After two years of studying biology at university, I suddenly applied and was accepted to go to work on a pig and cow farm in Quebec, followed by three months living in an African village in Togo, West Africa. It was a government funded rural development education program, and they especially wanted people like me. Brought up on Rural Route (pronounced “root”) Number One, and having traveled only once on a school trip to Holland, this globe-trotting plan was a surprise to my parents, who perhaps had not yet realized that I had a daring streak, except in clothing. They already knew me well enough to realize that their objections (if they had any) would not stop me once I decided on a path, and so they decided to be proud of me, and of course my mother worried a good deal without letting on. The Quebec part was fine, living with an African peer and the farm family, working hard every day and meeting with the other youth and leader once in a while to debrief and make presentations. But then, Africa!
Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde is a wonderful program, and turns out vast numbers of globally-minded, culturally sensitive youth each year. Host family placements are made with a goal of helping young people experience the ways of rural folks making a living in Canada, and then a developing country. I don’t know if there’s anything quite like it.
One thing I saw my fellow participants emphasize in their post-CWY community presentations (one of the few requirements placed on participants) was how much they became aware of their many blessings, etc., when faced with the have-not environment in which they lived for those months. In our village, for example, that would have meant lack of electricity, safe drinking water, advanced medical care, gender equality, political freedom, peace (there was a coup while we were there) and so on. Perhaps for some it also meant grocery stores, sidewalks, libraries, and malls. The idea of gratitude for our bounty, in contrast for others’ poverty, is, apparently, a key lesson one ought to learn from being with or learning about poor people.
But then, as now, whenever I hear that mantra, I burn. For some reason I feel it’s a betrayal of the folks in that other reality, a blindness and disrespect for all that was missed, the more important subepidermal layers of their existence. What I saw, and what I wanted to convey to others, was what those people had, what they did, what they knew. They had amazing music, art, wonderful food, many languages with their own untranslatable layers of meaning, strong community ties, a huge variety of personalities, perspectives, ways of handling life. And skills! What those women could do with a palm nut tree, and the men with their tools in the fields, season in, season out!
If all you can think of after a cultural encounter is being thankful for your many blessings, then you may as well also moan about your own blindness to the blessings of others. Or better, get in there and experience them. You might be surprised to realize that some of their blessings are more substantial and enduring than your own.
Once I was substitute teaching in a 7th grade social studies class and we were reading about and discussing the experiences of folks in the Great Depression. “Sure,” I said, “there wasn’t much food, money, or work, and there was too much suffering, but do you think they had anything good too? Of course they did! Of course there was music in those tin shantytowns, and beauty, and games, and falling in love! Some of the best music and poetry comes from times like those!” They listened, surprised, for there was none of that mentioned in the chapter, even in the sidebars. “There will most always be those things, I said, and we’d best be remembering that too.”