Indians with drones: what we could learn from the Xukuru

I recently wrote about my visit to the Xukuru indigenous community with a group of Brazilian family doctors, as well as what we could do to support the health needs of this indigenous community.

In this post I’m going to share some of my reflections from the visit in terms of some of the things we could learn from their ways of living.

Too often, when we visit low income countries, we think more about what we could do to help rather than what we could learn from them.

This idea that the Western world could learn a great deal from the efficiency of countries with limited resources, is sometimes known as ‘reverse innovation’ and it’s something I’ve been trying to think about a lot during my time here in Brazil.

One of the things that impressed me most during my visit to the Xukuru was just how well organised their community is.

Their community has a clear leader, the ‘cacique’, who unites the tribe behind issues ranging from protecting their land rights to securing a better education for their children.

This made me think: although our communities in the UK may have influential figures, such as religious leaders or local mayors, we really don’t have strong community leaders that unites our people in quite the same way.

However, it’s no use if a small group of the tribe’s leaders are passionate about making progress on social issues but the majority of the population remain apathetic. The leaders have to work to get the whole of the population engaged and talking about the problems they face.

Recognising this, they’ve invested in creating an organisation dedicated to mobilising the population on such issues. Indeed, much of the annual meeting we attended was dedicated to engaging the Xukuru people on topics like the relevance of national Brazilian politics to their struggles and how they can balance embracing new technology with a desire to protect their culture and traditional ways of living.

One day, during a lunch break I noticed that there were several drone cameras flying above us, filming the event from the air. When I asked who were flying the drones, I was surprised to find out that it was a group of Xukuru people themselves!

Such is the importance of disseminating information among their own community, that they have their own camera crew and media organisation. This really impressed me!

In addition to the educational activities, the film crew also produce promotional pieces, as they recognise that communicating their struggles to the outside world is vital for their continued survival.

Without doubt, this clear leadership, the social organisation they’ve created and the level of engagement of the whole population has helped them over recent years. For example, they’ve slowly managed to win back their rights to land which was stolen from them by industrial farmers.

Similarly, their education system has been vastly improved. They now have teachers who come from their own community and are supported financially so they can dedicate their working day to teaching, rather than needing to work on the farms. Many have even been sponsored to take professional teaching qualifications at local universities.

man hold woman

Re-capturing that sense of community back home

In our increasingly individualistic society, the sort of sense of community that the Xukuru have simply no longer exists. Re-capturing a sense of community will be difficult, especially because we live in large anonymising cities rather than close-knit groups like the Xukuru, but that does not mean we should not try.

I have three practical suggestions of things we can do:

1) Support grass-roots community groups, such as sports clubs, residents’ associations and local charities.

2) Encourage people to volunteer locally – of course there would be the immediate benefits of the work the volunteers do, but the real, hidden benefit to the community lies in the connections between people that this sort of participatory activity helps build.

3) Encourage participation in local politics – the Xukuru people are all very politically engaged, and it’s clearly benefited them as a society. By contrast, most of us probably think of local political campaigning as something best left for tree-hugging weirdos or retired people with too much time on their hands!

Local people getting behind projects to improve education, health and social care would undoubtedly help transform our society into a better place to live. In addition to the direct impact of this sort of community action, there’s a wealth of evidence that simply feeling like you’re part of a community is good for us. It won’t come as a surprise that stronger neighbourhood social networks have been linked with psychological wellbeing. Levels of crime are also lower in communities where there are high levels of trust and social interaction. It has even been shown that a sense of community is good for our health; people are more successful in adopting healthier lifestyles (e.g. giving up smoking or improving their diet) when they are supported by a stronger sense of community-belonging.

So I encourage you go out there, join a community group, invest some of your precious time in a local cause and get involved in discussions on local issues – that’s what a Xukuru would do!

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