"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Friday, July 02, 2004 One of the biggest differences between life here and life back home has to do with something I can't describe any other way but to call the "way of being." It's the difference between living in isolation and living in community -- and making the transition can be pretty jarring ... and I've found it pretty self-revealing and instructive.
It's not news that life in white, middle-class and up America is a pretty solitary and personal affair. We all have our own cars, houses and offices or places of business and we pretty much stay in them. Whether it's because of air conditioning or television or whatever other reasons the sociologists have come up with, we disconnect ourselves from much of our surrounding environment ... and from most people, too.
I know my neighbors on either side of me on Midland Blvd. somewhat well. But you start going down the block and I know less and less. Maybe a name. Maybe a trivial fact about the family. Not much more. We don't have a lot to do with each other. We don't spend a lot of time together. I'm in my house, my car, my office and they are in theirs. And, by and large, we prefer it that way because that's what we're used to. There is security there. There is control ... or at least the illusion of control ... over our environment -- and we (certainly I) tend to like control a lot.
Here it's completely different. For awhile, I thought it was just the area I was living in or the population density. There are a lot more people in a smaller area here in Mallam, that's for sure. But it's more than that, because I found so much of the same thing when I went out to the townships and villages in rural Ghana.
People here, society here, is naturally interactive instead of being naturally retractive. And it's pretty intense and ... particularly for someone who can be a little introverted ... pretty overwhelming.
People here are involved in each other's lives to a much greater degree ... to an extreme degree, by American standards. On an everyday basis, that means that people are ALWAYS interacting with each other ... whether they really know each other or not. You experience it when you walk down the street. Now, I'm white, so I attract attention and a lot of cries of "Obroni" wherever I go, but you see it with everyone. The norm is not passing each other on the street in silence but saying something as you are passing. In the time it takes me to walk from the villa to the cafe, I hear a couple dozen "how are you?" "where are you going?" "good evening" and various other things spoken to me in a language I can't understand.
At first ... and I have to say this is still my gut reaction ... is to experience this as intrusive. The tone of voice is often pretty intense (at least not gentle). Walking down the street and having 5 people bark at you "Hey, where are you going?" ... it feels like an interrogation. But I've realized through watching and talking with people is that two things are really going on. First, there is just this cultural norm of interacting with people. When someone walks by, you say something. Second, people genuinely want to see if they can help you get to where you are going (we obronis get this question asked to us a lot because the assumption is that we are lost and don't know where we are going... and then there are the taxi drivers who want to help us get where we are going -- for a large fee -- but that's another story).
You see it in how people get around. People cram themselves into buses and trotros and it's like there is NO concept of personal space. As vehicles drive around, they are always honking their horns at people, but just as the "how are yous?" might sound intrusive and aggressive to my Western ears but really aren't, neither are the horns. They are just the people talking to each other. Every time you pass someone, you honk. You let them know you are there and let them know they are in relationship with you.
It's one of the reasons that, even though traffic here is so insane, I have only seen one accident and I have seen no road rage. One day we were coming back on a bus to Mallam and without warning all of the lanes going in our direction closed off at an intersection and we were being filtered into one lane of what had just been oncoming traffic ... at the same time that cross traffic was also making its way across the intersection. The result was a huge mess that would have been gridlock and road rage central in the U.S. But what happened was that everyone entered the intersection at once, from all directions and then proceded to maneuver around each other ... somehow managing not to hit anyone ... and everyone got where they were going. Nobody was hesitant. The driving was definitely aggressive. But there was a realization that the only acceptable outcome was for everyone to get where they were going ... and in that happening, all would be taken care of ... including them.
And it goes beyond that. These people take care of each other. When someone is in need, someone who has helps them out. And they don't really keep score. It's just assumed that it's the thing to do. It's the norm.
I've been reading a book about Desmond Tutu's theology of ubuntu --which is a theology of radical interdependence. Bascially, that we are created in God's image as human beings in our great diversity and we need that diversity to be fully human. In other words, in order to be the image of God we are supposed to be, we need EVERYONE. He talks about finding a place where the theology of Africa, which goes to the extreme in its emphasis on the communal ... often to the denigrating of the individual ... and the theology of the West, which goes to the extreme in its emphasis on the individual to the exclusion of the community ... meet. A place where we recognize that each one of us is uniquely created and beloved by God ... but that we only become that image of God we are created to be with the help of each other.
I think about our church communities. We take wonderful baptismal and marriage and other vows and promise to uphold each other in them ... and then we shut those same communities off from our lives because it wouldn't be proper or would be too intrusive to give or ask for such personal details of our lives.
I already know the people, young and old, whom I meet every day walking from the villa to the main road, better than I know most people in my own neighborhood in St. Louis. SOmetimes that's still difficult for me. Sometimes, I wish I could walk down the street and not have 24 people ask me where I"m going or not have Ya try to teach me some more Twi or any of the other conversations I have daily. SOmetimes, I just want to crawl into my shell and have people leave me alone. But I also know that when I feel that way, I'm the one who is impoverished for it, because I'm rejecting the gifts of these people's humanity that they are offering to me ... and I'm not giving them the gift of myself.
As I think about what the church is called to be in American society, I think we need to try to find that place of which Desmond Tutu speaks. We must never forget how precious each individual is ... but when we keep that to ourselves and pretend that it's all about the individual, we lose so much of who we could be and who we are created to be.
I wonder what it's going to be like going back to St. Louis. Getting off the trotro and into my car by myself. Passing people on the street in silence. I'll bet it will be easy to get back into my comfort zone with that. I wonder if I'll miss this.
| Mike at 7/02/2004 03:39:00 PM
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."