I’m reading months’ old copies of The Christian Century magazine these days and came across a thought-provoking quote in a review of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle. The author, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles, asks us to “stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
In the time I’ve lived in Africa, first in Sudan and now in Sierra Leone, I’ve learned how easy it is for westerners to make judgments and assumptions about the poverty and brokenness we meet. Almost instinctively, we try to understand Africa and African issues through the lens of our own culture and in terms of our own worldview. But I’ve also learned that if I stay at that level of understanding, and don’t grow beyond my own culturally shaped perspective and privilege, I am failing to grasp deeper issues and meanings. I also know that I miss the depth and richness of African possibilities when I rush to judge or try to problem solve.
This past Saturday as I was walking to and from the local market, I saw people carrying all sorts of things: trays of cucumbers and trays of peanuts… a stack of 4 boards, each about 10 feet long… igloo containers with cold drinks… wooden boxes containing loaves of bread… large plastic tubs filled with plastic sandals… and baskets and buckets and pots and pans, and all sorts of miscellaneous things. In other parts of the city, you might meet women carrying large bundles of cassava leaves, and still others hauling sizable bags of charcoal. The people I passed on the way to the market last Saturday were in fact bringing the market to the neighborhood: most were petty traders, hoping to sell things along the way and so earn their daily rice.
As I have been thinking about “what the poor carry and how they carry it” in Sierra Leone, I recognize a certain ironic twist to the issues raised by Boyle. Taking away the privileges of cars and carts, how would Americans go about the task of carrying four 1″x6″x10ft boards some distance? The man I saw on Saturday was walking alone, carrying these on his head. How about carrying a five gallon bucket of water several hundred yards or more? Seven and eight year old children also use their heads to accomplish this with ease. Given the grace, strength, and amazing aptitude with which Sierra Leonean’s carry things, what judgments or response might they make to the way American’s carry things?