Thoughts on Cultural Relativism and Some Pictures
Trip Start Unknown
5Trip End Ongoing
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
I spent last Saturday night involved in an interesting conversation with a member of the Maasai tribe. The Maasai are an African tribe located in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are familiar to most westerners because of their distinctive dress (bright red and blue clothes), their elongated earlobes, and the fact that they live in the most popular game reserves (They are also well-known for their participation in female circumcision, a clearly controversial issue that I won't get into here)
In January Bill and Melinda Gates pledged “$10 billion over the next 10 years to help research, develop and deliver vaccines for the world’s poorest countries.” Through their focus on vaccination they plan to save more than 8 million children by 2020. Now this seems pretty fantastic to me and I have difficulty imagining that anyone would have any substantive issues with their goal. However, this tribesman did and it soon became clear that he was also opposed to the entire concept of preventative medicine.
His argument was centered on idea that Kenya does not have the resources or space to support a dramatic increase in the population. He provided a simple example to back his point. The average Maasia woman is expected to have eight children in her life. Before the introduction of preventative medicine, it was accepted that at least four of them would die. This ensured that the tribe would have a consistent population. However, currently, because of medical interventions and the fact that woman are still expected to have many offspring there has been a dramatic population increase within the tribes
The tribesman believed that death was a useful tool for keeping the size of his community appropriate. He even went as far as to claim that untimely deaths were an important part of his culture. I completely understand this idea, even if I do not necessarily agree with it. We discuss a similar concept in biology when discussing ecological systems and the carrying capacity of animal populations (the carrying capacity is the point at which any increase in population is not sustainable within the environment). Back home this served as a useful tool when examining hypothetical environments, but the idea was never extended to humans or to real situations. Such an extension crosses all sorts of fairly obvious ethical and moral boundaries. I have to admit his argument forced me to look at medical intervention from a different perspective. However, I was at loss for determining how much serious attention such a perspective should deserve.
Don’t get me wrong; I have great admiration for the idea of cultural relativism. Every culture has inherent value and should be respected. Societal understanding not only sounds nice, but also is necessary in order to provide effective intervention
However there are important limits to cultural relativism. I tend to agree with Paul Farmer when he says that he is “unwilling to condone social inequality merely because it was buttressed by cultural beliefs, no matter how ancient or picturesque.” (I apologize for constantly quoting Dr Farmer, but as I am currently reading one of his books I expect this to happen frequently) One of the most important things I have been surprised by after two weeks is how connected I have felt with the local people and their lives. Back home, I found it easy to conflate poverty and the developing world with “otherness” and to perhaps justify suffering as a cultural norm to which I simply couldn’t relate. This is not an uncommon guilt avoidance mechanism. You constantly hear westerners discussing how “happy” the poor people of the developing world seem to be, despite their destitute circumstances
Ultimately, this is why I take issue with the argument of the Maasai tribesman. I understand that the idea of preventative medicine is potentially destructive to certain aspects of his culture. However, the benefits of vaccinations and the potential of those eight million African children far outweigh these concerns. For me, poor people have a have a fundamental right to good health and cultural sensitivity should be a secondary concern.
An Overview of Home Based Care and My Trip to the Masai Mara:
Most of my time during the week is spent working in a local village called Kawaida
Additionally there are three pictures from my trip to the Masai Mara, a large national park, last weekend.