INTO AFRICA: Seeing the World

(The second in a series of essays on a recent trip to Africa.  See River Current posted 12-6-2010.)

The Maasai who sold me either five or six beaded baskets and a warthog will never remember me.  But I’ll remember him forever. He was handsome and had an air of great dignity about him. And apart from other things, our encounter exhausted me.  This happens when you travel to places that are starkly different from your own.  Your experiences are unique, surprising, one of a kind, exhausting, while the people you meet are just going through their normal day, seeing more of the same sights and anonymous faces they always see.  To him I was probably just another jerk trying to cheat him out of a basket.  It’s amazing that given different languages and cultural expectations, we’re able to communicate at all, and do it peacefully so often.

The Nairobi Rotary Club rounded up some young college-age people to serve as translators for the eye clinic.  They hovered around the various work stations to help when we had patients who were not fluent in English. I worked with several of them and was truly impressed by their vitality, intelligent understanding of how language works, their command of language, and their sincere desire to help the people who had come for glasses.  I was assigned to work in the dispensary which was where people came with their prescription card after registering, screening, having their eyes examined, and other preliminaries.  Last stop was the dispensary where they came with the great hope that we could find a pair of eye glasses that would match their prescriptions.  Or closely match them.  Each person who came up from the long waiting line (we gave out over 2000 pairs of glasses in four days) was a total “unknown” to the five or six of us working there until we read the name, age, and the esoteric numbering system, devised by optometrists, that explains one’s eyesight on the prescription card.  Then we still knew practically nothing about them.

Our routine went something like this. We’d take the card and glance at the name.  “Hi!  (Or Jambo!) You’re Margaret (or Fadhili).  I’m Tom.  Let’s see what you need.  I hope we can find it.”

Many people had never worn glasses before, and they weren’t sure what to expect. Ages ranged from an old woman who was ninety down to children of six or seven. Of course early in the week we had a great variety of prescriptions to select from, but as the days passed the pickings got slim.  We all got giddy when a doctor wrote “Readers 150” or something similar.  There were lots of plastic bags with new “readers” that some group in the US had donated, and they were easy to locate bagged by strength, and easy to dispense. Clients also liked the fact that they were getting something new, not used.

But for people who had complicated eye-sight, or needed bifocals, we had to resort to the long narrow boxes that held thousands of old, used glasses, each in a baggie with the prescription numbers scribbled across the top.  The glasses were sorted, boxed, and labeled by men’s, women’s children’s and then by single vision or bifocal, then plus or minus indicating near-sighted or far-sighted.  First number was the right eye; second number was the left.  We’d flip through these boxes like a card catalog looking for the closest fit.  Sometimes it was perfect.  Most often not.  But usually we could come up with something that was “sawa” (okay).  I guess in many cases, any extra power was better than nothing or what they were used to, and sometimes we could give them a choice of two or three pairs to see which worked best.  Often we could tell which pair was “sawa” by the smile that lighted up their faces when they put the right pair on.  Everyone agreed that the dispensary was the hardest job on the mission.

A translator named Cliff saved me more than once in dealing with a client.  He was a bright, cheerful fellow and really took time to talk with each person to make sure he or she was getting the correct fit.   At one point a thirteen-year-old girl came up to the station I was working, handed me her prescription, and I gave her my usual greeting, but she kept her eyes down and didn’t seem to respond.  I said a few more words, but she didn’t answer back.  She just sat there looking down at her hands in her lap. It was late in the day and I was running thin on patience. Sensing something wrong, Cliff grabbed the prescription from me and looked at it.  “She’s deaf,” he said.  Of course, there on the prescription, in bold black ink, the doctor had written “deaf,” but I hadn’t noticed it.  I looked at him helplessly, feeling really discouraged.  “Can you do sign language in Swahili?” I asked sort of as a joke, more for me than him.  He said, “Maybe,” and flashed his fingers around at her and she looked up and smiled.  I don’t know if it was really sign language or not, or whether it was Swahili or not, but thanks to Cliff’s resourcefulness we found a pair of glasses for her.  Sawa!

Each day began at 7:30 a.m. at the site—a few classrooms in a muddy elementary school in the heart of the slum—and went non-stop until about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Everyone was wiped out by quitting time.  One doctor had a sharp, young girl translating for her who lived right there in the ghetto.  She asked the girl what she would do with the rest of her day.  She said she would go home and fetch water. The doctor asked her what she meant, and was told that she’d be taking buckets to one of the public faucets that the city council had installed at various places to bring water to the slum areas.  The closest faucet to where she lived was many blocks away and she would make about six trips with two buckets each trip to get the water her family needed.  It would take all afternoon.

At the end of each day our team was bussed back to the Hilton where we had warm showers and then drinks and dinner. The two safari camps we went to after the mission ended also had hot showers and each had a swimming pool.  It was often hard squaring our plush way of life with theirs, realizing how far apart our life experiences are from their own.

The week before we left, Jack and I watched on DVR a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” that we had seen last year at Lincoln Center. One of the songs in it has these lyrics:

You have to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

The musical is about (among other things) racism in the South Pacific during World War II between American troops and Polynesians whose islands we had commandeered for combat bases against the Japanese.  The show is a real cauldron of races and life styles and prejudices.  But beautifully and poignantly it presents the misunderstandings of people who are trying to see beyond their own life experiences, trying (or failing) to see how people we might call the Others are as sovereign as ourselves.  I teach a workshop on “sovereignty” and I love teaching it because I’m not really sure what sovereignty is.  Each time I offer it I learn something new, find meaning for something I hadn’t noticed before, and peel off aspects that don’t seem as important as before.

I like to think that sovereignty is the dignity one feels and expresses in being in charge of one’s own life.  It’s not the same as being in control of your life or controlling someone else’s life.  I like to think that even people who are not in control of their lives can still take charge, can still decide how they will respond to what Life Itself presents to them.  I like to think that even in the worst circumstances people can still take responsibility for how they will live their lives and find dignity in who they are and be proud of that.  Like the Maasai.  Like the poor people of Nairobi who stood in line patiently for hours to receive a pair of glasses.

Fortunately I had World War II parents who did not feel we had to be “carefully taught” to hate the Others.  On the contrary, we were expected to respect people who were different from us.  Still, I was shaped by the white, middle-working class neighborhood I grew up in, just as everyone is shaped by their early environments.  My expectations of what human beings are capable of have been shaped by the positive and negative experiences of my privileged past.  We all look through glasses that distort the world around us.  Some people’s glasses create more distortion than others’.

The Maasai who sold me the baskets and warthog will most likely not remember me, but I’m one of the millions of experiences he has had in his still young life.  He is one of the experiences in mine.  Our influences are felt on each other.  For me, he will always be a lens to look through, a moment of adjustment, a valuable shift in how I was taught to see the world.