I am because of you
I've never appreciated kindness more in my life. Most people I meet on the street greet me, but even when they don't, I still smile and wave at every single person I pass in hopes that they will smile back, remember me, and pass along the word to their friends that I'm a nice white volunteer and not a pretentious American here to judge them. When the locals greet me first, it makes my day. Even when the guys who sit on the corner whistle at me and yell, "Beautiful girl, beautiful girl!" --a maneuver that would typically invoke a dirty look and a middle finger in the US-- here, I smile and wave back, so happy that at least they're talking to me!
I hear a lot about Western ideals, and the idea of "I," and African ideals, and the idea of "we." It's unfair to say that one is better or worse than the other, they are simply different. Once you are a member of a community here, everyone around you feels some sort of responsibility for your well-being. What happens to one person, good or bad, happens to the entire community. People refer to their friends as brothers and sisters; regardless of blood relation, everyone is considered family. Though I haven't quite reached familial status yet, I have had people I've only known a few hours give me advice a person would only give a good friend, or tell me they were "worried" about me for one reason or another. People here have lives and are busy, just like people in the states, but offering a helping hand to a person in need takes precedence over all other things.
After having no stoves at our house for a few months, last week we somehow accumulated 4 stoves, none of which worked. I mentioned this at work, and my boss sent our office "handy-man" to my house in the middle of the work day, insisting he fix "at least one, if not all four!" On our walk to my house, my co-worker began asking me about life in America. Among other things, he was shocked to hear that there are poor people in the states (a common misconception). I explained to him that there are some people with a lot of money, but that many people are poor and that some are even homeless and have to live on the streets. This puzzled him, and when I asked him what was wrong, he said, "Well, if some people have a lot of money and big houses, why would they let other people live on the street? Don't they have room for them in their houses?" I didn't have an answer for him.
There is a philosophy here in Africa that translates to something like “I am because of you” or “I am because you are”. Very few here survive on their own. Whether foreigners like me or locals like my co-worker, most people here rely on the kindness of those around them; because one person is living, another person will live. Though perhaps not as discernible, the same philosophy is applicable to life in the US, as well. Most people I know who are successful have only become so with the help of those around them. Similarly, those same people have probably, at one point or another, had to rely on the generosity of strangers, and therefore owe some of that success to those strangers. Which makes me wonder: why don't we feel comfortable inviting strangers off the street into our homes? If all of us have survived only because of others, why do we knowingly allow so many around us to suffer because we are afraid of being taken advantage of? I understand that New York City is worlds away from Omaruru, Namibia in every respect, but something very distinct happened to our country that created a clear line between being generous, and putting oneself in a potentially dangerous situation. How we went from the "we" to the "I," I am unsure. All I know is I definitely get a lot of hard questions here in Africa:)
Note: February 27-March 5 is International Peace Corps Week. Today, March 1st, marks the beginning of my fourth month in Africa. So… happy holidays:)