In search of yesterday stories for tomorrow’s design

narrative culture and design anthropology of people living in an isolated village

Imagine you are going to write a novel based on your life story — your past and your future. What would be its genre? What would be its beginning, climax, the story arc and the end? Before skim reading this article — take a few seconds and note down those things about the novel where you are the protagonist.

Now continue reading.

Stories and imaginations or, in other words, humans’ ability to create non-existing information is a key reason for the long journey we came as a human. Karl Marx smartly summaries this by explaining the difference between a human architect and a bee — “What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he/she erects it in reality’’.

Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens explains this turning point as the ‘cognitive revolution’. The ability to tell things that does not exist allowed us humans to go beyond from the concept of primal herd to advanced society. Harari develops an interesting hypothesis based on ‘Dunbar’s number’.

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships — relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.

Stories helped us to break this magical barrier of 150. Our ability to narrate stories helped us to create a collective imagination among humans and unite groups which are larger than 150 (tribes, races, nationalities, clubs and societies etc). Religions, institutions and ethics — all of them are the results of this collective imagination ability. This is how we convince ourselves to build ships to conquer the world or build pagodas to worship Buddha.

As someone who is interested in storytelling, I prefer to name this as the ability to tell stories. Ability to persuade others to believe in a higher state of life in sky heaven or believing in concepts like equality or nationalism are pure depiction of our powerful storytelling skills or persuasion skills.

“Ever since the cognitive revolution, there has not been a single natural way of life for sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of choices” — Yuval Noah Harari | Sapiens

A giant tangible world built on intangible stories

It is interesting to see how we never limit this incredible ability to intangible stories. We never stop ourselves with stories, instead we inject these stories into our material world. We never stopped ourselves with the story of a person who lives above us or with the story of a magical concept called karma. We created buildings for this person or made motifs/carvings to show the concept of Karma. Since then these stories have become an unavoidable reality even though they merely exist in our minds.

As an example, if you decide now to deny the concept of nationality, it won’t stop influencing your life. Instead its physical reality will continue to affect you. You will not be able to travel to any country simply because you decide to deny the concept of nationality. Therefore one cannot forget about neither physcality nor the stories which caused a design. This is the reason why narrative culture is identified as one key component out of 7 factors in design anthropology. -D.A.: A Transdisciplinary Handbook of Design Anthropology, edited by Yana Milev.

Now look back at the plot of your novel. Check how stories you have heard shaped your own story and how intensely it is connected to your physical world. Maybe in your story you are having a certain model of vehicle or a house. Maybe you are travelling to a certain country.

Now take one particular plot point in your story and try to recall what stories caused you to believe in this desire. If you accept for a moment that it is all part of a constructed imagination (something which is not truly yours), you will be able to recall all the bedtime stories, movies, novels, advertisements and instagram posts which contributed to it. Due to these stories, the mobile phone you bought last year quickly would go outdated. Due to these stories, the AC system you bought a few years back might need to change to a new one for better performances. In another sense this innocent looking ‘stories’ or the narrative culture is silently influencing our behaviour and habits related to the material culture.

Road to design decolonising through narrative culture

If you consider the global design practices, it is more or less the same — we are following the same value system based on consumerism. Although we went through different design movements and global practices, consumerism was present in all of them. Therefore fitting a sustainable design into the behaviour of mass audience has become a challenge, even though the demand for sustainable design is rising. Because in our design value system we are wired to demand a different concept. One of the major reasons for this failure is our dissatisfaction with commodities which are influenced by the narratives.

In order to search answers we are left with few options: one is to brainstorm from the beginning and another one is to go back to our 1000 years old indigenous communities. This is when we can use isolated (untouched) communities as a research lab. If they are living a simple yet satisfied life, if they are not in a pursuit to renovate their houses in the next few years, then what might be the stories they believe that make them feel like that or do like that ? This is not about their Material Culture or Doing Culture (there are multiple researches done on this subject) but about their Narrative Culture and its influence on their Doing and Material Culture.

A village in the jungle of Knuckles

Udagaladebokka is an isolated village resting in the footstep of Yahangala and Kehelpathdoruwegala and it is hidden inside the Knuckles forest reservation in Central province. There is no proper road access to this village and in order to reach it one has to walk more than 8km through the jungle. Currently around 35 families are living there and it has a junior school with 11 students too. Chena cultivation and paddy farming are their main activities in life. From kitchen to farming they are using very simple yet sustainable equipment and it seems that they lack the desire we have for continuous progression or development of the status of our lives. Considering the global design challenge of getting people adapted to sustainable life, I went there with some of my colleagues and stayed to study about their stories which influence their sustainable lives — the secret ingredient for their contentment.

The story of Nika tree

“Ah, I bet you to tell the story of how this tree got his name.” That is how Dissa Maama started his story near his paddy field. The name of the tree is ‘Nika’ and it can be commonly seen on the village border with the jungle. According to legends, there is this mountain named yaka gala in Knuckles range where you can find any type of herbal plants. So one day a local doctor went there to collect as much medicine as he could. He collected all the herbs with a medicinal value and filled two baskets. So he had to find a wooden stick as a carrying pole. He noticed that there was only one tree left without medicinal value in the jungle and therefore he used it as a carrying pole. Once he brought the baskets to the village he realised that this particular pole has absorbed all the medicinal power of herbs in the baskets. That’s how this ‘nikan (nika) thibba gaha’ — “tree without a purpose” became a useful tree.

Gale Bandara Deyyo (The god of the Mountain)

On the 4th day we went to a chena cultivation of a young man called Roopasinghe. His past is interesting: having been working at a construction site in Colombo for two years he decided to give up that life and came back to the village. When we asked how the size of the chena land is determined, since no one owns the jungle, he replied ‘Mage haki pamanatai Gale bandara deyyange kemathatai’ (My personal strength and the wish of the mountain). But before starting anything one needs to promise ‘Gale Bandara — The god of the mountain yahangala’ (This is not linked to the popular Gale Bandara legend of Kurunegala) that they will follow good practices throughout the time of Chena. Once one takes the harvest he/she should thank the mountain by doing certain rituals. They believe the mountain (Yahan gala) has a soul and they can communicate with it — there are many stories about people who did it.

All inclusive animism in the narrative culture

Considering the above two stories, you might notice that certain values are embedded in it and these values are reflected in their material culture too. They hardly produce waste or debris. Hardly anything is rejected from their usage cycle. Things always get adapted into new life cycles or perfectly blend with nature until the last stage of the usage. Dulaj Pepera, a recently graduated student from our department, explained this process in his thesis by taking ‘Boal Aththa’ as a case study. There the fully natural sweeping device made out of a branch starts its life cycle in a living area of the house and gradually ends in the backyard until it is ready to go back to nature as a tiny piece of branch. They take the maximum use of the material as if it is really scarce. Their environment has the potential to supply an unlimited number of sweeping devices — they can simply replace it anytime or have three different designs. Nevertheless they choose to repurpose it and reuse it.

I believe stories like the above influence their attitude towards the materials.

Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from ‘animal’, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ in latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings and can communicate directly with humans. When people believe in animism they believe that there is no barrier between humans and non-living things to communicate. They believe that they can communicate simply with speech, by doing a dance or by doing a ritual. This quality can be noticed in many ancient indigenous communities. They attribute life into trees, mountains, rivers and whatever things they notice in the environment. This attribution of life influences them to think that there is no hierarchy in the environment and things like trees, rivers or any other natural resources do not merely exist for them to consume. Their responsible manner of dealing with the environment is probably influenced by this concept of animism and stories which strengtheneth the concepts of animism and inclusiveness. Before they cut a tree they have to think not twice but a hundred times as if you are killing a living being and before you throwing out something made out of it, you have to again think a hundred times.

My team and Dissa Maama

Next time you design

There are around 40 adults living in the village, but not all of them were able to tell us new stories or new insights. Instead most of them were complaining about their life in the village. But interestingly, those who knew the stories are the ones who are content with their lives. Dissa maama and Roopasinghe mentioned above are content with their life in the village. Dissa mama as a practice never uses pesticides for his agriculture and he refuses to eat in plastic plates, giving his preference to clay pots. I noticed a strong connection with the narrative culture and their contentment with the ‘doing culture’. This might be a reason why current sustainable products are not appealing to the masses (especially in Asian region). I believe it is simply because we do not have a strong narrative culture around it. On the other hand, the narrative culture of consumerism is getting better and more appealing day by day.

So next time when you are designing a sustainable design do not forget to embed it into a narrative. If you are not sure about the structure of the narrative, animism might be a good start. Campaigns like ‘nature is speaking’ have it adapted to a certain level, but with modern technological capabilities we can push this into a next level where it is more appealing. Imagine being able to communicate with your mobile phone or with your wardrobe before throwing it away? Imagine It being able to explain you about all the materials it is made of and the history of it? Or what would happen to him or her if we throw it and more things.

I believe now we have enough designs to start a sustainable life, but what we lack is a narrative culture to shape our values and build our own practices based on it.

This is Ranmanika, a traditional doctor and traditional midwife. She is on the top of the list of individuals who are rich in narrative culture. I felt like she deserves a separate article in which I will discuss the fall of the sustainable life in this indigenous community. Just enjoy folk singing for the moment.

Dilina. J. Nawarathne | Colombo

Design enthusiast / design researcher