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02 October 2012

The gold standard

The gold standard

by Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia

One of the most interesting parts of the world that I have visited is Nagaland in north-east India. A generation or two ago, this was an area where there were still pockets of head-hunters. Skulls can still be seen dangling from the doorframes of some huts. Now the Nagas are Christians; indeed, due to a successful missionary endeavour in the early 1900s, they are mainly Baptists. For me, at least, that is preferable to head-hunters.

There are over 40 different tribes and villages situated among high mountains and perched on impossibly sheer slopes. The sense of tribe and place in Nagaland is so tremendously strong. Such security is provided by the knowledge of their ancestors and the inherited way of life. I have lived in seven different homes, in quite different places and socio-economic areas, and I have sensed that I have developed slightly different personas in each new context in order to cope. It makes me feel fragmented and poor in story compared to what I saw in Nagaland. They have a strong, unequivocal sense of connection to land and language, identity and embedded history, cultural dress and dance.

It is cold for much of the year, so full-length coats and shawls of beautiful colours drape their frames. In some of the areas, bright colours represent different roles. In one village the teachers wore blue and the elders and law-givers wore red. Fine hand-stitching work adorned these bright clothes.

One morning I was to address the village where I was staying at the 6am prayer meeting. (Yes, the whole village rises each day to attend a prayer meeting!) I remember seeing the usual colours and spotting a person adorned with a gold coat. It was a knockout. I asked my host what that colour represented and was told that it indicated a person who has given a feast of merit. I looked quizzically at my host, who responded in surprise – surely my culture had feasts of merit? "No," I said, "that’s new to me".

So he went on to explain that in Naga culture, when you become rich – meaning you have a lot of pigs and bags of rice – you can choose to throw a feast of merit. This means hosting a party for the whole village, particularly the poor, and that might go on for two weeks or a month – whatever time it takes to liquidate all your assets. When everything is gone, you have a glorious gold cloak placed on your shoulders in a ceremony of great respect. Then you start again with nothing – all except for your gold cloak. I recall telling him that I was pretty sure I had never heard of a feast of merit in my culture.

It amazed me. Here was an avenue to recognise that we come to this world with nothing and certainly leave taking nothing with us, so the point of wealth is for now – to celebrate community – to bless others and to feed the poor. Relationships and care of others, not possessions or material superiority, are truly the gold standard.

We don’t have feasts of merit in Western culture. But we have plenty who don gold who have never deserved it. In recent days maybe Bill and Melinda Gates are the closest we have to gold-coat bearers. Certainly the industrialist philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was right when he said the man who dies rich dies disgraced. 

Tim Costello is one of Australia’s most sought-after voices on social justice issues, leadership and ethics, having spearheaded public debates on gambling, urban poverty, homelessness, reconciliation and substance abuse. This article is an extract from his new book Hope: moments of inspiration in a challenging world. He will be doing a book reading and signing on Tuesday, 16 October, at 7pm at Oxfam Marylebone, 91 Marylebone High Street, London.