Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Good Idea

English reporter: “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”
            Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

We get off the bus and 50 children are standing with signs with someone’s name on it. We find our name, the child greets us warmly, shows us to our hotel room, comes back with us to the bus and helps us bring our luggage back to the room. By the time we return to the hotel courtyard, we are already fast friends. They start showing us one of the many games they play as they live their life like children everywhere used to—playing outside and playing games with other children of all ages—and now with adults. Soon the courtyard is filled with the explosive energy of some 100 kids and adults playing game after game and reluctant goodbyes when the kids have to go home to their families for dinner. That’s not a kind of welcome you see every day.

Today, we get off the bus and here the distant drumming and singing. As we get closer, we see some 40 women playing, singing and dancing with beautiful purple scarves and another 20 men (and some women) drumming to accompany the dance. Without a second’s hesitations, they take the hand of a complete stranger and lead them into the dancing circle to become part of the swirl of beautiful sound and motion. Smiles abound and more than a few of the Western visitors are teary-eyed by the quality of welcome and the power of the occasion.

Soon after, the district chief comes in and we sit down to begin a formal ceremony of welcome. Kofi, our leader, ritually asks permission for us to be welcomed into the community, which the chief happily grants. The chief’s assistant then pours a ritual libation on the ground to ask permission of the ancestors to accept us and apparently they do. Two years ago, the same chief  asked four of our African-American students to come forward and blessed them and welcomed them to their ancestral home. This time, one of them returned and got sit close to the chief in acknowledgment that he had returned again to his home. (An African-American man who has to daily worry about getting pulled over for the crime of “driving while black” and nervous about policemen who might shoot and kill without reprimand.) Each of the 50 of us in the Orff-Afrique Course than got to come up one by one to shake hands with the chief and received a gift of a bracelet to remind us that he was happy to greet us and again, welcome us. More dancing and drumming and then off to lunch at Kofi’s extended family’s house, with a whole other set of open-armed welcome.

All of it feels so right without any self-conscious falderal about who cool these people were because they were so welcoming. It just was as simple as, “You are a visitor to a new place, a stranger in a strange land that should not feel strange because we see that you are a human being like us and we want to start any possibility of relationship with a sense of warmth and welcome. Why not? We don’t know you and perhaps you might be coming to take something from us or do us harm, but we won’t begin from that cynical assumption. Let’s start with the idea that indeed you come “with nothing up your sleeve” and enjoy our brief time together.

Meanwhile, back in the country where I come from, people trying to cross a border are being arrested and their children of all ages ripped away from their parents and put in detention camps of sorts with no sense of security that they will see their parents again. Yes, the situation is quite different, but really, how different? The bottom line is the simple humanity required to welcome someone is crossing the border because things are dangerous back home or they’re in search of a better life. And yes, it might be that we need to politely deny entrance because of limited resources and such, but there’s nothing in the manual that says we need to be as cruel as we are at the moment.

So here is an African-style welcome that far exceeds the generosity and good faith and simple humanity of our usual welcome to guests/tourists/ visitors and yet the majority of American people would parrot back their brainwashed images of Africans as underprivileged, violent, starving, dangerous and generally below the standard of us enlightened Americans. And they would parrot back the same brainwashed images of Americans as the best people in the world living the most enlightened and civilized lives. And they would be wrong twice. Terribly wrong.

Of course, there are welcoming Americans and devious Ghanaians, but here I’m talking about culture. What’s valued, what’s developed, what’s paid attention to. I know I’m failing miserably to convey the full effect of there three welcomes we’ve received in just two days and the stark, sad contrast with what our Toddler-in-Chief has set in motion with immigrant families, but take a moment to imagine each and then ask yourself: Who is the civilized group here? Who is the more decent kind of citizen? Who is the more humane culture?

Think about it.

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