Leisure in Action: work as play

Leisure in Action: work as play

"Several more contributions to an alternative point of view on the subject of work penetrated past the intervening layers of my prejudice ...

... One was the apparent absence of a word for 'work' in the Yequana vocabulary."

In her book "The Continuum Concept" Jean Liedloff describes her experience of living with Stone Age Indians in the South American jungle for two and a half years. (Most of her time was spent with the Yequana.) She found these people to be the happiest she had seen anywhere. What stuck most in my mind on reading this incredible book was the Indians' attitude towards "work," or rather their experience of all activity as play; they made no distinction between work and play ...

"There appeared to be no Yequana concept of work similar to ours. There were words for each activity that might have been included, but no generic term."

Jean initially visits the jungle with two young Italian explorers on a diamond hunting expedition. Soon after her arrival she is presented with a powerful example of the Indians' radically different approach to life ...

"Some small illuminations did get through to my civilization-blinded mind: for example, some concerning the concept of work. We had traded our slightly too small aluminum canoe for a much too big dugout. In this vessel, carved from a single tree, seventeen Indians at one time travelled with us. With all their baggage added to ours and everyone aboard, the vast canoe still looked rather empty. Portaging it, this time with only four or five Indians to help, over half a mile of boulders beside a large waterfall, was depressing to contemplate. It meant placing logs across the path of the canoe, and hauling it, inch by inch in the merciless sun, slipping inevitably into the crevices between the boulders whenever the canoe pivoted out of control, and scraping one's shins, ankles and whatever else one landed on, against the granite. We had done the portage before with the small canoe and the two Italians and I, knowing what lay ahead, spent several days anticipating the hard work and pain. On the day we arrived at Arepuchi Falls we were primed to suffer and started off, grim-faced and hating every moment, to drag the thing over the rocks.

When it swung sideways, so heavy was the rogue pirogue, it several times pinned one of us to the burning rock until the others could move it off. A quarter of the way across all ankles were bleeding. Partly by way of begging off for a minute, I jumped up on a high rock to photograph the scene. From my vantage point and momentary disinvolvement, I noticed a most interesting fact. Here before me were several men engaged in a single task. Two, the Italians, were tense, frowning, losing their tempers at everything, and cursing non-stop in the distinctive manner of the Tuscan. The rest, Indians, were having a fine time. They were laughing at the unwieldiness of the canoe, making a game of the battle, relaxed between pushes, laughing at their own scrapes and especially amused when the canoe, as it wobbled forward, pinned one, then another, underneath it. The fellow held bare-backed against the scorching granite, when he could breathe again, invariably laughed the loudest.

All were doing the same work, all were experiencing strain and pain. There was no difference in our situations except that we had been conditioned by our culture to believe that such a combination of circumstances constituted an unquestionable low on the scale of well-being, and were quite unaware we had any option in the matter.

The Indians, on the other hand, equally unconscious of making a choice, were in a particularly merry state of mind, enjoying the camaraderie; and of course they had had no long build-up of dread to mar the preceding days. Each forward move was for them a little victory, enjoyed to the full."

Not only was I struck by the Yequana's playful attitude to all activity, but also by their complete freedom from the moral judgment, resentment and guilt that is so often, and so unecessarily, attached to such concepts as "working hard" or "being lazy" in western "civilised" society ...

"Another hint about human nature and work came later.

Two Indian families lived in a hut overlooking a magnificent white beach, a lagoon in a wide crescent of rocks, the Caroni and Arepuchi Falls beyond. One paterfamilias was called Pepe, the other, Cesar. It was Pepe who told the story.

It seems that Cesar had been 'adopted' by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.

'Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?' Mundo asked.

'I was brought up by Jose Grande,' said Cesar, according to the story.

'Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,' said Mundo.

Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.

For five years Cesar lived with Pepe's family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown in Pepe's plantation. Cesar was delighted to find that Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.

Cesar's wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing the cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his two sons, who always liked to fish and who had supplied his family as generously as their own.

Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe had helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.

Cesar, after five years' assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project and was as free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.

Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. 'He wanted to make a garden of his own,' Pepe laughed, 'but he didn't know it himself!' Pepe thought it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work."

We have focussed here on the Indians' approach to 'work.' In 'The Continuum Concept' Jean goes on to explore their attitudes to all areas of life, particularly child-rearing and looks at why they are so much happier and at ease with themselves than the average 'civilised' person. Her revelations are profound and their implications far-reaching. Everyone should read this book.


All extracts taken from The Continuum Concept, written by Jean Liedloff in 1975.

See also: The Liedloff Continuum Concept Network