I am accompanied by Professor Kim Jong Duk, 49, a Slow Food Award panel member and professor of sociology (focusing particularly on farming populations and economy) at Kyungnam University in Masan, in southern South Korea. He translated George Ritzer’s “The McDonaldization of Society” into Korean and a few months ago opened a Slow Food site in this language ( www.slowfoodkorea.com). We are just outside Gwanju (population around one million), the fifth largest city in South Korea in the extreme south-west of the peninsula.
We have come here today to meet Reverend Nam, leader of the Han Maeum Community: Han Maeum (in Korean this means “a mind”) is primarily an organic cooperative joining producers and consumers, and this is its great novelty. In 1990, when it was founded, the Community – whose motto is “Justice, life, communion, culture, education and cooperative credit” – numbered 60 organic producers (mainly peasant farmers) and 80 families of consumers. Today there are 80 farmers and 3000 consumer families, from the urban area of Gwanju, using the cooperative to keep themselves supplied with healthy food products whose exact origins and quality and hygiene parameters are known. At the same time the farmers have the certainty that their products will find buyers at the same price no matter what kind of year it turns out to be, without worries for the future or problems of competition. The community has three sections, each with its own office: production, services and marketing. In the year 2000 the cooperative made the equivalent of 1,000,000 dollars in Korean won and this result clearly demonstrates how Han Maeum has become an exemplary model of alternative rural development for the whole of South Korea. Thanks to these remarkable results, Nam Sang Do was awarded a Prize by the province of Jeon Nam in 1997.
When we meet the reverend, at the end of a courtyard full of kids of all ages, who cheerfully escort us (a couple even filming us with a digital video camera), he has clay on his hands and clothes, even splashed on his glasses. Through these glasses his eyes are kind and restless at the same time, under a mop of almost blue-black hair. He is tall and thin and looks younger than his 44 years. He is wearing a T-shirt and loose shorts – work clothes – both earth-colored, and on his feet are light blue slip-ons (almost like dancing pumps to the western eye). Just now the reverend is up to his eyes in building “slow houses” as he calls them (in complete ignorance of Slow Food) which explains why he welcomes us dressed as a building laborer. The “slow houses”, like the “slow clothes” and especially the two schools of rural life, the Han Maeum Nature School (for older kids) and the Han Maeum Kindergarten (for smaller children), are projects the reverend launched in the year 2000, as he tells me, “to recover a more human rhythm in frenetic everyday life, and a direct relationship with food and nature” (at this point I experience a rather alienating series of deja-vu considering how far away I am from the international office of Slow Food, whence these precepts seem to arrive). “Food, the home and clothes, after all, are the three most important things in a man’s life, aren’t they?”.
Reverend Nam is very well-known in Korea: for years he championed the struggle to vindicate the rights of the farmers, who were asking the government for fair price policies to safeguard a healthy rural economy and at the same time promote organic farming. During 2000 over seven thousand people attended courses sponsored by him: in Han Maeum you can learn to taste healthy food, to grow food, fish, dye clothes with natural dyes… There are courses lasting a day, a week, and a month, and the prices vary according to the length of the visit. The real school requires one year’s obligatory attendance (there are 120 children in the Kindergarten).
“Here in Korea,” he explains as we gather spontaneously around a steaming pot of delicious ginseng chicken with the kids, “young people under thirty only like American food. People from thirty to fifty are divided between foreign and Korean food. Those over fifty mostly like Korean food. What does this mean? Easy. We’re going faster and faster, and losing our culture on the way”.
He explains that Han Maeum was founded in order to restore a link with this culture and a relationship between man and the food he eats. But the reverend does not stop here. Recently he has got it into his head (and he seems quite convinced about it) to build houses with traditional Korean materials, wood and clay. He has already made five, and who knows when he will decide to stop. These healthy, simple, traditional houses are heated by the fire, which is also used for cooking, through a system of flues under the floor.
The other thing I briefly mentioned earlier is clothes: for a year now the kids here have been dyeing clothes using natural dyes, under the reverend’s guidance. Blue is made with ashes, yellow with a berry, dark red with roots, orangey red with clay, etc.
When I show him Slow, the movement’s magazine, and Professor Kim explains what it is about (Nam Sang Do does not speak English), the reverend breaks into a huge smile and hits the cover of the magazine with the palm of his hand as if to say “this is exactly how I see things too”. We say goodbye amid the smiles of the children, offering us their hands sticky with chicken, while the “slow” reverend goes back to building his “slow houses”.
Stefano Sardo is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office
in the photo, Reverend Nam Sang Do (photo: Stefano Sardo)
Translated by Ailsa Wood