Saturday, October 18, 2008

Payback - The Massey Lecture by Margaret Atwood on Debt

I guess it was just luck that I bought the Globe and Mail last weekend and saw the review on a new book by Margaret Atwood called 'Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth'. Being a medical trainee in Canada I'm pretty well-acquainted with the idea of debt so the article really twigged my interest. It wasn't long after that I heard an announcement on the CBC of a lecture that was to be delivered here in Winnipeg by the same author on some of the material in the book. Naturally, I bought tickets.

Now, these lectures will be broadcast on the program Ideas on Nov. 10 - 14 and will surely be put out in podcast form after that. I don't want to spoil them by giving away the thesis of the Winnipeg talk. I will give a little story of ancient debt that I experienced though...

In 2004 I spent 2 months in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Enga Province to be exact. Beginning to even slightly grasp the culture of the area, only 'found' by outsiders in the 1940s, was a challenge. I had been prepared for the blurring of friendship and debt by my hosts there, but I needed to experience it to really understand.

One day I was hiking with my friend Florian in an area up the valley from the hospital. As it was the land of a different, unfriendly tribe our usual guide couldn't come with us. We followed a path that lead into a collection of a couple of houses and some gardens with sugarcane and beans. As we came around a corner we stopped when we saw a man with a machete, its sharpened edge gleaming in the sun.

This is a pretty common sight there. We both went up and shook his hand and found out that his name was john. He was preparing sugarcane for eating and wanted us to stay and chew some while he asked questions. After a stalk or two and many more questions I pulled out a Toronto subway token and gave it to him saying that he was probably the only person on the island to have one. We said goodbye and left.

The next day we were at the hospital again, and when we came back we found out that John had come calling and wanted to give us a present. He had left 12 sugarcane stalks, 2 bags of beans and too many cucumbers to eat. He came back several other times to give us more presents...or what we thought were presents.

It turned out that he was confirming our friendship. In PNG debts bind friends together. If I owe you then you are connected to me, cementing our relationship. Think about the complications that ensued when we re-gifted some of the food so that it wouldn't go to waste! A nuclear chain-reaction of friendship was set off bringing in even more 'friendship gifts'. You should have seen the looks on our hosts faces!

What a difference from the relationship that I have with a large bank which lends me money. My only friendship gift from them is a monthly statement letter. I guess that's the price of advancing civilization?

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