Ancient Relationship Advice

Austin and I made the big move into Kailahun, FTF’s new Sierra Leone project site, about three months ago. Thanks to the invitation from Fr. Combey we have a cool little mudbrick house in the community, Austin is teaching at the local secondary school, and we’ve already started to identify some awesome projects (psstt…check them out here).

As the town where both the civil war and Ebola entered into Sierra Leone, Kailahun holds a bit of a stigma among Sierra Leoneans, acting as a painful reminder of the country’s ugly history. Living in this vibrant town today, it’s hard to believe the tragedies that were once normative for these people. Kailahun is very much alive.

The people here are friendly… extremely friendly… perhaps even aggressively friendly. No matter where in town, you stand at risk of being “pumui’d” (where a group of children spot you and begin chanting in harmony “PUMUI, PUMUI, PUMUI,” the Mende word for “white guy.”) The town is noisy to say the least. Cheap Nigerian music is constantly playing on PA speakers, imams and evangelical Christians preach into static-ridden microphones, and there has been a revving motorcycle engine that hasn’t failed to wake me up every morning since arriving here.

In a certain sense moving to Kailahun feels like starting a new relationship: at first she (Kailahun) was really new and fun and exotic, but I’m beginning to wonder if our differences are possible to overcome. Daniel and Kailahun—not a match made in heaven. We come from different backgrounds and we’re looking for different things from the relationship.

But, for the time being we’re together, and every morning when I wake up I’m faced with a few options. I can disengage—stay inside and keep to myself. Thoughts like “these uneducated village people just don’t get me” make it pretty easy to justify resentment and disengagement. The second option is the fixer mentality which entails the tendency to elevate my own goodness and intellect: everything I need to “help” Kailahun is inside the tool bag I showed up with.

Dr. Clark Carlton explains in a talk that the “go out and change the world” mentality is a relatively recent cultural development in the West. During the pre-modern era, there was an array of different ways of interpreting the world: you had the Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Christians to name but a few. But pagan or monotheist, Greek or Roman, it was broadly accepted that the universe, like a game of chess, operates according to certain rules. These rules generate meaning: no rules and chaos ensues. When a thing conforms to the cosmic order it exhibits goodness and truth. The pre-moderns would say that the natural social structure we live in reflects these rules, this cosmic order. Therefore, goodness is something to be worked on, the task being proper integration into the organic social environment. And hence, a third option for me: I can deepen my relationship with Kailahun by involving myself in the community—eating a meal with Adama’s family, volunteering at Ngevau’s carpentry shop, hand washing my clothes with Hawa and Jamie, and practicing Mende with the “PUMUI” kids. Using pre-modern logic, engaging in these sorts of activities connects me to reality itself. Isolation, separation and self-reliance will have the opposite effect. Carlton points out that the word “idiot” comes from the Greek word meaning “private individual”. When I think I’m cool “being my own man” I’m probably just being an idiot.

West African culture was virtually untouched by the individualistic revolution of the West which overturned many of the pre-modern ideas. Here in Sierra Leone, people see themselves first and foremost as members of a community, or two, or twelve. Just about everything, work or leisure, is done collectively. Even taking an exam is a communal effort (something the Western observer might call “cheating”). But the “blame” isn’t only to be placed on the slackers who didn’t study. The students who are strong in the tested subject area feel an obligation to help their companions. Each member knows its role in sustaining the living, breathing organism called the community.

To not know or play your role is to be, again, an idiot. These pre-moderns were brutally honest, the kind of guys you’d have to think twice about before going to for relationship advice. But I think they were onto something. Membership within a community is beautiful; it’s the place where we can become truly human. Successful integration comes at a price, however: the ego. When I’m too wrapped up in satisfying my own needs and desires I have a funny tendency to bend the truth in order to make things go my way. The tendency to lie, in a profound sense, is a rebellion against the cosmic order. The pre-modern antidote to this rebellion is existence within community, where I sacrifice my desires for the good of the community in order to live in truth. There’s no way around it: opting for truth and living in line with the fundamental goodness of the universe requires suffering and self-emptying.

The pre-modern relationship advice really boils down to taking a sober look at the whereabouts of goodness. If I’m being an idiot I’ll think that goodness is within me, and I’ll naturally be inclined to change Kailahun to be more like me, which will likely be disastrous. If goodness comes from God who spoke order into the universe, order which is reflected in the community life of Kailahun, then I’ll approach Kailahun differently. My attention will not be so consumed by spicy food, “PUMUI” screamers and revving motorcycle engines. I’ll be busy trying to partake in that goodness—learning the ins and outs of Kailahun, engaging in community life and contributing where I can. Those pre-moderns have a way of making Kailahun look pretty darn attractive.