Monday, July 14, 2014

A Whole Life in One Short Passage: The Case of the Cargo Cult Tribe

The textbook which I use  for teaching English Reading is full with short interesting passages. Their purpose is to whet the students’ appetite so they want to read more, and they always remind me of colorful bite-sized party food. One intriguing  example is a passage about the Cargo Cult from New Guinea. I have to admit that before I started teaching I hadn’t heard about that tribe. However, now their plight as reflected in one short passage, has become part of my reality and  my frame of reference.

Here is the passage:

“There is a tribe on the island of New Guinea known as the Cargo Cult. For decades these people have been waiting for a great bird to swoop down from the clouds and drop riches and magical gifts on them. Their whole lives revolve around complicated ceremonies to make this happen. They are waiting for happiness to drop from the sky.

They're not as crazy as they seem. During World War II, huge airplanes did drop boxes of food and magical gifts ranging from mirrors to jeeps. Sometimes they dropped bombs. After the war, a tribal headman made the decision to recreate the wartime conditions and lure back the first big bird. So at every harvest, these people burn almost all their crops. Periodically they destroy their villages, too. Most of the men refuse to work at all, keeping a constant vigil.

Now this decision has been followed by an entire tribe of people for- over forty years. And the Cargo Cult isn't just an oddity, either, it's a monumental headache to the government of Papua New Guinea - sometimes the cult members get frustrated and burn other tribes' crops and villages as well as their own. Reasonable explanations make no impression whatsoever. They continue to wait and burn. They are not known to be happy people.”

This passage is used to teach the skill of making inferences; the students are asked to consider, among others, whether  during the war bombs destroyed some of the Cargo Cult's crops?(yes) Or do most of the women also refuse to work? (no) This  text illustrates how lack of information and inexperience prevent the Cargo Cult members  from making valid assumptions about their reality. The reader, obviously, has more knowledge and experience than the Cargo Cult members. 

By stating that “they're not as crazy as they seem” the text implies that the reader might conclude that the Cargo Cult members are indeed crazy. But lately I have started to view the erratic behavior of the tribe in a different light. I feel  that in spite of their actions, the members are not that different from me and my friends. As we all try to gain more control over our destiny and better comprehension of our reality, we often  choose different and  eccentric ways.

The Cargo Cult’s  members are obsessed with bringing back God (or their good fortune); and that preoccupation seems to me universal and eternal.  I also find that their ceremonies and reenactments, such as  burning the crops, and destroying their villages, are understandable if not justifiable. In an attempt to overturn a loss, don’t we all try to hold on to our personal ceremonies, even when those are no longer relevant? I can think of many disappointed lovers, whose obsession prevents them from letting their loved one go. Just like the Cargo Cult members, they refuse to come to term with their changed reality. Even the simple conclusion of the text:"They are not known to be happy people," is relevant to our life, as  it contains  a warning about the destiny of those who cling to their obsession.

This text continues to fire my imagination; it is quite rare for  such a short passage to contain that many possibilities. For me it is an opportunity to examine different ideas about perception and reality and a chance to consider the complex relationship between an author, her narrator  and the different characters.

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