The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “Mongolia”

Mongolia: extreme cold forces families from traditional living to urban slums – IFRC

Outside of the city of Ulaanbaatar the Mongolian nomadic peoples live a lifestyle that has all but died out elsewhere in the world.  Their childlike curiosity and interest in visitors does not inspire jealousy or envy.  Their lives are hard, unimaginably hard, and you can see this etched on their faces.  Yet their lives have a simple quality: work to provide for their livestock and their families with little concern for what is not necessary.  Community spirit is alive in individual family groups of between two and five gers (their tented homes) working in conjunction with their neighbours to make the best use of the sparse grazing land.  Consumerism is not a good idea when you pack up all your personal belongings, furniture and heavy felt tent to “move house” every two or three months.  Just enough vehicles for you and your neighbours in your area to share makes more sense than having more than you need or can afford.  There is little in the way of “keeping up with the Joneses” here.  The few luxuries in recent years are solar or wind generated power to run a few lights and the satellite TV.  This is a form of living easily seen as “poverty”, but being forced to abandon your way of life to live in the slums of Ulaanbaatar, a sprawling city that contains easily a third of the entire population of the whole country, leads to a far greater poverty: poverty not only of low income, but now a social poverty borne of a loss of livelihood, independence, self-sufficiency, pride, family and community connections, and a whole way of life.

Mongolia: extreme cold forces families from traditional living to urban slums – IFRC.


Common Sense: Either or Neither and Can it be Taught?

[previously published online on Suite.101]

I’ve heard it.  I’ve read it.  I’ve said it.  But is it?  Is it common sense?  How common is it?  And is it sense?  Judging by the number of times it is said in a tone of exasperation, hardly ever either.

The topic has long exercised the minds of philosophers, such as Aristotle, Locke, Moore, et al.

Thomas Paine produced his pamphlet “Common Sense” anonymously as, in the 1700’s, his views in calling for American Independence were still considered treasonous and not yet common.[1]

The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “sound judgement not based on specialised knowledge; native good judgement”[2]. And therein lies at least one problem.  Native.  Common sense is cultural.  With all the vagaries of the historical, social, experiential and religious context in which sense is meant to be common, it is not universally common.

Wikipedia[3] suggests the ‘strict construction’ of the term to be: “common sense … consists of what people in the world would agree on: that which they ‘sense’ as their common natural understanding”.

Maya Lin, in ‘The Right Words at the Right Time’[4], describes her parents as her mentors.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, for most people, our primary carers are all our mentors.  Sometimes their influences are more helpful than others, sometimes there may be conflicting influences, such as between carers and school, and in more modern times, from the media, but inevitably it is from them we first learn our culture – and our common sense.  Yet even they are not necessarily a source of the best of either common or sense.

Members of the generation now mostly grandparents will recall education was about the acquisition of knowledge, the proof of knowledge being the passing of examinations.  A generation who grew up without the Internet, when computers were still in their infancy, the electric typewriter was still a bit of a novelty, and the humble calculator was a huge chunk of something that sat on a desk.  A generation who was still getting to grips with the concept of colour television and for whom the CD, let alone the iPod, had not yet been invented.  A generation who had laughed at their own great-grandparents’ generation for passing a law (in England at least) that a man had to walk in front of a motor car carrying a red warning flag, in case the car travelled too fast and either the occupants or witnesses died of shock as a result.  Struggling himself with the technological age, my father often told the story of his grandfather who, the first time he heard it, refused to believe there was not a small man hiding in the box they called a radio.

Which must lead to the conclusion that the common sense today’s generations are learning from their parents’ generations is already flawed.  And the common sense we are indirectly passing on to the next generation will also, inevitably, be flawed.

Whilst history itself cannot change, the interpretation of history frequently does as political views change and humanity develops new knowledge, experiences and ideas.  However other areas of knowledge, particularly in areas such as IT and science, are out of date even before the text books are written.

As the American Heritage Dictionary also states that common sense is not based on specialised knowledge, and if that knowledge is out of date before it can be taught, surely it is common sense then that these things should no longer be taught in schools?  Or do I hear an outcry?  Does not common sense dictate that if children are not taught what is already known they will not have the basics on which to build new knowledge in the future?  Maybe children should be left to find out for themselves, not taught, but left in a place where they can find their own path to learning and inspiration, such as through Minimally Invasive Learning[5][6].  It seems that the answer to these questions depends on the common sense of the surrounding culture.   In many mainly developing cultures children are more likely to be left to their own devices and learn much by experimentation.  Yet, where children have already learned, through the common sense of their own culture, to expect to be ‘taught’, the freedom to learn independently may itself have to be taught first, while their learning may require some courageous non intervention by their parents.

Among nomadic Mongolian families it is common to see children as young as ten or twelve out on the steppes in charge of a flock of several hundred sheep.  If anything goes wrong, the family could starve.  What parent would entrust their whole family’s livelihood to a child?  Yet, those children have been learning the sense, or knowledge, that is common to their nomadic lifestyle since birth.  They already know how to competently ride a horse, often bareback.  They know where the best grazing is to be found.  They know that each animal native to their lands grazes the ground cover in different ways.  One nibbles the tips of the shoots, while others prefer to munch closer to the ground.  Whether sheep, cattle, camels or horses, their families have known for generations how to rotate the meagre growth this largely desert landscape produces, to ensure each animal gets the best from nature.  Often families work together, one group looking after the herds of several families.  They each move their ger home every two months, taking their particular charges with them.  Another family moves into their space with their, different, animals, and so it goes on.  It’s common sense – to them.

The nomadic lifestyle does not preclude children from formal education, and adult literacy rates are considered to be around 90%.  National culture and pride are a common thread through Mongolian education.[7]

In Westernised education, experiences are not common.  Parental poverty or wealth, jobs, educational levels, class, disabilities, will all affect a child’s world view.  Children from immigrant families may face a conflict between the common sense of their parents’ culture and the education they receive in the classroom.  Teachers and schools are different, some better than others.  Some children may need additional help to learn basic life skills, perhaps because of a social or learning disability, such as autism.  The lucky ones will have the social and intellectual skills to work out what is both common and sense for themselves.

The development of international social networking is even now affecting the influences in children’s lives and what they learn to be common sense.  It is inevitable that the common sense of the dominant cultures will prevail, although for some children there will be a conflict with the common sense of their families and cultures.  It may even be that with world globalisation common sense will become more ‘common’.

Perhaps more than anything this idea helps both illustrate and question the less simplistic definition of common sense given by Diana Coben when she quotes from Gramsci[8]: “common sense comprises the ‘diffuse , unco-ordinated features of a general form of thought common to a particular period and a particular popular environment’”, and “‘a chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions, and one can find there anything one likes’”.


[4] The Right Words at the Right Time, Marlo Thomas and Friends, Atria Books, New York, 2002, p.198

[7] Based on Mongolian newspaper reports at the start of the school year in September 2010

[8] Common Sense or Good Sense? Ethnomathematics and the Prospects for a Gramscian Politics of Adults’ Mathematics Education, Diana Coben, Goldsmiths College, University of London,

Asking Questions?

Whatever we like to think, we all live in the confines of our own experience, finding it hard to imagine how others might live.  For those who live in countries that consider themselves to be the most advanced and richest nations, it can be hard to even recognise that the rest of the world is actually in the majority.  And their priorities may be different for good reasons.  Certainly, we all need to love and be loved, eat and have somewhere to sleep, but we don’t all approach these needs in the same way.  Or the other things that occupy our minds and time, which can vary enormously.

Taking time out to travel around the world overland has brought me into contact with ways of life that I would not have seen by simply going on holiday.

In Mexico we have seen life lived in ways we have not seen outside of our history books.  Oxen pulling the plough in small fields, followed by an old man hand sowing seeds from a bucket.  These are Biblical illustrations, not modern farming methods.  Yet, quite logical when you see the size of the fields, small spaces that are cultivated in the natural rocky mountains, even, in some cases, the almost impossible forty five degree angle mountain slopes on which some fields have been created.  These are not the spaces for large tractors and other farm machinery.  The old methods are sometimes still the best.

In Mexico we have also seen and heard small lorries carrying pigs, three tiers high.  In England this was outlawed many years ago, the legal achievement of animal rights activists.  Should those activists be working to save the suffering of pigs in Mexico?  In a country where animals are looked after because they are a valuable resource, not out of sentimentality.  In a country where donkeys are still kept and used to transport wood from the forests for the fires at home.  And, where donkeys are not available, on the backs of men, women and children.  In a country where dogs are kept not out of sentimentality but because they provide an early warning system in the event of intruders and help with the herding of other animals.  It is undoubtedly true that not all animals are well cared for but in countries that pride themselves on caring for animals there are plenty of people who are still prosecuted for the suffering they cause dogs and cats, for cruelty to wildlife, often for no reason other than the fun of it.  I suspect the majority of Mexicans eking out an existence in the mountains would consider the concerns of the animal rights activists to be rather bizarre.

In Mongolia there is little agricultural farming, the land is far too unproductive to bother.  Animals again have an important role to play in the daily life of the Mongolian.  His family will probably have a horse or two for transport, alongside a small motorbike.  Several nomadic families may share the use of oxen and cart, or even a small tractor, to move home every two months.  The family will also probably have a couple of cows, sheep, goats, or yak or camels, depending on where in Mongolia they live.  If their livestock is undernourished it is because the weather has been cruel this year and the land has not produced enough of the sparse vegetation their animals feed on.  In this case, the Mongolian nomad and his family may well face the real risk of starvation themselves.

In other respects the animals’ lives are much better.  There is comparatively little factory farming.  Cows in Kazakhstan and Mongolia are left to wander around during the day, finding grazing where they can, returning home through the village on their own as dusk falls.  Pigs, turkeys and chickens living in fishing villages along the coast of Mexico have the run of the beach, or at least the run of the beach outside the home where they live, for the dogs of other homes do their job and chase them off if they wander too far from their own territory.

The obsessions and worries of the so called ‘advanced’ nations are often of little or no concern here.  Children and teenagers are left alone caring for animals, each other, livestock, and elderly relatives.  They are trusted and trustable.  If chores need to be done they do them, and occupy themselves in play in between times.  Responsibility is given at a young age, but only to the degree that responsibility can be handled.  Life, human and animal, is too precious to entrust it to the not yet trustable.

Two young men work together in Mongolia.  They harvest the marshland for grasses for winter feed for their animals.  They work as part of a group of maybe twenty men, the oldest of whom is probably in his fifties.  One young man is sixteen, sometimes shy and a little childlike in unfamiliar company and the older men cover for him at those times.  But he is also strong and well-built and able to work as well as men much older and more experienced than he is.  In the fields he is listened to as an equal by his colleagues when he has something to say.  The other boy is a little younger, maybe fifteen.  He is shy and childlike in all his dealings.  His thinking is not as quick and he says little.  Physically he does what he can but he is slim and with little muscle on his frame.  His uncle, one of the group of men, watches over him and protects him.  No-one seems to mind the difference.  Both have a role to play in this society.  Both are equally accepted.

In the majority world childhood is a transition from infancy to adulthood where responsibility and duty are learned through being a part of a community.  Chores may be a chore to some but for most they are just the way of life.  To what extent are we doing our children a favour if we protect them from the hardship of chores and responsibility?  How will they learn to be trustable contributing adults if not by experience?  Or do we leave this learning until adulthood has been attained?  If we think childhood is lost in the majority world to what should be adult responsibilities, I wonder what the parents of those children think of the alternative of childhood being lost to early sexualisation in the ‘advanced’ nations.

Material poverty is real in these countries, but they still have family and community.    But there are changes.  In the bigger towns and cities, where the influences from the west are greatest, the beginnings of a move away from dependence on community and family can be seen: children are more likely to group together in Internet cafés, the young and the old don’t mix together so much.

Global warming and recycling have become mainstream concerns in the advanced nations, where councils and governments have introduced legislation to force people to recycle their paper and plastics in their weekly waste collections.  This works well in countries with highly developed waste collection systems.

However in countries such as Mongolia and Mexico waste collections are non-existent in many areas.  At a micro level this is not such a problem as it might be in England.  People buy fewer goods that come with lots of packaging, vegetables are bought from local markets and shops, not wrapped in several layers of plastic.  The same goes for meat.  There is not the dependence on tinned or packet foods, or pre-prepared and packaged ready meals outside of the main cities.    What little rubbish is produced is easily burned, and in both countries people in the rural areas do just this.  The Mongolian burns his rubbish behind his ger before he packs up to move to a new site every two months.  Where there are villages or small towns there is often a collective site on the outskirts of the settlement.  On such a small scale there is little thought or concern for the risk this might cause to the ozone layer.  Better surely to burn the rubbish than leave it for the rats to make nests in right outside their kitchens.

In Kazakhstan there is a growing problem with waste plastic bottles.  The water is largely poor quality and not good for drinking and it is possible to buy lemonade, colas, and other sweet drinks as well as water in various sizes of plastic bottles.  But in such a vast country there is little in the way of organised waste collection and these empty bottles are increasingly littering the countryside.  A similar situation could exist in Mongolia, except in this even more sparsely populated country the continued nomadic culture sees these bottles added to the periodic fires in which waste is burnt.

In Mexico there continues an otherwise outdated system of using returnable and recycled glass containers.  Coca-Cola in particular has many small delivery vehicles moving around the country, taking advantage of the good road infrastructures that do not exist in Mongolia.

In England and America there are no more returnable glass bottles. It is all plastic bottles and cans.  There Coca-Cola have fallen in with the market needs of the big supermarkets.  Huge outlets requiring massive deliveries to central warehouses.  Customers who travel to centralised locations or shopping centres.  The big supermarkets do not operate in a system that is conducive to collecting returnable bottles for individual manufacturers.

In England there is a plethora of campaigns to support, whether it be related to global warming, destruction of the rainforests, food waste, recycling, child or animal welfare, the obesity and health crisis in the west, medical research such as for the treatment of cancer, reduction of poverty or provision of resources such as clean water and sanitation for those who do not have such things.  We each choose our own causes to support based on our interests and experiences.  And it’s right that we do so.  Yet for the most part we only see what’s under our noses, what ‘our’ media pick up on, which in turn is largely the campaigns of those who shout loudest or have the most famous patrons.  It’s good that social media is now able to bring international support to bear on issues that affect the world, and Facebook has done just this, yet so often this gives us yet more causes, campaigns and concerns to worry over and spread our support to.

It seems that every issue of concern, every campaign, has a value.  But there are so many.  How to choose the ones that are worthy?  Perhaps one way to help make that decision is to step back and view the issues as a whole.  Perhaps as the leaves on the branches on a tree.  The leaves are the causes and the campaigns.  The branches are the problems that are to be resolved.  The trunk and the roots are the human greed, selfishness and lusting after power, that are behind so many of the problems the world faces today.  These are the causes of the problems mankind face.  The reasons there are wars, poverty, starvation, inequality, global warming, and concerns about diminishing resources.

We plough the fields and scatter – in modern day Mexio

transporting live pigs in Mexico

Children of the World

I am lying in a ger in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, listening to the wind and rain as I reflect on the children whose lives I have seen over the last couple of months.

All over Kazakhstan and Mongolia we have seen children collect water for their families, dragging heavy urns to and from the village tap or even a nearby stream.  Sometimes not even having an urn or a trolley but collecting water in old plastic bottles and carrying them back home in their arms.  The older children help the younger ones and then carry the heavier bottles themselves.  Children working together as a team to get their chores done.

In a small village in Mongolia, we stopped to ask directions.  A man called over a child, no more than seven or eight, and told him to get in our car and show us the way to the village shop.  It was several streets away.  Another time an older man of the village called a little girl of about the same age over, she then ran ahead of us showing us the way to the café, her face beaming as she looked back to make sure we are still following.  They expected nothing in return.

Up on a distant hill we spotted two horseman shepherding a flock of some 400 sheep.  One of them galloped towards the road we were driving on, heading us off.  We slowed down and waited, only to realise as the first horseman reached us that he was only about 10 years old, competently riding bareback.  He, along with his 14 year old brother, appeared alone in charge of the family’s precious flock.  They were entranced by the camera screen showing their image in the photo we have just taken.  Of course they were not entirely alone in the vast expanse of the Mongolian savannah.  We could not see their fathers but their fathers could see them.  Powerful monoculars allow the nomadic tribesmen of Mongolia to watch over their flocks and families from vast distances.

At other times, we have seen fathers and their teenage sons working together.

After camping in a dry river bed for a few days we set off to cross vast open lands of Mongolia.  The Mongolians are a naturally curious people and many of the local men stopped to talk to us on their way to and from work, harvesting hay in the swamps, ready for the winter feeds for their animals.  They were very clear that we should not try to drive our heavily laden Land Rover through the bog.

But we got it wrong, we made a wrong turn, we couldn’t imagine just how big a bog could be.  It turned out to be nearly the size of our home town in England.  Perhaps that was why we ended up stuck up to our axles in soggy mud.  As we looked around the bog appeared deserted, apart from the swarms of mosquitoes anticipating a tasty meal as we got out of the car to survey the extent of our problem.  Then men appeared from nowhere, ambling towards us.  These were the same men who had been openly curious and checking out our campsite over the previous few days.  Now they laughed at our predicament before they began working as a team to dig us out of the hole we had got ourselves into.

Because we had met this group of men before we knew that one was only sixteen years old, but already with the build and strength of a man.  Watching their interactions we saw he was respected as a peer amongst peers as a worker, but we had also seen the shy youth in him.  None of the men minded or teased him, but just acted as if all behaviours were normal.  Another young man was in this same group, slightly younger in years at about 14 or 15 but much younger in maturity and physical strength.  He was accepted but protected by the men he was with.  It was encouraging to see how each ‘child’ was treated according to his ability and experience.

Before we left England we spoke to children in schools about the work of Water Aid in Africa, where children also collect the family’s water from the tap or stream.  One child asked us why the parents weren’t collecting the water.  There was no concept of children doing chores.  In Central Asia there is no concept of children not doing chores.

So, as I lay in my Mongolian ger my reflections leave me wondering if we are doing our children a disservice.  I ask myself the question: In our collective desire to purge the memories of the child labour that haunts our memories of Victorian England, do we expect children to be launched from childhood into adulthood, full of book learning and theory, with none of the practical experiences of the responsibility of citizenship?

Post Navigation