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Community development through indigenous leadership

by Dennis Olson

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 18:30-37
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics

Leadership among the Aguaruna

What were some of the elements that made a good Aguaruna leader? A good leader was humble, ready to serve, and willing to ask opinions of others. He was not aggressive: he did not have to be in charge, nor did he force his ideas on others. A man also was expected to attain a certain age in order to be respected and able to lead.

Two types of leadership

Many times Aguaruna who appeared to outsiders to be good leaders were, in fact, not very well accepted in their own community. This misconception led to a lot of problems when the military, other government officials, or people from private agencies dealt with Aguaruna communities; they preferred to deal with Aguaruna who were able to speak Spanish. In many cases, the person chosen would be the school teacher who might not even have been a member of the community. Sometimes it was a young person in the community who did not have any authority. On occasion, they might choose an older person who spoke Spanish and related well to outsiders, but was not respected by his own people.

What eventually evolved was a pattern of two different types of leadership:

  1. The traditional leader who had respect inside the community
  2. The leader who spoke Spanish and had the respect of the outside world

Young Aguaruna, who wanted to see their community organize and work on a project, such as growing rice, learned that they had to work through the traditional leadership structure in order to be effective. A young leader needed to work through the older members of the community to build a consensus within the community.

Leaders with different skills

Another facet of Aguaruna leadership was that, traditionally, there were leaders with different skills. One man might be the leader of a fishing party, another the leader for hunting, and another might lead a war party. This pattern was followed in leadership development for work in which SIL was involved. So there were leaders in education, health, agriculture, community relations, and community development. Once the leadership structure was in place in the area in which we were working, that would indicate the leader with whom we would consult.

Solving problems through familiar concepts

Traditional leaders have a better understanding of how their people think and what relationships to draw on in explaining and solving problems.

Ownership is an example of the type of problem community leaders had to deal with. Things such as houses, gardens, animals, tools, boats, motors, and so forth had an owner, one owner; they were not owned communally. However, things like cattle, boats, and motors were too expensive for one person to be able to own. In community projects ownership was always one of the points we discussed. Success of the project was due in large measure to the ability of the leadership to get the community to take ownership and responsibility for a particular piece of equipment.

One leader explained the ownership and care of the community boat and motor in terms that were familiar to the people. To illustrate, he talked to the people about the patron system. A patron had to take good care of his people if he wanted them to work for him. He had to provide clothing, medicine, shotguns and shells, and so forth. If he did not take care of his people and they got sick, they would not be able to work and, therefore, would not be able to pay their debts. The leader went on to explain that, concerning the boat and motor, the people of the community were the patrons. If they did not maintain the boat and motor, just like people when they are dissatisfied or sick, it would not work very well. It was the responsibility of the entire community to keep things in good working order.

As a result of the meeting, the community decided that mechanics were needed and requested SIL to provide the training. This was accomplished and, from the trained mechanics, a couple of men were appointed to operate the boat and motor. Whenever the boat was used, there was a charge, even though immediate repairs were not necessary. A fund was built up and the boat and motor were kept in good repair.

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