The Hard Part About Being a Human Being
A number of years ago I lived in a tiny Malinke village in Mali, West Africa. As a Peace Corps volunteer my job involved building wells and sewage systems. As a human being my job was to relate to those around me and live as they lived.
The well building part was not all that difficult. Building things was comforting. At first the relating part was easy too. I still remember the young man who came running when I found a goat trapped in the deep of a well. Together we rescued it. I have clear memories of the old chief, Moro, who demanded respect and garnered it. A funny lady named Situ sold me peanuts daily. I enjoyed laughing along with her as I massacred the local Bambarra language. I liked here. She liked me. Mali was great.
And then, after about a six months, I became rather good at speaking Bambarra. I began to relate using language.
That’s’ when my job got very difficult. What had previously been a cinematic experience of big sunsets, gorgeous mountains and smiling villagers had now become 4D. Gossiping teens told me that my goat saving buddy was a bit of a misogynist. Moro the chief was very pushy. Situ, the one who sold me peanuts, was a rip off artist. Seriously, she was.
I’d entered real life. The movie was over. The matrix had been exposed.
Much happened in the second year as I struggled to work among people I’d come to know as flawed. Often I wished I was blissfully ignorant. I thought how, like Cypher in the movie The Matrix, it would be nice to be blissfully unaware of real life. I wished I could go back to when I liked "all the nice black people." But I couldn't, of course. No, I had to relate. I had to shed all of my preconceptions, good and bad. Slowly I began to mature as a man, to see that most of the problems they had were simply problems I had- problems that I projected on them. My lack of patience made my buddy Bakari seem dimwitted. My restlessness made taking tea incredibly boring. I was learning that I was the one who needed development. The immersion process was working.
But guess what else happened? I became better at my day job. I became better at realizing what would work and what wouldn’t. I became better at listening to the folks I had been invited to live with. And in the end we built many things together. Appropriately enough the biggest thing we built was a bridge; a cement bridge that was the centerpiece of a mango business that sustains the region. It stands there today- a testimony to the kind of projects that are possible when westerners listen and reflect quietly and consider themselves as students first, teachers second.
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