|CERES No. 148 - Working out the links: labor in sustainable agriculture (1994)|
By Saleem Ahmed
Saleem Ahmed is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, 1777 East-West Road, Honolulu, Hawaii 96848. This article is based on research he conducted in Japan in 1993 under a Fulbright fellowship.
Mention Japanese agriculture and most people think automatically of high-intensity mechanized farms, using large doses of chemical inputs to turn out bumper yields of blemish-free produce - the kind of produce demanded by the very particular, almost finicky urban consumers of Tokyo or Osaka.
Few are aware of the small but rising number of Japanese growers who don't use inorganic chemicals, relying instead on organic methods to obtain yields 60 to 90 per cent of those of their chemical-employing neighbors. Though their produce has insect holes - even worms once in a while - a significant number of people prefer such "off-quality, but safe" food, and are willing to pay a higher price for it. Under the country's unique tekei systems, consumers have actually entered into "co-partnership" with organic farmers, helping them financially, committing to buy all produce, and even volunteering their time to help in weeding.
Defying the conventional wisdom that - without inorganic pesticides and herbicides - up to 60 per cent of their crops would be destroyed by weeds and 20 to 90 per cent by insects or disease, organic growers like Yoshinori and Tomoko Kaneko, of Ogawa-machi, Saitama Prefecture, rely instead on composting, crop rotation, crop diversity and hand weeding. Following a "natural" crop calendar in harmony with the seasons, they claim their losses are usually only 15 to 20 per cent - while their produce is delicious compared to its less tasty, chemically grown counterparts (a sample of their strawberries, given the author, offered physical, if strictly empirical proof of the latter!). They contend their crops become stronger and more resistant to pests when grown with compost, and that such produce stays fresher longer. By eliminating inorganic chemicals, they believe they're contributing to a less toxic environment.
These claims are disputed by some scientists, like Prof. Izuru Yamamoto, of the Department of Agricultural Chemistry, Tokyo University of Agriculture, who insists that, when used judiciously, inorganic chemical fertilizers do no more harm to the environment than would be caused by too much organic manure. Since the currently approved synthetic pesticides biodegrade rapidly when used correctly, there is negligible residue when the produce reaches market. Yamamoto cites Prof. X. Ames - discoverer of the Ames Test for carcinogenicity - to the effect that our daily pesticide intake is only 1/15 000 th of our daily intake of naturally occurring toxic substances. "This means justification of organic farming on the basis of food safety is dubious," asserts Yamamoto. But a June 1993 U.S. National Academy of Sciences' report concludes the level of pesticide residues currently permitted on crops at harvest-time in the U.S. may not be "safe" after all, especially for children (Ceres No. 147, U.S. export ban could halt dumping of dangerous toxics).
Whatever the pros and cons of the toxicity controversy, doing without chemical inputs has made Japan's organic farmers innovative. For example, members of the Yasato-machi Cooperative, in Ibaraki Prefecture, use locally bought or homemade products such as moku san (wood vinegar) and koso eki (fermented vegetable solution) to protect crops from pests, and farmer Tadashi Tomatsu of nearby Sashima-machi uses bokashi (a fermented mixture of soil, chicken manure, pressed rapeseed cake, rice bran, charcoal and boiled livestock bone) for its fertilizing value. Still others are testing crop rotation and mixed cropping schemes, while the Mokichi Okada Association (MOA), of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture - which claims to have more than a million consumers for its "nature farming" produce - contends that heavy composting helps gradually eliminate tenacious weeds from fields, leaving only weeds that are easy to pull out by hand. The MOA is also testing the pest-control effectiveness of extracts from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica). While some organic farmers use no manufactured chemicals at all, others do so on a case-by-case basis. Can they label themselves "organic farmers?" The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is grappling with the issue.
Willing to sacrifice
As for the perfect cucumbers or blemish-free lettuce many Japanese are supposed to prefer, they may not be as prized as mainstream marketing experts believe. A gradually increasing number of consumers appear willing to sacrifice cosmetic appearance for safety. "I don't mind insect holes in my lettuce at all," emphasized Reiko Kishio, a young Tokyo housewife who last year joined her neighborhood "delivery post" for supplies from the Miyoshi Village Cooperative, in Chiba Prefecture. "When I see a live caterpillar once in a while in my produce, it assures me that no pesticides were used on the crop," she explained, as she expertly picked out a tiny wriggling worm from between the folds of cabbage leaves while she and two other women sorted out supplies received that day for the nine members of their group. Empty cartons were being neatly stacked for reuse by farmers. "In fact, I would become very suspicious if I were to start receiving perfect-looking vegetables," Kishio added. "And I don't mind paying more for organic produce because the farmer has to work harder and because this is good for my health."
Her concern for health is typical of group members. Japan's organic farming movement dates, in fact, to the 1970s, when concern for the adverse effects of synthetic chemicals began to be voiced in books such as Sawako Ariyoshi's Complex Contamination - a work critics branded as emotional and without scientific credibility - which opposed agricultural chemicals generally. Other authors, such as Ayako Sono and Akiyoshi Nozaka adopted a more moderate view, recognizing a limited role for chemicals in agriculture.
The contribution of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides to Japan's agricultural development can't be denied, and the country's success in producing food helped it recover from the ravages of the Second World War. Today, Japanese agriculture is among the world's most productive. However, this also places Japan among the heaviest users of synthetic chemicals. For example, Japan's pesticide use currently averages 8.1 kilograms of active ingredients per hectare, compared to 2.4 kg/ha in the U.S. Actually both countries post similar figures for fruits and vegetables (Japan 24 kg/ha, U.S. 26 kg/ha on fruits and Japan 12 kg/ha, U.S. 17 kg/ha on vegetables), but the large area in the U.S. under such crops as wheat and soybean, which require less pesticide, helps lower the national average there.
And with an average fertilizer use exceeding 500 kg of nutrients per hectare, some studies suggest that Japanese farmers may be over-fertilizing by 30 to 50 per cent. Since fertilizer inputs are only a fraction of total production cost, farmers tend to apply too much, rather than take the chance of under-fertilizing. Pesticide costs are also a relatively small part of total costs, but Prof. Yamamoto points out that the highly regulated nature of pesticide use in Japan minimizes the chances of overuse having adverse effects on the environment.
Some instances of health problems have nevertheless been linked to pesticide use, according to Prof. Koa Tasaka of the International Christian University, in Tokyo. For instance in 1969, in Nagano Prefecture Prof. Tetsu Ishikawa linked cases of eyesight problems (short-sightedness, narrow-sightedness, and decreased activity of the enzymes responsible for nerve impulse transmission), especially among schoolchildren, to the heavy use of organophosphates. Yamamoto counters that the Nagano Prefecture Educational Committee conducted a survey of its own after Ishikawa's report, and did not find the same correlation. "The problem," Yamamoto adds, "is with individual pesticides and one should not generalize. Whenever any problem is found with pesticide, it is immediately tackled by the MAFF, Environmental Agency, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW). For example, when BHC residues were found in mother's milk, cow's milk and meat in 1971, the government banned BHC use. But there was no action on Ishikawa's study."
More recently, Prof. Masaharu Yamamoto (no relation to Izuru Yamamoto), of Niigata University Medical School, has observed a correlation between the use of herbicide CNP (chloronitrophen) and deaths due to tanno gan (cancer of the bladder) over the period 1984-1993 in Niigata, Japan's leading rice-producing area. But he cautions that his is currently only a working hypothesis, based on epidemiological studies. And while such an approach may provide a statistical association, it doesn't supply evidence for a direct causal relation. "If results of these investigations confirm a causal relationship, the government will undoubtedly take suitable action," said Izuru Yamamoto.
Residues in imports
Concern about pesticide contamination extends to residues in imported foodgrain, according to consumer activist Mikako Iba. Recently, a consumers' coalition filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Health and Welfare for raising the acceptable level of pesticide residues in imported foodgrain as part of a "Pesticides Residue Harmonization" scheme aimed at appeasing foreign governments - chiefly the U.S. - which consider Japan's strict laws a non-tariff barrier to free trade (see book review of The new protectionism, page 46). The level of chloropropham (growth regulator) residue permitted on potatoes, for example, has been raised from 0.2 parts per million (ppm) to 50 ppm; of bromide residue on soya, from 50 to 180 ppm; and of sumithion and malathion (insecticides) residue on wheat from 0.2 and 0.1 ppm to 10 and 8 ppm, respectively, according to consumer coalition lawyer Michiko Kamiyama. While these more permissive levels put Japanese regulations at par with international standards, consumers counter that the fact that Japan has had fewer cases of pesticide poisoning is mainly because its standards have been higher. Activists insist the amount of "poison" permitted in the environment should be a sovereign issue, and that people's health should not be sacrificed to appease other governments. The matter is pending in the courts, Kamiyama added.
Izuru Yamamoto explained that the internationally accepted concept is that where pesticide use is below "acceptable daily intake" (ADI), there should be no health problem. "The (coalition's) lawsuit challenges international expert opinion, is based on emotions, and lacks scientific basis," he added. "Formerly, there was almost no regulation on pesticide residues in imported foods, particularly for pesticides not registered in Japan. Now the law has been changed in the light of contemporary needs." He felt ADI probably is a "sovereignty issue," but not the residue level in each item. This point, however, can also be disputed, because recent studies suggest different human populations have differing levels of tolerance to various chemicals - as do adults and children within a population, including children still in the womb. Some argue the differences are small and within the usual "safety factor." The recent National Academy of Sciences' findings mentioned above, however, suggest vulnerability may cut across race, gender and age groups.
Organic market patterns
An idea of the national market for organic foods can be gleaned from looking at metropolitan Tokyo, where roughly 150 000 to 200 000 households - half a million to one million people - regularly eat "organic" produce (vegetables, fruit, rice, dairy and poultry products) grown without, or with "reduced use" of inorganic chemicals. Some schools and restaurants have also switched over to organic food, and at least one sake brewery claims to use only organically grown rice in its premium brand. The total number of organic food consumers throughout Japan may be three to five million (about three to five per cent of the population).
Three patterns of distribution are evident:
1) the tekei system of close farmer/consumer cooperation - Spearheaded by the 4 000 member-strong Nippon Yuki Nogyo Kenkyukai (Japan Organic Agriculture Association - JOAA) and born in 1971, this co-partnership requires farmers to forgo using any synthetic chemicals, and consumers to buy whatever the farmers produce, although the harvest may be more than needed in some seasons, and less in others. Consumers also visit farms periodically to help with weeding, and share in the purchase of capital items such as delivery vans, slaughterhouses, and cold storage facilities. Although some features may be duplicated elsewhere, the overall tekei system seems unique to Japan;
2) the post delivery system - Many consumers rely on distributors who bring produce to the house or to a pre-designated "post," usually serving three to 20 households. Some systems have evolved into multi-billion yen operations, receiving produce from 1 000 to 3 000-plus contract farmers spread throughout the country and distributing it to 10 000 to 35 000 households weekly. The largest such group, Seikatsu Club, founded by a Japanese housewife 20 years ago to get safe milk directly from farmers, claims to have more than 214 000 members;
3) organic food retail outlets - Approximately 150 retail outlets selling organic foods have appeared in recent years in the Tokyo megalopolis, catering to consumers who do not belong to established groups.
In the past, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Japan's agricultural research institutes paid little attention to organic farming, considering the task at hand to be to increase food production and food self-sufficiency. "The ministry considered organic farming to be a passing phase only and did not support any research in this area," complained JOAA secretary-general Tomoyoshi Kiuchi. Now that organic farming is making a dent, however, the ministry has issued guidelines describing farming practices necessary for a grower to label produce "organic." Designed primarily to protect consumers from false advertising, the guidelines have drawn complaints from the JOAA and consumer groups, who say the fact that they permit use of such labels as "reduced fertilizer" or "reduced pesticides" only confuses the buying public. The word "organic," say the groups, should be reserved exclusively for crops on which no chemicals have been used.
To date, Okayama is the only prefecture to endorse organic farming, as well as put a streamlined procedure in place for certifying produce as "organic," according to the Okayama Division of Agricultural and Horticultural Production. A red label is given to produce on which no chemical has been applied; a blue label to produce on which growers have used natural pyrethrum, nicotine, machine oil, sulphur compounds or the microbial control agent BT (Bacillus thuringiensis). To be certified, farmers must not use any other chemical, whether fertilizer or herbicide. Yamamoto, however, sees no rationale in permitting use of some pesticides, contending there is no difference between "natural" pyrethrum and synthetic pyrethroids in their mode of action, level of toxicity or the perceived harm to the ecosystem. Nicotine can also be very toxic if improperly used.
While scientific debate continues, the powerful JA-Zenchu (Zenkoku Nogyokyodokumiai Chuokai), the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives representing 80 per cent of Japan's farmers through its 5.5 million regular members and three million associate members, has also started paying attention to organic farming. Summarizing results of their 1990 survey of 3 500 primary societies, Kazuo Tsukada, manager of the internal section, said 2 000 societies had indicated that some farmers in their areas practised organic farming, though the extent of practice was unknown. Tsukada felt support for organic farming was within JA-Zenchu's basic policy of providing adequate, safe food to consumers and supporting sustainable agriculture. "While previously adequate food supply was the overarching consideration, issues of sustainability now warrant that all means of providing safe food be considered," he said.
A serious demographic problem for Japanese agriculture - as in many industrialized nations - is that farmers are aging, and their children are moving to urban centres in search of "easier living." The popularity of the organic life-style may help counterbalance this tendency, as the quest for living in harmony with nature prompts out-migration from cities of a new breed who dislike the "concrete jungle." Under apprenticeship programs operated by organic growers such as Yoshinori and Tomoko Kaneko and Tadashi Tomatsu, scores of young men and women are learning the joys, sweat and tears of farming - and starting their own farms and consumer group alliances.
Japanese organic farming has evolved from a fad to a life-style for some farmers and consumers. And while problems of scientific validity, definitions, safety, effectiveness, desired levels of production and consumer education remain, Japan's successful experience is instructive. Though the overall tekei system may be culture-specific, some aspects could be tried in many countries. The issues involved in organic growing should be weighed objectively, sifting fact from fancy, to find ways to improve safety and sustainability without sacrificing yield and quality.
Currently, organic farming is helping to meet the food needs of one to three per cent of Japan's population. Could it become a major crop production strategy, and an example for developing countries? To find out, research should concentrate on:
a) evaluating pest-control products on the basis of economic protection of target crops, rather than effective kill of target pests;
b) assessing the extent of crop losses under organic regimes;
c) evaluating the effectiveness of bio- or organic pest-control methods, such as employment of moku san, koso eki, and neem extracts, as well as the fertilizing value of such substances as bokashi;
d) assessing the pest-control effectiveness of different crop rotations and cropping patterns;
e) evaluating the use of composting to eliminate weeds.
The Japanese and other governments should also consider policies to facilitate larger-scale use of such botanical products as neem extracts. Many countries presently prohibit their use because the exact composition and concentration of their active ingredients can't be guaranteed. Yet, neither can any farmer guarantee that apples from two adjacent trees will be equally sweet. As long as materials are safe and farmers are willing to experiment with them, they should be encouraged to do so. The Indian government's bold initiative relaxing rules for the registration and use of neem formulations for pest control should be applauded,
Such extracts could be the basis for the next generation of safe pest-control Substances. Yet in many developing countries where government policy promotes use of "modem" inorganic chemicals to meet production targets, surveys reveal that use of traditional materials such as compost or neem extracts are seen as "backward practices" by the more affluent farmers and decision-makers. With Japan's organic growers obtaining higher yields than many developing country farmers produce with chemicals, the country's experience could be a valuable signpost.
by Jeremy Avis
Jeremy Avis is a British anthropologist who has travelled widely in Africa and the Middle East.
The strange, reverse odyssey of "the Outsiders" holds lessons for would-be cultural imperialists
As each plane touched down and its doors opened, it was a little like opening a series of time capsules, sealed packages somehow preserved from another era - except that their contents were living people, and the shock, for these voyagers, was profound.
Uprooted from a rural subsistence economy, and a deeply religious culture which for centuries had fiercely preserved its separation from the world around it, they were about to plunge - after what must have seemed a miraculous flight - into the daily life of the mostly secular, modern industrial State of Israel.
"They" were the Felashas ("outsiders" in Amharic), Ethiopian Jews from the drought-stricken Gondar region who had wandered, first on foot across rock and sand to Gedaref, Sudan, then back to their own nation's capital, Addis Abbaba, in search of an escape from famine, civil war, and repression. Thousands died or were imprisoned along the way, but these had survived to take part in an airlift that eventually transported more than 10 000 refugees.
They'd come to find a new life in their spiritual homeland. What they found, however, was not some mythical Promised Land, but a new and unexpected series of practical realities to be faced, absorbed and eventually transcended. Their experience - a forced, virtually overnight transition to the production economy and cultural mores of the western world - provides a microcosm of the kind of traumatic change many cultures in Africa and elsewhere have endured in recent decades, first under the heavy hand of colonialism and then in attempting to "develop" by emulating the rich industrial countries of the North.
In many cases, development has meant transplanting bits and pieces of the northern industrial economy and its way of life to "the field," where the social ground was often ill-adapted to receive them. In the case of the Felashas. the movement was precisely reversed - the "field" itself, in the form of a people, being transplanted wholesale into the heart of a modern economy- Perhaps for that very reason, the many mistakes and failures of wisdom involved seem plainer, and the lessons to be drawn clearer.
In the process, some found hope, others shipwreck.
A lost tribe
One of the famed "10 lost tribes of Israel," the Dan tribe, the Felashas were believed to have scattered to Ethiopia after the destruction of the Second Temple in the seventh century AD. The Semitic set of their faces and the peculiarities of their traditional religious and cultural life leave little doubt of their origin.
Their religion was preserved in its purity by holy men, or kassuts, who wore special white robes and were further distinguished from the laity by carrying ceremonial white sticks. They, along with a monastic order unique in Judaism, were the only members of the culture able to read and write the Torah. The whole system of kosher foods was preserved from ancient Judaism, along with purification rites and ritual sacrifices on the first shabbat of every month.
Their separation from surrounding tribes in Ethiopia required a high degree of self-sufficiency, which led to a necessary pluralism of skills within the culture. Besides varied farming strategies, there was a vigorous tradition of iron-working and weaving among the men. Women were skilled at working with clay and made huge pots, sealed with butter for grain storage and for fermenting the sour dough needed for preparing Ethiopian njira bread. Even beds were fashioned of clay. In modern Israel, however, these varied skills would often prove useless.
Most of the new immigrants were at first billeted in hastily commandeered four- and five-star hotels. Families found themselves living in sumptuously appointed bedrooms, taking three meals a day in the hotel dining-room, and trying to make some connection between their expectations and the bewildering reality that confronted them.
A teacher at the absorption centre in Naharia, where Ethiopians still spend their mornings learning to read and write, tells of the trauma these immigrants went through. Many were surprised by the large Arab minority living in Israel, and shocked by the secular nature of most of the Israelis around them. The ritual purification practised by Felashas after contact with a Gentile was, in some cases, extended to non-religious Jews.
There was also friction between the Ethiopian kassuts and the orthodox Israeli religious establishment, which despite a secular society still wields considerable influence. They disagreed on many aspects of dogma because the Ethiopian Torah is free of many additions inserted since the seventh century. The relationship got off to a bad start when the official rabbinate insisted that all male immigrants be ritually re-circumcised by a recognized rabbi, on grounds that the immigrants' earlier circumcisions might not have been carried out exactly according to tradition. The rabbinate refused to permit the immigrants to marry unless this was done - and since there is no civil marriage in Israel, the Ethiopians were obliged to accept.
A new world-view
At the absorption centre at Rosh-Hanikra, a spacious former youth hostel near the sea, families were billeted in two-room apartments with their own cookers and toilets. Despite such comforts, they were faced with the shock of assimilating a completely new world-view. It wasn't just small things, such as the fact that the day now started at both sundown (orthodox Jewish reckoning) and midnight (secular), instead of their own traditional sunrise. The real problem was that the non-formal methods of social control in their home villages - where the norms of behavior were maintained through face-to-face contact with a fixed number of intimately known individuals - were replaced by the inflexible written laws of an anonymous state.
For a once self-sufficient people. there was a loss of what psychologists call the "internal locus of control" over their cultural environment. They were finding that they were no longer the teachers of their own children, who learned the ways of the new world faster than their parents and often reversed roles - becoming their parents' teachers, rather than students. For parents, the realms of food. health care, clothing and childbirth, to name but a few, were no longer in their control.
Every morning the adults saw their children off to school - then went to the classroom themselves. In addition to acquiring basic numeracy and literacy (an extremely difficult task for the oldest immigrants), they were introduced to the realities of everyday life, or "life skills." Post offices, health clinics and telephones were totally new concepts, as was that of sitting in a classroom to acquire knowledge from a blackboard.
Classes dealt too with consumer goods: how to understand the difference between toilet cleanser and shampoo, by the shape of the bottles. The elaborate and wasteful packaging of the modern food industry often gave these peasants - who might know on sight every plant or bird in their native country - no clue as to supermarket contents. The variety of unknown foodstuffs was enormous and bewildering, yet had somehow to be combined at table in a culturally appropriate order.
There were culture shocks for immigrants and centre staff alike. Food was found stored in the toilet, for coolness. The mobile bar-heaters provided during an unusually cold winter had to be replaced by models fixed to the walls, after one was found turned on directly under a baby's cot in an effort to keep it warm. The sea-shore had to be put off-limits because of unfamiliarity with tides and currents, as was the swimming-pool after people began washing clothes there.
Adapting to western modes of dress also had its problems. Israelis donated huge amounts of second-hand clothes. which continued to arrive every week by the sackful. Clothes were quickly recognized as conveying status in Israeli society, which led to a status war among the newcomers, fought with the available supply of cloth ammunition. Men walked about the grounds wearing up to six layers of clothing. Three shirts might he worn at once, part of each one carefully displayed for public view. Old men stood proudly in decorated roll-neck collars. People believed clothes were as disposable as razor blades and plastic bottles. One man threw away a beautiful new anorak because the fashion suddenly switched to fur-lined jackets.
Index of disposability
Though change occurs in traditional, isolated societies, it usually does so slowly and organically. Value systems emphasize continuity and respect for tradition; rituals gain power from the fact of having been repeated in the same way for centuries. Suddenly thrown into a culture whose need for constant economic growth gives value only to the newest, most fashionable product, where everything from theories of evolution to dishwashers have built-in obsolescence, caused acute problems of interpretation for the newcomer. Acquiring the new world-view included finding the new culture's "index of disposability" and the speed of its passing fashions.
In Rosh-Hanikra, clothes. which protect the body from the atmosphere, were perceived as having the same index of disposability as packaging, which serves the same protective purpose for manufactured goods. The speed of passing sartorial fashion matched that of pop records or yesterday's newspaper. One recalled Kemal Attaturk, who during his drive to modernize Turkey in the 1920s and 30s forbade the wearing of traditional dress. forcing people such as the Kurds to wear western suits. Seventy years later a visitor to some rural parts of Kurdistan w ill notice Kurdish men still wearing the wide lapels and pinstripe cloth that was popular in Attaturk's era. Though the culture's dress was forcibly updated, the speed of its passing fashion remained at the traditional pace.
Just as an army marches on its stomach, so a displaced culture focuses on food. Nowhere was the western characteristic of loss of control so evident as in the Felashas' dining hall. Tremendous antagonism built up in the centre over the necessity of being given food. Due to budget limitations, and the initial impossibility of the immigrants doing their own shopping. a catering firm was contracted to supply three meals a day - thus preventing the Ethiopians from cooking their own food. Inevitably, people began removing food from the hall. complaining of sickness to get permission to eat at home. or even refusing to eat altogether. Children became anemic from not eating enough: they were disturbed because in traditional society they'd always eaten separately from the adults, and their parents were now unsettled at having to eat with them. W hat had been a privately negotiated family affair, eaten from a communal pot, now happened in the public arena of a hall, where everyone had individual portions.
At home. their diets were limited to foods grown in the immediate area. Besides njira. kosher beef and chicken, there was a selection of other crops (corn. pulses, beans, rapeseed oil) and a few -seasonally gathered food-. Nothing prepared them for the thousand- of foods available in Israel - especially the addictive properties of sweet foods. The centres kitchen staff, in turn. had only trial and error to guide them in discovering which food the newcomers would accept. In and culture, food is surrounded by often bizarre symbolism and food taboos. Thus. seemingly benign foodstuffs caused near outrage when presented to the immigrants.
The Australian-horn social worker who managed the centre told of the mysterious -symbolism -surrounding eggs. One mealtime, an elderly man rose from his seat holding a hard-boiled egg aloft tor all to see. and announced to the hushed onlooker- with the pathos- of a Shakespearian tragedian: "The egg is cracked."' No one ate their eggs that evening.
Another teacher recalled a near-riot that broke out in her class when she explained how Israelis eat duck. She compounded her error by explaining to an incensed elder that in some countries people even eat frogs. "The poor man was speechless with shock." she recalled. ''He just stood there, mouth open, for a few moments before walking out the door. It look days to persuade him to return."
"'They wouldn't eat my pickles, the catering manager protested. "They said they were only for donkies." Sardines were also refused, with the comment "we don't eat babies." Pasta, however, was welcomed. It has been a favorite among the Felashas since Mussolini's invasion of what was then Abyssinia in the early 1930s.
One wonders at the long-term health effects of exposure to food additives, pesticide residues, and especially the huge increase in the intake of sugar, common in modern society. An Israeli army dentist who dealt with Ethiopian recruits (the immigrants were not exempt from compulsory military service) noted symptoms related to high sugar intake. He added that they also had no tradition of tooth brushing (at home, they used the ubiquitous African "chew-sticks," unavailable in Israel). This produced alarming rates of tooth decay.
A slow eclipse
Many of the earliest immigrants' knottier problems were quickly being sorted out for more recent arrivals. thanks to the intervention of some original immigrants, who later acted as vital bridges of communication between the old and new cultures. True role models. they had learned to speak fluent Hebrew and most either had jobs or were studying for university degrees. They seemed content, but still had a difficult time. bearing the brunt of newcomers' frustrations and relaying to them the often-unrealistic expectations their previously arrived countrymen had for them.
In one way. the smoother transition was a good thing, but in another it was filled with sadness - as one contemplates what is in fact the slow eclipse of a culture way of life such as that of the Felashas includes a rich storehouse of oral tradition, music, folklore. unique artistic and technical knowledge based on adaptation to an agricultural economy in a marginal environment. Much of this knowledge will pass away in the next few generations as the young people integrate into the mainstream society.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember: cultures don't suffer, people do. The Felashas who survived war and desert wandering underwent great pain, and in their new life at least the physical worst was over. Also, the patterns that usually accompany immigrations indicate that, thanks to what is called "the rebound effect," at least some traditions would continue. Initially, the old culture goes into rapid decline as the immigrants embrace the new society's habits and mores. But as the young people grow old, there is an almost inevitable reversion to traditional values and the company of one's own distinct ethnic group. Israel's towns and cities are crowded with old people's clubs for Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles and Moroccans, where not a word of Hebrew is heard.
For the Felashas, the first concern was finding work in an economy where unemployment was soaring in the wake of the huge influx of Russian Jews. Manual labor and farm jobs were all most could hope for in the beginning, and here they were in competition with migrant workers from Lebanon, who often worked for less than the minimum wage. For those past 40, there would be little support from within their own community, for at that age in Ethiopia most men are grandfathers, and considered "old men."
At one centre in Ma'alot, Felasha groups were still living on benefits two years after arrival. Many were depressed and fearful about leaving the security of the absorption centre. They had trouble budgeting their allowances, complaining about not having enough food while their houses contained multiple stereos and videos. One wonders whether life in some of the country's rural farm communities would not have been better suited to these people's skills and temperaments than the bleak caravan sites awaiting them on the edges of Israel's urban sprawls.
One thinks, as well, of other people in other countries, who still live in the villages where they were born - but where the modern industrial way of life has come as an invader, making them strangers too, emerging from their own time capsules into an era they never made. and which they should perhaps not wholly accept, without some reserve.