When I travel internationally, or live abroad, I often feel something different happening. I feel alive, I feel inspired, I feel connected. When I spend time in small towns and rural communities in Africa or Central America, I find that everyone knows everyone else, stops to say hello as they walk by, invites me into their homes and offers me a meal. The hospitality, kindness, love and connection is obvious. People are smiling, and children are playing. And the question is always the same: why don’t we have this in the U.S? What is it about the lifestyle and living circumstances of communities around the world that we find so fulfilling? And how, if at all, can we bring these aspects back to our home towns and cities?
Yesterday, while reading Jared Diamond’s newest book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? I was once again inspired to look into this question. There are two parts. 1) What is it about rural communities abroad that makes us feel so inspired? 2) How, if at all, can we bring these qualities into our lives back at home in the U.S? As each person’s perspective is different than another, I can only attempt to answer the question from personal experience.
From 2010 – 2012, I lived in the Central Region of Ghana among the Fante people, part of the Akan, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa (about 20 million). There I spent most of my time living and working in rural communities with populations of 250 to 10,000 people. Here, the sense of connection between the people is powerful. The Fante share almost everything. They share place (the Central Region), history, culture and language. They share work throughout the week (farming, fishing and trading) and religion on the weekend. They share celebrations, mournings, rituals and music. Across the entire region they share brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and blood relatives of all kinds (with family ties going hundreds of years back). They are a deeply connected community.
This deep sharing of history, culture and values is not unique to Ghana or even to Africa. Working in small mountain communities of Honduras from 2008-2009, my experience was the same. Communities there share almost every aspect of culture and history. You know everyone by name, and you know their family and their ancestors. You go to church with your neighbors, eat the same favorite foods, listen to the same songs, go to school together, work together and play together (usually soccer). I guess when you spend your entire life living in the town where you were born, and where your parents were born and where their parents were born, you acquire a deep sense of connection and certainly a common culture.
The U.S. is no exception, and small towns across the country have built decades of shared culture and values. Similarly, many immigrant populations in the United States have natural community from birth. But for many of us, especially in urban spaces where people change homes every few years, commute to and from work and rarely know their neighbors, we lose this sense of community. I believe this is what we crave, and what we experience briefly abroad that inspires us. But can we bring this back to the U.S?
Since moving back to America last year (after 5 years abroad), and especially since moving to Long Beach this month, developing community has become a core mission of mine. I crave the connection I felt in Ghana (the “small town” feel). But in a big city like Berkeley or Long Beach, where I am surrounded by people from every background and culture, it can be hard to feel connected to community. So, how do we create that? How do we build the kind of community we find in other places of the world?
There are a thousand answers, but I will share two that I have found work for me. First, start from your home. As in all development, it starts with you and the people that you live with. Creating a household of friends, peers, family or coworkers that share values, culture and lifestyle can immediately create a sense of connection. “Cooperative houses,” as they are often called, allow us to live in a supportive, caring and welcoming environment. In Berkeley, I lived with about 18 housemates each dedicated to shared values (open communication, egalitarianism, sustainability, community self-reliance, localization, connection to Earth, respect for all), common culture (music, dance, spirituality, food, language, relationships), and similar lifestyle practices (resource-sharing, cooperative living, hiking, biking, political activism, cooking, meditation and gardening). I now live with 9 great housemates in Long Beach. Creating a home like this can take time, but it is worth it if you seek that connection to community.
Second, build your neighborhood network. Start as local as possible and think about the community strength you have seen in other parts of the world. In my new block in Long Beach, I have begun reaching out to meet as many of my neighbors as possible. Going door-to-door to meet neighbors (maybe bring a gift? a potted plant?) can be difficult in a social system that does not support this, but it is possible. We may have to start from scratch, but over time we build community strength and a connection to the place where we live.
It is not easy to take the first steps towards developing what has taken rural Fante towns and Honduran villages hundreds of year to create, but building strong neighborhoods and creating a home with shared values, culture and lifestyle is possible, even here in the land of individualism and self-reliance. I promise to share more from my experiments and hope that you will share your experiences as well!