“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
— T.S. Eliot
When I was 19 I traveled to a remote village at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. My fellow student and I lived in a small Catholic mission with no running water, no electricity, a hole for a toilet, and a bucket for a shower. For 4 months we did research, getting by on our very rough Swahili and interpreters, speaking with farmers, mothers, community leaders, and school children. These few months enabled me to experience, in a small way, the reality of life for millions of people. When I returned home from that first summer in Africa, nothing looked the same.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
— G.K. Chesterton
After returning to college, I remember walking into my kitchen to get an apple – something I had missed in my travels. I got a peeler out of the drawer – a utensil I had never been mindful of before – never really seen. But now, I saw it – the incredible blessing of a peeler! In Tanzania, Eliza, a young woman of about 20, did all the cooking. She only had a simple knife to do all the food preparation. She sat on the dirt floor and peeled and cut potatoes, tomatoes, and onions – all into her lap. She would prepare the stew and cook it on a small fire for hours. Despite her life of toil, she was a joyful woman. She didn’t complain; she was generous to all.
I remember watching Eliza work. It was a frustrating experience for me. How could she prepare all these meals without a table?! Surely there has to be a faster method to make meals! As soon as she finished lunch, she had to start on dinner! But most of all, I kept wishing I had left clothes and books at home and instead brought 100 peelers to hand out to the women. Eliza seemed oblivious to all the peeling, but to me it was a problem with a simple solution, and a symbol of the unfairness of life.
And yet, I lived happily among these humble villagers who were generous, resilient, and joyful. My African friends smiled, laughed, sang, danced, and generally seemed to enjoy life more than many of us “rich” Westerners. They were living abundantly with the little they had. This is not to downplay the true suffering accompanying a life without proper medical care, nutrition, or education – these things matter. Yet somehow the poverty was not as stifling as I had imagined.
“Experience is the teacher of all things.”
— Julius Caesar
The Complexity of Life
After returning to my life of ease, my new eyes saw much more than just never-ending reasons for gratitude. They also saw many reasons for guilt; they saw my own and others’ selfishness, materialism, and shallowness. Why did I have so much and others so little? How could I complain about not having a car when so many souls had never even been in one? Why are we, the affluent, so stingy while they are so generous? These are questions I still grapple with.
I am sure if someone gave Eliza a peeler, she would be grateful. She was not ignorant of her poverty – she certainly would have appreciated more material blessings. However, she didn’t waste her days in envy or resentment. She had work to do.
My experiences replaced the stereotypical caricature of “Africa” and “Africans” into something real. In order to develop a real picture of the group, I had to connect with “the one”. It was Eliza that helped me see. The complexity, majesty and humanity of that one woman enabled me to empathize in a much more genuine way than I had when I was “concerned with the plight of the poor”. I saw that it is no longer a simple matter of “us helping them”. But perhaps I could help her, and she me. We practiced her English and I did what I could to help with her many duties. She taught me Swahili and introduced me to the villagers. She was my mentor and eye-opener.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Living in a world so drastically different from my own shifted my perspective and brought me some depth of compassion and understanding, which I desperately needed. Seeing the harsh realities of everyday life in a poor African village had ignited empathy, which my selfish nature was incapable of conjuring on its own. Eliza showed me that happiness is not a consequence of what we have – but who we are and how we view the world. My discussions with farmers, school children, and community leaders revealed cultural advantages as well as deficiencies – and the similarity of all human hearts.
Harming Through Saving
Before I left for my trip I remember saying I “want to save the world”. After my return, I just wanted to mail Eliza a peeler.
In a nearby village there was an old water pump, installed by a Scandinavian NGO years before. They had spent a week installing it for this “poor” village and the villagers were very grateful. They left, without leaving tools or teaching any locals how to repair it. It broke after a few months and has never been used again. I am sure the NGO was very proud and probably used this “good deed” as evidence of their positive influence – but they had done little good. Perhaps if they had connected with a villager like Jose, or Bahati, or Muhammad and trained them how to repair the pump, they would have provided a long-term solution to their problems rather than short-term satisfaction. The empathy that comes with friendship would have made them more concerned with their long-term good than short-term righteousness.
For the world to become “real” to us, we must encounter it. Young people are full of hope, idealism, and a desire to make the world a better place. How wonderful are these instincts! Yet, often these instincts are ill used. Without accompanying experience, knowledge, and empathy, an idealistic young person can damage more than repair.
“For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
— H. L. Mencken
While we might appear compassionate when we say we “want world peace”, blanket compassion and tolerance for groups of people rarely turns out well. It must be made real by living it out, by focusing on the individual. The world is not the flat, one-dimensional place, composed of victims and oppressors, rich and poor, educated and uneducated – the world portrayed in our Sociology textbooks. Throwing money at a problem will not solve it. Applying the same methods in a small village in Tanzania as those used in Texas will not work. The intricacies of life only reveal themselves when we encounter the world in its specificity and complexity.
“There can be no such thing as a “global village.” No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”
— Wendall Barry
I have to admit it is endlessly frustrating for me to see people (often young and naive as I was), in their arrogance and ignorance, who claim to care about a particular “community” – yet when asked for solutions they point out “systematic problems”, not real-world solutions. Do they really care about the beautiful little boy in the inner city that is statistically likely to be neglected and lead a life of crime? His problems are urgent. They can’t wait for a reshaping of the world. If they cared they would want to actually help that boy – they would want to encourage him, rather than discourage the world. But they don’t know him – they think they do – but they have never met him. And because they don’t know him, they don’t look forward to his long-term good. Their ‘help” is likely to harm. They make the world seem unsafe, rather than making the boy strong.
We are Insignificant
Perhaps the important result that first exploration in Africa had on me was a sudden realization of my own insignificance. I dropped the naive idea that I was going to “save the world” and realized that was far beyond my grasp. That was an important truth for me to learn. As parents, we want our children to know they are loved and capable of great things. This is important and right. Yet, we must not forget to help our children see the realities of the world. While they are unique and significant, so are billions of others. Ours, and their influence can be significant – but not typically by grand gestures, but the small and steady actions of a life well-lived. Eliza helped me see that.
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
— Henry David Thoreau
Upon my return to America I found myself longing to go back, away from the negativity and materialism which was so common in my own culture and my own heart. (I did return and spent nearly 3 years in various parts of Africa and China during my college years). By the end of my travels I had gained a new perspective. I remember after my first trip, I was annoyed by my “rich American” roommates that cried over a breakup. How could they complain when there were so many children living on the streets? By my last trip to Africa, I had realized that pain is pain and we all need compassion. We need to get beyond our habitual, ordinary life, and seek to discover the reality of other’s lives – our annoying roommate, and a child on the streets of Dar es Salaam. If we seek the adventure of “walking around in someone else’s skin”, we will gain new eyes, only then can they open to true compassion. Only then will we see the best way we can serve our fellowman.
Exploring with our Children
We, as parents, are tasked with preparing our children for life. We must supply the knowledge and experience they will need. They are here to make the world a better place – in small ways or large. But, if they have never seen poverty up close, if they have never honestly examined the positive and negative effects of differing cultures and traditions, if they have not experienced the complexity of human interactions – they are ill-equipped to join a crusade. Their knowledge and view are still shallow. As parents, it is worthwhile to use our resources and time to take our children to foreign lands, watch documentaries, and/or volunteer in poor or unstable areas. Through experience and exploration, we, and our children, will begin to see the realities of life and be properly oriented to our place in this world.
As a mother, in my often less-than-adventurous life, I often find my peeler in my hands. It consistently brings up memories born years ago in a small village. I am grateful for my peeler. I know that many do not have such a luxury. But I also know that it is not my peeler, or any material advantage, which brings meaning and joy to life. When I forget, and return to a shallow perception, which I often do, I need to close my eyes and return to that small kitchen where my dear friend Eliza sat preparing food, with a knife. I need to see things again, for the first time.
This essay was originally published on The Philosophy of Motherhood. Thank you for letting REALM republish this piece.