Lifting the bag of sand, I twist my arms to hoist it onto my back. Off I go – into the 30-degree heat with a bag of sand on my back. Not something I’ve done before. But here we are, it’s late June 2019 and I’m in Sung Village, in the mountains Northwest of Hanoi in Vietnam. I’m part of a group of 13 Irish and 13 Vietnamese participants. We’re staying with families who run homestays as part of a Community Based Tourism model.
We’re trying to practice what we preach by living sustainably. You see, we’re on a training programme learning about the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And a lot more besides, including how to mix cement, build a path, and the best way to carry a bag of sand up a hill.
If you ask any of us the biggest lesson we learned over the two weeks together, we would each have a different answer, and mine is a lesson of humility. Perhaps, I realised slowly, we don’t have all the answers - perhaps we haven’t figured out the “right” way to live. This is something I thought I knew, but it settled into my psyche in a new, different way.
Maybe we don’t know what poverty and wealth are, or what the good life looks like. Maybe here, in this village in the Northwest of Vietnam, we can witness something profoundly important that countless societies have lost.
Community is the first of these losses.
This occurs to me as I’m dragging myself up a hill, sweating and cursing but loving every minute. Whose path are we building, I wonder to myself. When we start mixing cement and laying the path I look around and realise it’s in the middle of the village, which means the path belongs to no one. Or everyone. The village has come together to build a path and we are simply extra hands, sometimes getting in the way, requiring lots of instructions and demonstrations.
The community works together to build. No one is being paid or benefitting more than anyone else. And there is equal participation. We mix cement with women who come out to help us, and lay rocks with men from nearby houses. It’s collaborative: it’s community.
The same thought occurs to me when we have our first meal.
Family eats together – this is one aspect of Vietnamese culture I am keen to adopt at home. The chopsticks are another (although it’s difficult to use chopsticks in Ireland without looking like a pretentious eejit). Rather than a large dinner plate each, we have bowls the size of our palms, and in the middle of the table sits a big bowl of rice and a delicious array of vegetables and meat.
While I was very comfortable at the vegetarian table, particularly since the pigs and chickens were in such close proximity, it did seem to me that Sung Village had a more sustainable approach to food than we do in Ireland. It was distressing to hear a pig being slaughtered, but I saw something natural inherent in the way we ate. “Local produce” – we say this in Ireland like it’s a revelatory notion, like it’s trendy. Please, let’s not make it a passing trend to use the food we have on our land – it’s the cycle of life – it should be an awakening to a better way of doing things, not a flashy new idea that millennials came up with.
Community comes up again in our afternoon workshops. I am relatively new to the practice of Global Education, or Development Education. The philosophy of this type of learning is that the knowledge is in the room, not exclusively with the facilitator. We learned as a community, we learned from one another. We were challenged about our perspectives, mostly gently, sometimes in more tense ways. We learned facts and figures about the world, but more importantly we learned about ourselves and other people. We learned that different is not wrong. We might each examine the same problem, but produce a completely different analysis and solution. Each of us a little bit right, each of us a little bit wrong.
Community: it’s in the way we work, it’s in the way we eat, it’s in the way we learn.