised that this is one of the major differences.
Supplies for the island arrive by supply ship once a fortnight. If the weather is bad, and the sea is too rough, it is impossible for the ship to enter the small channel through the reef. As I mentioned last week, shortages are common, but there are many things which we take for granted here, which are impossible to obtain there. I saw a car with a sheet of plastic taped up in place of a rear windscreen, and I wondered whether this was just one of the many items which are too difficult to come by, so they just make do with what they have.
As I mentioned last week, there is no television there. There is a shop where you can rent DVDs, and a few people have the giant satellite dishes which are required to obtain a satellite TV signal, but most people there are never exposed to television and its associated advertising, of which we are all too familiar.
The people of Aitutaki work for a living just like we do here. However, they work to put food on their family’s table, and to ensure there is a roof over their heads. They don’t have to have the latest gadget, the biggest TV, or the fastest car. They don’t feel the need to work endless hours so that they can ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ next door. Their next door neighbours have similar property to them, and they don’t have someone telling them every night on TV that they need this or that product.
If they are one of the few with satellite TV, they may see similar advertisements to us, but, even if they felt a desire to purchase an item which they saw advertised, there is little possibility of it actually being available to buy. With limited internet access, even internet mail order is difficult.
Just as in any society, sometimes the youth feel the need to go away and see what life is like elsewhere. This, too, is not easily done, but some do find a way to move to Raratonga, the island on which the capital of the Cook Islands lies, or to New Zealand, of which the Cook Islands is a protectorate.
Some return, after realising that the intangible qualities of their homeland far outweigh the material things they gained in their new life abroad. Some only intend to stay away for a short time, while they save enough money to build a house, but get sucked into the vortex of consumerism – never having quite enough for what they want. There is always just one more thing they need to buy before they can save those dollars. Some promise to send money home for their families, but start to drink and smoke their money away instead. Many have joined the rat-race and can never get off.
I had never thought about it before, but the rat-race is so named because of the small wheels that captive rats are given in which to exercise. The rat runs around and around inside the wheel and never ends up getting anywhere. This is our life in the rat-race.
We drive in bumper to bumper traffic to get to work, work long hours to buy things we don’t need; then we turn around and drive home again. We watch television because we are too tired to do anything else; we are sold yet more things we don’t need through TV ads. We go to bed and then get up and do the whole thing over again. We promise ourselves that we will enjoy ourselves on the weekend, but often spend our weekends buying more things we don’t need, tending to the things we bought which we don’t need, or watching more TV and learning about more things that we don’t need to buy.
We start our children on the rat-race at a very young age. Parents buy so much for their children, they should want for nothing. Yet at birthdays and Christmas there are more presents from parents, grandparents, and extended family members. When children are very young, they often don’t understand the significance of all these presents, and are just as happy to play with the cardboard box which the toy came in. However, the more they are exposed to television advertising, the more they learn about the toy which they are supposed to have now. Once they go to school and find that the other kids have the current toy fad, they now feel deprived until they, too, can coax their parents into delivering it.
We may think that this sort of compulsive consumerism is something new, but I do remember when I was a child being really disappointed when I only received a walking doll for Christmas, instead of one which walked and talked, like the one I had seen on TV, and which my cousin had received. I think that perhaps in those days, however, our parents may have found it easier to say no.
Maybe one reason is that they didn’t feel the need to assuage their guilt as many parents do these days. Many parents on the rat-race have so little time for their children, that they think they need to buy them the latest toys and gadgets to compensate. But, instead they are starting their children on the rat-race now too.
Is it too late to take our children off the rat-race? “No, my darling, you can’t have that latest toy, but I will sit down and play a game with you.” “No, my love, you can’t have that latest gadget, but look, the next door neighbour’s child is looking for someone to throw a ball with.” “No, my sweet, it is not necessary to have the TV on; there is a whole world outside where sunshine and laughter await.”
Can we get to know our neighbours, create a community, and provide our children with the same intangible qualities which the people of Aitutaki value? Can we teach our children to appreciate the simple things in life? Can we create a society where the focus is on freedom, and not on fear?
What do you think?
Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net