June 10, 2000
Throughout our travels from Central America to Africa, the Middle East to Asia, we have experienced culture far and wide. It has expanded my impression of what life is all about. There is so much more beyond the way people live in America, so much to learn in heritage and so much to gain from others, to enrich ourselves and expand our views.
Even still, the influence of the West is prevalent in many of the places we visit. From hearing the latest Backstreet Boys single in an Iranian home, to seeing movie ads for American Beauty plastered all over India, it's not hard to see how American culture has penetrated borders all over the globe. This thought occurred to me as I was walking through the hectic market in Shillong, the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya (pronounced Mega-laya). I had seen the familiarity of home all over the world but now I found myself in a place that was completely foreign to me in every sense of the word.
Initially, the thought was a bit frightening, both for me and for the locals. I was far away from any major cities, up in the remote hill station of Shillong, named after the Shillong mountain peak of the region. The people stared at me in amazement. But their looks were not very friendly. Still, I shyly trudged through, following closely behind my friend Devdutt who was excited to show off his hometown. He turned around to me after noticing the stares and laughed.
"Do you know why they are staring?" he asked.
"Yes, they've never seen a person of African descent, like me." I replied.
"Well, yes, and you are like a giant to them!" he chuckled.
When I looked over the crowd, I realized that I was literally looking over the crowd. He was right. I was at least head and shoulders above anyone in the market, both male and female. In a burst of laughter, the crowd of faces seemed to lighten in our smiles. I guess a laughing giant is not so intimidating! The harsh stares quickly turned to jovial inquires about where I had come from and what I thought of Shillong.
The fact is, I quite liked Shillong. The area is mainly comprised of three ethnic groups, the Khasi, the Jainita and the Garo, all of whose ancestors have culitvated the land for thousands of years now. There is a wealth of natural resources here, including, bamboo, beetlenut, limestone, coal and timber. Unfortunately, over the years there has been a fair amount of fighting for control of these riches.
Currently things have become a bit more peaceful. So much so, that I would have never sensed the underlying issues that still have yet to be overcome. Walking down the streets of Shillong I was invited into shops for chai, sweet, milky Indian tea.
Khasis dominate the region and stand out for their dress, their distinctive cuisine, and entrepreneurial spirit. They are a very proud people and are stubborn about providing for their families. Their neat and tidy city demonstrated that they are also very clean, a quality to be commended in India, which is famous for being heavily laden with rubbish. I also found almost no one begging, another characteristic that sets the region apart from the rest of the nation. I was informed that it is the family structure that keeps people fed, sheltered and off the streets.
The unique family structure to which I am referring is one that characterizes the entire state of Meghalaya. It is a matrilineal society. That means that the women are the landowners. Property is passed down through daughters instead of sons and when a couple marries the man takes the woman's family name. The youngest daughter usually receives the inheritance, but she also carries a great deal of responsibility. She is expected to stay home and help the parents in their old age. Her brothers are her responsibility until they are married and if they divorce they can return to their sister's home. If siblings have children that they orphan or do not take care of the younger sister must take them in as her own.
This is why you rarely see people on the streets. Family norms are very deeply entrenched in their value system and way of life.
These traditions also have a positive influence on the status of women. Girls are not a dying gender, like they are in most parts of India. Women are not plagued by other gruesome ills, like bride burning and dowry death if the bride's family is unable to offer a sufficient gift to the family of her new husband. In Meghalayan society, there is no dowry and often no wedding. Two people move in with one another and are recognized as a married couple by the village. Divorce is equally as simple. Usually the man leaves. That's it. He takes "nothing but his good name" as my friend Devdutt explained. A woman is free to take another husband if she chooses and faces no stigma for being a single-parent if she does not.
"Wow!" I thought to myself. Women here have rights and are not dominated, disrespected, or looked down upon as incapable and weak. They don't face the double standards I have seen in most cases in India and throughout the other countries we visited. Unfortunately, there has been a backlash. Terms like "gun-culture" are growing in popularity as wayward boys turn to the streets to prove their masculinity or to find male role models in the absence of a father in the home.
"Innocence is quickly lost" said Patricia Mukhin, a nationally honored journalist for the Shillong Times, a single-mother and an outspoken community activist. A highly respected Khasi woman, she explained that her dominance is viewed by men as a quality that makes them inferior. Clearly this is not the case. Additionally, I found that women are respected as the property owners but that in most cases, they are still viewed as incapable of handling affairs outside of the kitchen and the home. Patricia has taken a bold stance against the ills that face her community and her people, but this has not been without much flack from the local council (which women are not allowed to sit on). The elders of the council actually reprimanded her actions because she wrote her articles in English, calling her a traitor, a woman against her community.
I was impressed by her outspokeness as she went on to explain that single-motherhood is a phenomena that is on the rise. Many male children that grow up without a positive male role model turn to the streets. They are uneducated and heavily plagued with problems of alcohol and gambling - two issues that are tearing the Khasi families apart. Patricia feels like the healing will have to come from inside. Education on ethnic violence and moving people to act against merchants who get involved with extortion and illegal exploitation of the region's natural resources are things she encourages people to fight for. "Shillong We Care" is the group she works through. In addition Patricia is also a high school teacher who finds much support and leadership in the students at her school.
"The student-led campaigns are the strongest asset in Shillong," said Patricia. (And that is not just confined to Shillong, I might add! You too can take a stand against the ills of your community and make a difference as well!) On June 5th hundreds of students will move out into the streets going to the merchants and personally asking them not to use plastic bags which destroy the environment.
Just as the region's insurgence has quieted she expects to see the same success and change in her community and in the homes. With all of the dedication and hard work of so many young people coming together to stand up for what is theirs, I expect they will surely have continued success.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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