When I first took on the mission of understanding collectivism and communal livelihoods, my initial definition was sharing. I envisioned a total absence of ownership and unwavering selflessness to serve the “greater good.” I thought of sacrifice. As my classmates and I continue to experience the multitude of cultures and environments Namibia has to offer, I realize that while collectivism may be easy to define, it can be challenging to fully understand.
Collectivism is the moral stance and practice of giving a group’s needs precedence over an individual’s. Essentially, it is the polar opposite of individualism. Collectivism is further specified by being either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal collectivism stresses decision-making among equal individuals, such as in worker cooperatives. Vertical collectivism is based on hierarchical structures of power and moral and cultural conformity, as seen in the military. Horizontal is decentralized, while vertical is centralized.
Some of the native Namibian tribes we are learning about are the Topnaar, Damara, Nama, Himba, Herero and San. These tribes are vastly different, but they are and/or have been intentional communities. An intentional community is a small, localized group of individuals or families pursuing common interests or values, usually sharing responsibilities. There is no competition for resources or any sense of ownership. In the Topnaar village, everyone’s livestock roamed together.
So the concept just means sharing? Not quite. First, you have to understand the definition of sharing. In a collectivist culture, sharing embodies reciprocal dependency. Communal livelihoods can only survive if everyone is fully invested in the common goals. This lifestyle requires teamwork, problem solving skills and critical thinking on a daily basis.
Property laws in tribal society define not so much the right of ownership of the land, but the obligation to tend to it (Gluckman, 1971). Approximately 20 percent of Namibia’s land is communal. Specifically, 55 percent of communal lands are used for conservation. Communal land is shared among designated tribes, but it is not limited to the native tribes. If an outsider wants to develop a portion of land, he/she must make a request to the chief.
Using communal land can become complicated. The tribal chief decides whether or not to grant the use of land and can also decide to remove someone from the land at any time. When there is such uncertainty, it can be extremely difficult for a potential developer to plan for the future. It is hard for developers to receive funding for their projects because they do not have land ownership when requesting bank loans. Bribery of chiefs may happen, and even if a new chief is appointed, he/she can still be bought.
There are positive and negative aspects of collectivism and individualism. Individualism is more efficient in production, but collectivism encourages and is an important aspect to many native cultures. From a business standpoint, communal livelihoods are impractical. However, there is more to life than business. These people are happy. They do not obsess over material objects, but they appreciate each other’s company and nature. All in all, I think the world could learn a thing or two from collectivists.