I have been in Swaziland for exactly 11 months now. Living in an impoverished country has really opened my eyes to the world and opened my mind into thinking about how the world works. Not scientifically or biologically, but socially. Why do societies develop so differently, and why are some so far behind then others? I have read books on how societies develop, why some better then others, and why some cease to exist now and others have prevailed. It all seems to revolve around the ability to feed and protect oneself, including the resources available, location on the earth, and relationship with neighboring societies. All of these factors indeed contribute to why Swaziland is in the state it is in today, but none of them have answered my real question: Why didn’t the Swazi’s invent the light bulb? Or any other underdeveloped nation for that matter?
I am currently reading a book I borrowed from another PCV titled Uncommon Genius, by Denise Shekerjian. The author interviews 40 recipients of the MacArthur Award in a quest to discover the essence of creativity. If your like me you probably just said “What’s the MacArthur Award?” It’s an award given out to people who have accomplished something great even when support, money, and societal desire weren’t available. Recipients are not nominated and cannot apply; they are simply found and awarded. They range from writers, to teachers, to artisans, to a clown, to scientists and university professors. There is no topic or subject off limits, simply all the recipients took a chance on something in their field and made it a success.
Anyways this book has really helped me narrow in on answering my question. As I have stated before my biggest frustration here is the lack of anything beautiful. I ask why? Why do some cultures paint every surface available? Why do some take the time to intricately carve designs in everyday objects? Why did the Egyptians decorate the inside of their pyramids? Why did the ancient Greeks and Romans build such beautiful buildings using three different pillars when a simple slab of rock would do the job? Why do Asian cultures value dance and theater so much? From past to present art seems to be everywhere, and then I came to Swaziland. It’s been 11 months and I still can’t find it. Why?
In answering the question “where does creativity come from” the author of Uncommon Genius gives you 200 pages of explanation. It took me 60 pages but I feel as if the light bulb in my head has just been turned on and I have found an answer to my question, or at least a beginning point to narrow in on. Its simple, the answer is creativity. I know your saying “duh” you can’t create anything without creativity but hear me out. Shekerjian argues that creativity is fostered through the conditions in which an individual lives. In essence I already knew this, of course if you never are given a chance to do art you probably will not be an artist. However I never thought of it on a societal level, I always considered creativity an individualistic issue. If you have the creative gene it will show up somewhere with or without the art influence. A big part of creating something successful out of a creative idea is having the courage and confidence to keep at it. This can only be fostered by ones surroundings, which as the author argues is “unlike concerns about personal comfort […] the culture in which you live and breath is largely beyond your control.” Her point is that culture has the power to determine what creative thought will be honored and what will be laughed at.
True most great things today were not so great when they were first presented, but the culture in which that idea was fostered at least allowed the thought to become a reality. If creativity isn’t encouraged, then how will anything ever become? Shekerjian points out that this theory can also bee seen in respect to intelligence: culture can determine an entire societies intellectual capacity. “So, you might have the most wonderful logical and mathematical potential in the world, but if you aren’t in a culture which allows you to pursue math or science or logic or chess, you’re lucky if you can add numbers up to ten.” Here in Swaziland I have never heard somebody say “Swazi’s are smart.” All I hear is “Swazi’s are lazy and not smart like other people.” And as we know a Swazi did not invent the light bulb, see what I am getting at?
I have found in Swaziland the value is in conformity rather then individuality. Considering the current political state, it’s not hard to assume why this is. Many societies in history have periods where the innovator was often thrown out, or the person who was different is weeded out of society. Underdeveloped societies across the history have struggled to embrace the creative mind; Swaziland is still struggling to accept that creativity leads to innovation, which leads to development. However, they have to learn that creativity does not mean that everyone fits into a perfect box, we can’t all play the same role in society and we cannot punish those who think outside that perfect box. I see creativity and individuality starting to be embraced here, so with time we may see great things come out of this tiny society! After all look how long it took our societies to figure it out, even now we still sometimes struggle to accept creativity for what it really is.
So why didn’t a Swazi invent the light bulb? Maybe because no one told them they could. I think I have discovered that my role as a development worker may not necessarily be to develop a country (i.e. infrastructure, income generation, water projects, etc), but it may in fact be to develop the culture (i.e. encourage and instill confidence to accept what is different and think creatively). Maybe with a paintbrush and a little positive reinforcement, I can show Swazi’s how to literally paint there way to a better future!