the power of people

Since becoming an avid fan of walking (read: my knees keep hurting whenever I run) I have found numerous ways to channel my thoughts while my legs boost me forward.

Sometimes, I listen to podcasts (the Robcast, Denver Community Church, Modern Love, Call Your Girlfriend, and Fresh Air top my favorites); sometimes I focus on the sounds around me and identify what each thing is (certainly, more applicable in an urban environment), like yelling children, sound of birds, or bicycles climbing up long, arduous hills.

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Kayonza, Rwanda

Occasionally, and when I’m feeling particularly contemplative, I literally put myself in someone else’s shoes.

The exercise is simple: when you find yourself in an area with other humans, find someone that catches your eye. Without being a total creep, observe them.

Ask some (or all) of the following questions:

  1. Who are they?
  2. Where are they going?
  3. Where are they coming from?
  4. Do they have a family?
  5. What has happened in their life?
  6. Who has molded their life?
  7. What goals could they hold? Dreams?
  8. What might be easy in their life? Hard?

You won’t know the answers to these questions. That’s the whole point.

The exercise is not about judgement, nor is it about feeling jealous or “sorry” for another person; it’s about thinking about all kinds of persons and what their lives might be like.

I believe, and I know, that existing outside of ourselves (even for a few minutes) cultivates a deep, abiding kind of empathy because when we realize that the moving world does not hinge upon us, we are more fully aware of what and who we are surrounded by. I started doing this a few years ago, and I’ve noticed that with time, it’s furthered my understanding that we all sit on different spectrums of everything.

There is no linear human being.

Most recently, I did this exercise on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a town named Cyangugu. The town sits on the Southwest corner of Rwanda, with just over 60,000 people living in the surrounding area. It is a lakeside town, with sambaza (a type of fish) as a preferred food type. I spent little time here when I was in the Peace Corps, as my community was nearly 8 or 9 hours away, within the Eastern part of the country.

Our TWB team was in the region to complete a bread market analysis which involved visits with other local bakeries, visiting shops that source bread for customers, and researching local preferences for consumption. To understand the place as best as I could, I knew that moving by foot would be advantageous. I think that because you can use your five senses in varying degrees, walking is the most optimal way to learn about a place. Amid our bread research, outside a crowded, local market, I decided to contemplate a woman moving hastily with charcoal on the road.

It was raining.

The moisture of the air swelled together with the dust-capped pavement, like a gust of earth touching each part of my body. I tried to squint my eyes so I didn’t fall into a ditch or misstep and run into one of many pedestrians moving from one place to another. People were moving with intention; while the sunshine might keep people in a haze, the rain acts like a buzzer for immediacy. Suddenly, whether going to the market, to the lake, or to home, the journey must be done speedily.

As the pace of the conglomerate of people around me quickens, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying charcoal. The bag rests in such a way that the top piece is strapped around her forehead and the bulk of the weight is held by her back. She was wearing royal blue fabric with yellow adornments. She was also sweating, profusely, and her muscles seem to mold to the bag as if she knows it well – perhaps carrying these kinds of things every day. Her skin is well-worn by the sun. She seems tired. Strong, but very tired.

She had a ring on her left hand – perhaps she was married – and hence, it’s possible that she was also a provider for children, too. She dropped the charcoal near a bus for loading. I watched from afar as she received a wage – what appeared to be in coins – from her presumed boss. She counted her money. She left.

Was this her day’s wage? Was it enough to buy food? Is she from around these parts?

I can’t know the answers to the questions. I know nothing about her life. And yet, I feel heartbroken.

At any given time, we are surrounded by those who have a life full of opportunity, or perhaps oppression; poverty, or perhaps money; dreams, or perhaps hopelessness; limitations, or perhaps, educational access; hunger, or perhaps food; a job, or perhaps unemployment; nothingness, or perhaps status; mobility, or perhaps subjugation; isolation, or perhaps friends; and health, or perhaps sickness.

Turns out, our privilege is mobile (we carry it with us) and it sits on a spectrum depending on where you find yourself.  If we are engaging with the people around us, we can’t always know the levels or places of their privilege, but we can assess the levels of our own – depending on the situation.

As I watched this woman walk away, with hundreds of others around me, I couldn’t help but think: why do individual lives often look so disproportionate? Is this privilege at work? Or something else?

For instance, on this trip, I walked into bakeries, asked questions, and received tours of the facility without hardly a second glance. I even went home with a free loaf of bread. It’s possible (and likely) that being white had something to do with this.

In the same trip, however, I also entered a bar full of drunk men to purchase a bottle of water. Quickly, I was made to feel small, like my place was not there. I was mocked and laughed at and felt uncomfortable immediately. A drunk man tried to touch me – I left. Here, in spaces like that, I hold very little power – conceptually speaking. It’s possible (and likely) that being a woman had something to do with this.

After intentionally thinking about this woman – and the realities and possibilities in her life – I came back to our hotel room and cried.

I cried because I am maddened by inequity. I’m angered by lack of opportunity. I’m aghast at the nature of cyclical poverty. I’m saddened by loneliness. All of it – it’s so much to absorb and understand. It seems, tapping into this ONE woman’s life for 15 minutes allowed an outpouring of questions, thoughts, concerns, and opinions to rise from deep within me.

I can’t forget the way this feels.

If I forget, I become numb to justice.

If I forget, together, we will not overcome.

If I forget, we cannot acknowledge where we are limited, but where we have power.

I want to understand, know, and dissect the privilege I have. I also know, intimately, that there are areas in my life in which I’m not privileged. Learning to know these places is just as important.

And so, I will keep going on my walks and will maintain awareness of the people around me. For me, people serve as markers and reminders of all the powerful, incredible diversity of humanity, and still also the work we have ahead to ensure human rights are met for everyone.

Justice does not imply equality and that life is the same for everyone; justice, instead, necessitates equity – that we all can build a healthy, prosperous, supportive life, all within the context of our God-given place on this Earth. Whether in small-town Indiana, or on the shores of Thailand, all of us, as people, must know more about others, and then take hard-looks at ourselves, too. We must not be afraid to see our own privilege (and limitations) and then address it head on.

How does our privilege perpetuate systems?

How do acknowledge our mobile privilege and do something about it?

How can our privilege influence change?

These are the questions that this exercise ignites in me.

This is the power of people.

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Cyangugu, Rwanda

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