For Shanta to achieve our goal of a community-led approach that results in a village being self-sufficient after six years, we must make sure we gain the villagers’ trust. Therefore, it is vital that we learn as much about their culture as possible, both through observation and research. Cultural insensitivity contradicts our guiding principles AND can slow down our work or even derail it all together.
Anthropologists use a term when working with other cultures called “cultural relativism.” It is the concept that all behavior must be viewed through the lens of its culture and not be judged or understood through an outsider’s beliefs, morals, or norms.
Cultural universals are things that all cultures have; they just have different ways of expressing them. Some examples of these universals include kinship systems, religion, gender roles, etc. One such cultural universal is the idea of beauty, health, and attractiveness. While villagers in Myanmar share the universal desire for health and beauty, a person in the Southern Shan State of Myanmar might consider the practice many western women have of applying color to their eyes and lips strange ornamentation.
In Myanmar, the ancient human impulse for self-beautification is displayed by rubbing a yellow paste on their faces or limbs, either half-hazard or in artful design, depending on the occasion. This paste is called thanaka and is made from the pulverized tree bark of the thanaka tree, which grows in abundance in Myanmar. A tree must be at least 35 years old to be used for the paste. Not only is thanaka a cosmetic paste, but it has the smell of sandalwood, protects against sunburn, helps remove acne, and promotes smooth skin.
For westerners, telling a Myanmar villager that they need to wipe the mud off of their face would be as offensive as telling a westerner wearing makeup that their eyes are bruised or lips are bleeding. It’s always best to watch and learn before reacting based upon one’s own understanding of the world, whether beauty or something more substantial like signs of respect or appropriate ways of communicating. Out of a desire to show love and respect to our village partners, we put a great deal of effort into understanding and honoring the culture and traditions of the various ethnic groups in Myanmar. This reflects our values as an organization and multiplies the effectiveness of our Village Partnership Model.
If you would like to support poverty reduction efforts that empower local people while honoring their heritage, culture, and traditions, visit shantafoundation.org. We would love to have you join our movement!