Tue 9 Jun 2009
This past week I traveled first up to central Burundi on Monday and Tuesday to work on the goat project, including to Ruyigi province in the northeast, which I have never been to before. Then for five days I traveled the other side of Lake Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to visit Quaker activities in Uvira and the small town of Abeka. More about the latter trip to come, but starting with the goat project, to summarize, committees to oversee the project have been created, and we were traveling to discuss the project with groups of 60 participants. These last two communities we are working in are geographically more distant, but we managed to make it everywhere we needed, so that the communities are all ready to begin distributing goats in the next few weeks.
This meant a fair amount of traveling from place to place, but this is no mere downtime; I have an important task on these occasions – waiving to each group of people that we pass every hundred meters or so. I find, as no doubt the Queen must, that it’s best to do a bit of calisthenics before such a session to warm up the muscles of the wrist and upper forearm. But though somewhat rigorous, these efforts do not go unrewarded. As we pass people tending their fields, or thrashing rice, or cooking over charcoal fires, I receive smile after smile, friendly waves, and, among young kids, pure excitement that often includes jumping up and down, yelling, and running after the car.
This response is quite remarkable when you think about it, considering that, though our HROC car is just an old Toyota station wagon and not a fancy Landcruiser like most NGOs drive, it still represents more monetary value than all the belongings of the average peasant farming family. Many people upcountry have never traveled in a private car and don’t know, for example, how to open the door from the inside. So if you try to imagine it from their perspective, perhaps midway through hoeing your field all day, such a car represents a foreign element, appearing out of nowhere and disappearing as quickly, containing unknown elements that you are not sure whether they represent forces for good or bad, though analogous elements have passed in one form or another the land of your parents and your fore-parents. And indeed a few people return mere blank, curious looks, or even the odd cold stare, but this is by far a small minority.
This always strikes me, coming from the city, where as far as I know in just about any culture, one adopts a distant, reserved posture with respect to one’s fellow citizens. What is it about cities that we feel forced to withdrawal into our individual selves? Are we afraid that if we shared a friendly smile with everyone we pass each day that we’d have too many friends? Do we believe our greeting resources are so meager that they must be reserved for a more limited number of encounters? Or are we unconsciously downcast from years of unrequited smiles? And if so, how many have learned not to share friendly greetings from our own, withheld demeanor?
And so I was asking myself, as I traveled the rolling hills of Burundi, as we might ask ourselves anywhere, when the stranger comes into your life, with unknown origins and unknown ends, perhaps a disappearing spectre of another world or perhaps your future neighbor, do you mount a stolid pose or venture a broad, hopeful, open-handed smile?