Descending into Powerlessness

Tuesday's UPI column

So There I was...

… On my first trip to what is called the third world. I had been invited to teach trauma healing in Burundi, Central Africa. It was the fall of 2003 and the three-party civil war was still on.

It’s a long trip. There is no direct route to Burundi. That is probably a good thing because the case of the cultural “Bends” that you get, even with several stops, is bad enough. I was traveling alone, and it did not take long for me to realize that my “personal power meter” was dropping precipitously as I proceeded. Seattle -- not home. Amsterdam – losing language and culture skills. Nairobi, Kenya -- things start to get weird. Kigali, Rwanda -- things start to get dangerous. Bujumbura, Burundi – I might as well be on another planet.

The airport in Buja is a strange place. There was one flight a day at that time – sometimes the rebels took potshots at it. About 20 souls disembarked with me. We entered a terminal that looks like it was built for Disneyland in 1964 and then abandoned – aging futuristic.

Half of the passengers are locals and breeze through customs, the rest of us still need a visa to get into the country. This is nervous making because the plane has almost immediately lifted back off for Kigali. I wonder what happens to you if they don’t grant you a visa? We are given instructions in French. I don’t speak French, but I imitate the other people who seem to know what they are doing. I fill out a form, put it and the requested fee in my passport and give it to a man who carries it away with all the others. It is scary when people walk away with your passport. We wait. There are no chairs. The table where we filled out the forms is sprinkled with rat poop -- this place must be fun at night. I wait 45 minutes after they take my passport away. One by one the other passengers are ok’d to go through. I am the last, and starting to think there is going to be a real problem, when the man finally comes back with mine. I wonder if I forgot a bribe or something. Perhaps it is my absolutely virgin passport -- it is a new, fancy, high security type-- it looks fake to me too. The official looks me up and down, in my Khakis, flowered shirt and African explorer hat -- actually, I look like I should be working at Disneyland.

He says “Madame, Parlez vous Frances?”
“No, I have only English.”
“You are here to teach?” He says in perfect English.
“Yes.” I point to my official invitation attached to the form in his hand.
“You have not traveled outside the US before this?”
“No, this is my first international experience.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Bon Chance, Madam, Bon Chance” He waves me through.

I am finally united with my friend and host, the only person within 5,000 miles who knows my name. He is glad to see me, but lets me know that there is a bit of a crisis going on in his life and that for a few days I am going to be on my own quite a bit. He says that he is sure that I will enjoy the freedom.

In the next few days I bump into significant powerlessness. In the US I am a competent woman. I am educated, professional, and comfortable in most settings. I usually know what I want and how to get it. Here I am nearly helpless. The list of powers that I am stripped of upon setting foot in the country is comprehensive.

§ Language: I cannot speak the local language or the professional language, and furthermore, I cannot trust the non-verbals because the culture is just that different.
§ Self-care: I cannot procure food, safe water, or even relieve myself without assistance.
§ Mobility: I cannot drive. I do not know how to get to my house, or even back to the airport. I do not know the names of any streets. I do not know how to get a taxi.
§ Currency: I have no local money. I do not know how to exchange money. Credit cards do not work in this country.
§ Connection: I have no access to phone or Internet. I cannot phone home.
§ Cultural understanding: I do not know how to behave properly. I am aware that cultural blunders can be fatal.
§ Sexuality: I can’t even smile and flirt with a stranger – my last ditch defense at home. Here, I do not know where “The line” is, and so it is not safe to use my female wiles.

I am a baby -- a baby in a very hostile environment. I sit with that – telling myself that this is a good spiritual exercise. I am totally dependent on God. Then I panic. When I am done panicking, I realize that I have one power left -- the power to attend -- to pay attention. And when I pay attention I start to notice things, and then I learn. I notice that when someone’s name is said they respond with “Ego.” They also say “Ego” when offered something good. I decide that “Ego” mean “Yes.” Soon someone calls my name, I say “Ego”, just as relaxed as you please. Everyone smiles and laughs, but I know I have done it right. I am accepted. I belong, and this is the beginning of power. As I learn, I grow, I become bold, I explore and I learn more.

Within a couple of weeks, I was buying, eating and drinking, traveling, talking, bargaining, driving, laughing, phoning, e-mailing, and even flirting. I was an alien, but I was functional, semi-competent. I gained power back, bit by bit. When I got back home -- I found that I had all kinds of new strength.

I have been thinking about my descent and recovery from powerlessness this week as I watch the struggles and conflicts over aliens and immigrants in our country. I am amazed at the courage of human beings to face nearly anything, and to embrace powerlessness in order to gain a better life, to grow. I am amazed at their growing power and organization.

I have also been amazed by some of the vitriolic critics -- not the people honestly wrestling with the issues -- but the knee-jerk nasty reaction of many people. I have noticed this in my town especially around language issues. Some people get real nervous when a language is spoken that they don’t understand. I think I get this. It isn’t so much racism -- although that is there at times. It is fear of powerlessness. It is fear of losing the power that comes from being in the majority, the dominant culture, and the dominant language. If you don’t know the words, if you don’t understand the culture, you might not be safe. It is the fear of losing your moorings. I get that. I’ve done that. I don’t think many of these people would admit that at the bottom of their anger is fear, but I think it is true anyway. I hope we all get through the panic. I hope we don’t do anything too stupid. Because if you get through that, you get the chance to realize that you do have some power left. You have the power to pay attention, to learn, to grow, to become new and stronger. That is my hope for all of us.

I remember when a few of my friends from my hometown came to LA to visit a few years back. As you can imagine, LA has lots of people speaking lots of different languages. My friends kept complaining about no one speaking English. They sometimes lapsed into "This is America, right?" and "Why can't they learn English?" You are so right about how it is an issue of power - at the societal level and at the more personal, intimate level.

I've wanted to travel to Italy for a few years now. I'm even learning the language. But, I hesitate because of fears of powerlessness. Your experiences in Burundi seemed much more intense than what I probably would experience in Italy.

I'm glad that you chose to go into a place, both literally and figurately, of powerlessness to reach out and be reached back to for the work of God, which is love!
Near the end of my freshman year in college, all the students in the school of Foreign Service had to choose a regional history course for the next year. I was trying to choose between Latin America (which I already knew something about) and South-East Asia (which I knew nothing about). Both had their pluses and minuses, and either could have had a major effect on the rest of my course of studies. But that same week, the priest on the floor beneath mine had one of his monthly movie nights, and showed The Killing Fields, about foreigners being held captive in Cambodia. I don't remember all of it, but what stuck with me was that the main characters were captured along with their translator. They were completely dependent on that translator to know what was going on around them, to know if their captors were saying let's eat lunch or let's kill them all. I decided that I never wanted to be that powerless. And since I already spoke Spanish, having lived in Colombia for the prior year, I decided to just make a clearer commitment to Latin American studies.
I was blessed in Burundi to have children in the household who spoke english, but most of the adults discounted their skills and paid them no attention. They became my "Baker Street Irregulars" getting me info,and unofficially translating for me. Each evening over a game of cards they would tell me what the adults were saying about me in Kirundi that was never translated, and how my translators were 'spinning'. It was informative to say the least. It also improved their English which they enjoyed. One evening they said "Peggy - today the men in the market standing behind you were talking about stealing you" My insides went a little cold. Do you mean Stealing FROM me, or actually taking ME away someplace. They conferred - We mean that they were thing about stealing from you. Thank you boys - prepositions are important!
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