Generations – The Role of Family in Developing Countries

At the risk of sounding demeaning, traveling through developing countries is like traveling back in time. Issues developed countries have long ago blown through seem new and fresh.

One example is the strength of the extended family and the reverence with which old people are held. This was a constant theme during my travels over the last two months. This was of course more so in small villages than big cities, because the transformation of modernity has had less impact there, to date.

I had numerous conversations about how the community takes care of the elderly, it is everyone’s responsibility. One young man in Myanmar said to me with a deep sense of concern that now the government wants to take care of the elderly, taking over the role of the community. While we can argue theoretically that the government is just another, larger, expression of community, there is no disputing it can at times be a less personal one.

Growing up as a Catholic, I was aware that “tradition” is given a certain reverence, as a revealer of truth. This is also one of the tenets of some conservative philosophical strains in the secular world. In small villages, the words of the elderly are deemed to be words of wisdom; words of experience; words of tradition. Young children who don’t show respect for the directions of the elderly are slapped down by whoever in the community is closest to them. It is perhaps one of the innovations of the modern world that we easily push aside what is old to make way for what is new. Progress being the raison d’être for life in modernity. So this is good. The downside is the displacement of a role for the elderly, and the occasional failure to leverage their experience and wisdom. All great binding mythologies describe the role that each of us play.

While in India, I had numerous discussions on the practice of arranged marriages. I am sure there are many nuances for me still to understand, so I won’t try and explain arranged marriages. What I will say though, is family appears to be central to many people’s lives in developing countries. Family considerations weigh heavily on life decisions made by individuals. In Western lives, this force seems faint in comparison.

I met one man from Jaipur India who claimed that he knew all the towns that previous generations were from, the dates of major life milestones, and that records were so good he could trace his generations easily back to the 14th and 15th centuries, and probably back to the 2nd century if he put the work in. He may have some royal lineage in generations past, which perhaps helps. Regardless of whether this anecdote is true or representative, the point that is perhaps obvious, is that some developing countries have a history that goes back thousands of years. Thousands of years to practice to perfect traditions and rituals. Thousands of years that now face the waves of modernity. Probably harder to change the traditions of people’s that have been practicing them for thousands of years, than those that have only been doing so for hundreds. All the “New Worlds” of time have promised the opportunity to cast aside tradition and start from a clean slate. Old worlds do not as easily given in to such sentiments. Bless the transformers, for the road ahead is rocky and long.

Whether the traditions, rituals, and approaches to life are good or bad in developing and developed nations is of course an interesting conversation, but the bigger point for travelers is that an engaged visit to developing nations offers the opportunity to experience life as it once was, in certain dimensions, and ponder such questions for yourself.




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