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Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Posted by on ene 30, 2014 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

During our second week in Rio (Brazil), I received an email from my good friend Manish Jain, one of the founders of Shikshantar and Swaraj University, in Udaipur, India.  Manish was writing to give me the name of Edgard Gouveia – someone we ‘really should try to connect with’ as he was doing some really exciting and inspiring work in Brazil.

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Following through on our principle of openness to what-arises-along-our-journey, I contacted Edgard right away and told him something of Enlivened Learning – what we were doing and why. Edgard responded within a day and invited us for a visit with him at the small and magical coastal town of Paraty, located about mid-way between Rio and Sao Paulo.  He was there co-creating and co-developing a game project – ‘Play the Call’ which he said he would tell us lots more about once we arrived… Udi saw that we could stop and visit Edgard on our way back to Rio after visiting the Landless Movement University, which was only an hour from Sao Paulo.  We were a bit concerned about finding a place to stay, especially with costs.  I emailed Edgard and asked for accommodation suggestions.  His response came – ‘we are exercising gift economy as much as possible’ … plenty of space in exchange for us cooking a few meals!

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

I first came across the ideas and language of ‘gift economy and gift culture’ when I visited Shikshantar: Rethinking Education and Development in Udaipur, India in 2008.   Manish and his wife, Vidhi co-founded Shikshantar in 2000 as an open space for gathering together, co-learning and co-creating alternatives to mainstream ideas and practices of education and development (so-called progress). Aside from the many activities I engaged in while visiting Shikshantar, all of which included a generosity of time, creative spirit and skills, I spent hours delving through the deluge of donated books, magazines and other texts stacked on shelves that lined the walls.   In particular, however, there was a stack of self-designed, ‘copy-left’ booklets on a range of topics that Shikshantar had self-published on a back table. One of them, Reclaiming the Gift Culture (edited by Manish and his sister, Shilpa) caught my eye.  It became my first encounter with the language and ideas of gift culture, or gift economy, as it is often called. Reclaiming the Gift Culture   The Shikshantar booklets were available through contribution (whatever anyone feels moved to give).  I donated a small amount of money at the time to take several of these publications home with me. I found them inspiring and engaging –  I used several of these booklets and incorporated them into different classes I taught at the University of Bath.   ………. Back to Brazil ……….   We arrived into Paraty after a day of bus travel from the Landless Movement University.  We were without a phone and about 3 hours later than we had said we would arrive.  All of us were tired, hungry and a little car/bus sick from the hours of travel. Paraty is a beautifully preserved Portuguese colonial town along the Costa Verde (Green Coast), a lush green section of coastline in the state of Rio de Janeiro, south of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  The town looks much like it did when it was settled during the Portuguese colonial days – the buildings are all refurbished, left over from the colonial era, the majority of the streets have not been paved and have unique forms of large cobblestone.

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

It had been raining when we arrived and some of the streets were nearly flooded.  The pedestrian-only streets of Paraty consisted of large stones where we had to either hop or take large steps between them, because of the rain.  Not such an easy mode of transport carrying heavy bags and feeling tired and sluggish.  However, we all felt a burst of new energy as we walked/hopped deeper into the town in search of the house with the address where Edgard was staying. We finally found the address at a huge corner house, one block from the sea.  We rang the doorbell and no one answered.  Suddenly around the corner came three people.  We heard a loud, booming voice, ‘Kelly?  Udi?’  Edgard was suddenly there with two other friends.  He enveloped each of us into a big hug (quite easy for him to do as he is 2 metres tall!) and ushered us into the house. We entered into an exquisitely beautiful house that looked as if it could still be the 1800s.  The floors were dark wood, high ceilings and lots of windows.

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

The walls were adorned with signs and posters from what I was assuming were drawn by the different people that had been joining Edgard to co-create the game project.

Shot from inside the house with poster of 'Play the Call' - photo by Kelly

Shot from inside the house with poster of ‘Play the Call’ – photo by Kelly

We all sat down in the huge main room and a long conversation ensued.  The friends that were with him – Chris was leaving the next morning and was just passing through town as Udi, Marina and I were.  The other friend, a lovely woman called Adrienne, had been there several months offering her time and creativity on their game project, ‘Play the Call’. The intent of the game is to involve young people to engage more directly in making change within their community.  It had evolved as an online, virtual game that is carried out in real life.  Young people over the age of 8 are given a series of ‘missions’ to plan and carry out, each one more challenging than the previous.  In order to move to the next mission, each player also had to engage with others about what they are doing and why, take a few photos to exchange the story of how they had accomplished each mission – and have it ‘liked’ by many on facebook, before moving on to the next mission.

Hand-drawn poster, 'Play the Call', photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn poster, ‘Play the Call’, photo by Kelly

The entire project had been completed almost entirely without monetary exchange. The aim was for the game to be entirely accessible, for anyone and without any barrier-of-entry due to some financial requirement. The idea was that the planning, creating and establishment of the game should be completed in the same way.  In other words, all stages of ‘Play the Call’ (from its conception to its full functionality) were to become part of a gift economy and culture. Edgard had been experimenting with various possibilities of a gift economy to not only provide access to the game, but to set it up as well.

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

Edgard made the point that if you are clear in what you want and open to asking and giving (through acts of reciprocity) things open up, often beyond what you think is possible.  The idea of ‘Play the Call’ aspired to contribute to a more peaceful and just society.  But, to get things rolling, Edgard needed a place to stay, to host other people, access to food, technical expertise and people who could help co-create the specificities of the game.

Posters hanging in the house - made by co-creators of 'Play the Call' to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Posters hanging in the house – made by co-creators of ‘Play the Call’ to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Most of us are completely dependent on money to ‘do the things we want to do’.   I hear this statement all the time.  If ONLY I had the money, I could…. I would… Again and again – before embarking on this journey, and during this journey, we have met many people who stopped projects because of the lack of financial resources ‘it just became impossible because we did not have enough resources’. Yet, many, many others along our journey have used their lack of financial resources as a welcome opportunity to imagine alternative forms of resources to be more creative and further enhance what it is that they want to do – to reach out – building communities and learning (and exchanging) time, creativity, energy, hospitality, new skills in the process.  At the base of this, it has seemed to me is a willingness, a confidence and a courage to re-define what is meant by ‘resources’ and to see the abundance of what is around you, immediately available (if you can see it in this way), rather than seeing most of the world through a perspective of scarcity.

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Udi and I have been trying to do this as well – where we can.  Coming from research backgrounds where institutional money is spent much more freely (e.g. – hotels, restaurants, taxis) during time spent in the field conducting research, we have been unlearning on this journey — by being committed to engaging in gift economy practices as much as we can.  Although there are obvious costs associated with flight travel that are difficult to negotiate (especially long flights between countries), we have been taking many long (15+ hour) bus rides, staying in homestays and with friends– as well as couchsurfing (rather than staying in hotels).  We have also been offering our skills with filmmaking and photography from a ‘copy-left’ (what is mine, is yours) perspective when we can.

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Edgard had been searching for a place in which he could host people to help create and support all aspects of ‘Play the Call’.  A friend of his let him live in a house of theirs for 4 months, for free – a house that accommodated many people at the same time.  To feed himself and the people who came to help, Edgard reached out to local restaurants and food businesses and asked that they donate meals during the months they were creating and finishing the game.  For the technological expertise needed to create and complete the game, Edgard invited people he knew – to then reach to more people that they knew – to locate interested and technologically skilled people to come and give their time and energy. All of these steps of reaching out worked.  Gifts of accommodation, food, skills and creative energy were exchanged in this way through reciprocity.  The abundance that is there, literally right at Edgard’s doorstep – was not out of reach.  It just had to be located and asked for.  The reason it worked?  Edgard’s humility, energy, commitment and passion for what ‘Play the Call’ could be … would be … once completed.  Not just for the young people participating, but for their communities – and as a huge network of individuals and communities across the globe. As Edgard explained – ‘who can say no to the earnest and innocent energy and courage of children? — as adults, we are far more likely to listen to the views of children than other adults’   This was a fledgling, but very much living gift economy that Edgard helped to setup in the local community of Paraty around his project.  These gifts were actually alive – providing sustenance, energy… as Lewis Hyde describes the ideal of a gift in his wonderful book ‘The Gift’.

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

The gifts exchanged as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were imbued with a spiritual energy surviving the consumption from those individual participants – these gifts literally, kept the creation and development of the project alive… and they created new networks of community relationships out of individual heart-felt expression of hope toward the project.  These gifts as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were simultaneously material, social and spiritual. A gift economy or gift culture focuses on exchange as any economy does – but this exchange avoids typical exchanges that we are used to within a capitalist system.  In other words, beyond money … money is seen as one form of many different types of exchanges, rather than the ONLY form.  A gift economy and culture exchanges services, skills, time, non-commodified labor, care, hospitality, love…

From left - Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne - walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

From left – Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne – walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

… and as Edgard taught Udi, Marina and me, a gift economy increases the livingness, the value of the gift by creating community and bringing forth abundance where it might not have been seen or experienced previously.  Typical to gift economy or gift culture, there was the avoidance of the interaction of money or consumer good as the center point of the exchange. Gifts exchanged within a gift culture or economy, are centered on relationships between those exchanging gifts (which again Lewis Hyde beautifully describes in his book). Imagine if learning communities that emerged from gift culture were commonplace.  Imagine if our learning was to imagine, create and experiment with different forms of gift culture and reciprocity.  How much richer could our worlds be?

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

There are communities all over the world that are experimenting with different forms of gift economy – places like Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth in Oaxaca, Mexico), Swaraj University (that emerged from Shikshantar in Udaipur, India), transition towns creating local currencies and time banks, home-schooling communities tapping into the wealth of local knowledge and skills that are within walking distance of their homes… In various forms, each of these places are experimenting with gift culture and economy.   Last October, Manish and many others organized a ‘Giftival’ in Istanbul, Turkey followed by another Giftival held in Kerala (India).  See this link for a detailed blog posting about the Giftival event in Turkey. I hope to write much more about our continued learning and encounters with gift economy and gift culture as our journey continued… Edgard taught us about the possibilities of taking a brilliant idea and creating a living project and community — by finding the abundance that is right around you and engaging in a reciprocal gift economy.  We did cook those few days with Edgard — and he gave us the invaluable gifts of courage, wisdom, hospitality and friendship, to inspire us to notice the abundance around us – and to spread that awareness and inspiration with others….

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