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BIRTHING JUSTICE: The Link to Humanity -- Gift Economies

Photo by the Global Collaborative.

By Beverly Bell

April 23, 2012

Welcome to Birthing Justice: Women Creating Economic and Social Alternatives. The series features twelve alternative social and economic models which expand the possibilities for justice, equity, and strong community. They are based in the US, Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Some are national-level, some global-level. Some are propelled by people’s movements, some forced or adopted into government policy. In first-hand narratives, women describe their role in having created the models and show us their unique perspectives and challenges in the movements.

Below is the fourth narrative of Birthing Justice.

Coumba Toure | Bamako, Mali

All of Coumba Toure’s work is aimed at keeping African values alive. As part of this, she is deeply involved in a women-led movement to keep the gift economy thriving. West African gifting is based on the interrelated values that all humanity is linked and that one’s well-being is only as strong as that of one’s neighbor. Profit and exchange are trumped by a commitment to care for community.

“African values” refers to a set of values that people share. How do you recognize a human being? How do you treat people? What do you do with what you have? We are talking about a universal, positive way of life. What Africa has to give the world is a reclaiming of humanity. It teaches that there are other ways of living and doing and being with each other. We share values with those everywhere who believe in the dignity of the human being.

A word that we use a lot in Bamana is maaya. When you say that somebody has maaya, you mean they are human, they hold humanity. To be human for us is to be able to give, to be able to recognize each other as human beings. That concept also incorporates the idea that our humanity is one. I am human because we are all human. There’s a song that says that what makes us human is a thread that we all pull on. Each of us has to make sure that it doesn’t break in our name.

Here we judge people by how much they give. Even if the person doesn’t have much, someone will say, “That’s a good person, an extraordinary person.” In other countries, the measure is that the person has a lot, not that they give a lot. But for us, if you have a lot and you don’t give it, what is it good for?

We call the gift economy dama. Dama is about giving, passing the gift on, moving it forward. In all the places I’ve been in West Africa, I’ve seen this gift economy at work. I have seen it most with people and places that are less in touch with the global model. I have seen people considered poor give much more than people who have much more, and they do it with ease.

Who you are is very much defined by how much you give to others. And when you say give, that means everything. We give objects but they are only symbols. They’re just to materialize the links. The highest gift is recognizing people, giving consideration for who they are, and accepting to be linked to them.

The gift economy is a way of life. And it’s real; it’s not something that we dream about. If you go into any family here in Mali, you’ll find that most of the time, one person works and feeds twenty people. It’s not like we have governmental systems to take care of people. It’s not like we have a high rate of employment or like everyone has some money. There is nothing. If you interviewed any number of persons and asked them how they live, what they eat, where they get what they wear, you would easily notice that most of it has been given by someone. If there wasn’t a working gift economy, we would have a lot of people dead on the streets from hunger.

Our belief is that what we do always comes back to us. My mother, for example... Anyone who comes by, she will solve their problems as if they were hers. Her belief in doing so is that someone will do the same for her own children as they travel around. It is a real thing; someone really will take care of your children while you are caring for someone else’s. When you are in a community where everyone believes that, it really does work.

You don’t give based on what you have. And you would never give something that you don’t want yourself. The idea of giving old clothes that you wouldn’t wear anymore, what kind of giving is that? You have to be able to give things that you want, things that you need, or things that you would want someone to give you.

It could be just to maintain relations. Like when I travel, I get small gifts, and when I come back, I give them to people. Or I could be thinking of someone and I could cook some food and send it to them.

The gift is always shown to others. The person witnessing will also thank the giver. The gift is for other members of the community as well. The other members will say, “This is beautiful. Thank you for what you have done.”

When you don’t give is when people really start worrying about you, when people start wondering about what kind of person you have become. Being rich here means that there is something wrong with you, that you aren’t giving enough to the needs around. The only way you get to be rich is by disassociating yourself from other people. Because you can’t live in community, have family in the way that we understand family, and still be rich. There are so many children that you have to pay for schooling for, there are so many people that you have to pay for medicines for.

Just one example of gift-giving is remittances sent home by emigrants. The amount of money that they send back home is incredible. People may wonder: what’s wrong with these people? They work so much, they are so tired, they get so little. And they send this money to cousins, to nieces, and to people that, by your definition, aren’t even close family? But the model they know is the gift economy.

I am always struck by the mentality of giving in the US. Most of the time when I travel to the US, I don’t have money but when I do, I try to give gifts for people. People have told me, “You can’t give to me.” I say, “Of course, I can.” It is a pleasure. It is happiness. It is hard for me to see how people, even close friends, have problems receiving. They are worried about the expectation that they will have to give back. But if there is an expectation, it is not a gift.

Our values are being pushed back by the Western model. Slavery and colonization as they were are no longer here. But what we have is globalization which is breaking fundamental beliefs and values and links that people have developed over thousands of years. They become losers because the way they act doesn’t make them succeed in a model that they don’t believe in or that they don’t even know.

We are living in big cities, and people are looking to be safe, to make sure that they don’t lack things. Sometimes, trying to be safe becomes almost madness: when people are so afraid of losing things, of not being taken care of, then they’re not able to give anymore. Then, what they have seems like it’s not enough. We’re moving towards a trend where people accumulate more and have more difficulty in sharing, in giving, because they want to fit a global model that says that there’s not enough in this world for all of us, that says that only some of us will survive, that says that the most intelligent people are the ones who are able to exploit others and gather more.

I believe that most negative ways of acting and interacting with others comes from insecurity. It’s very hard to maintain positive values and ways of interacting with other people when your own security and the security of people close to you are at stake. To me, globalization is the development of insecurity.

Especially in the villages, the norms are changing to where people are starting to become important and valued by what they have, not what they give. When the main incentive of life is to collect and have more, of course you have to give less. The person’s worth is less if they give away. The farther we go into a market economy, the less attractive it is to be a giver. Increasingly, it’s through accumulation that people are getting power.

The gift economy questions an order that is already established, that everyone thinks is the only model, which is not true. That paradigm has been failing people, at least failing people like us, for the longest time.

We have to confront and fight so we don’t give more value to actions and institutions that go against what people know is real and positive inside them. Our struggle as individuals is to stay rooted in those values and to make sure that we can practice them. As organizations, our challenge is to model those values, to label what we’re doing and make sure that people are conscious of them. And to develop links with people all over the world who have similar values.

We have to find ways of maintaining the thinking that you take care of other people and trust that you will be taken care of. We have to develop a way of thinking that who you are is important and is recognized by others, and that other people will look out for your needs. That makes you very free to take care of other people and their needs. You don’t spend as much time protecting yourself and taking care of yourself. It’s a dangerous way of living. But it’s a beautiful way of living.

Inspired? Here are a few suggestions for getting involved!
• Think outside the profit-driven box and practice gifting to friends, neighbors and strangers. Refuse to have money influence your relationships with people you care about.
• Support cooperatively owned stores, banks, housing, and other businesses. The Data Commons Project offers a directory of cooperatives throughout North America (datacommons.find.coop).
• Join your town’s Freecycle, a web-based gift network where individuals can post or request free items from others in their community.
• Join or start a time bank, a structured system where people offer services they can provide in exchange for services they need. An individual performs a service – replacing a toilet, babysitting, or preparing tax returns, say – and earns hours which he or she can use in the same network. No cash is involved and all hours are valued equally, expanding the realm of what people can access, changing the nature of the human interaction, and creating community. Look into Timebanks USA (www.timebanks.org).
• Visit Neighbor Goods’ website to share goods and skills (www.neighborgoods.net).
• If your city or town doesn’t have any of the organized exchanges above, start your own.

And check out the following resources and organizations:

• U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, www.ussen.org
• Cycle Yatra, www.youtu.be/t_YQsaFLOvM
• Gift Economy, www.gift-economy.com
• Manish Jain and Shilpa Jain, eds., Reclaiming the Gift Culture (Shikshantar, 2009), available online at: www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/giftculture.pdf
• Genevieve Vaughan, ed., Women and the Gift Economy: a Radically Different Worldview Is Possible (Inanna Publications, 2007)
• Lewis Hyde, The Gift (Vintage Books, 2007)

Discover more ideas and download the entire Birthing Justice series here.


Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book
Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance and is working on the forthcoming book, Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s New Divide. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles here.

Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

Photo by the Global Collaborative.

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