Story from Madagascar N°4.
I wanted to break down those walls.
We were told in advance what to expect. We were told of the villagers’ customs, beliefs, taboos, and even expectations, in detail. We were told how to act, how to respond, all in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’.
I had no idea what ‘cultural sensitivity’ meant and I couldn’t be bothered with petty details that separated me from Kristiny and Sasa and the other increasingly familiar faces.
Eirik and I spent a good deal of our nights talking about the meaning of it all. On that particular night of August the 20th, barely two weeks into our adventure, we sat in front of our house and started our usual discussions. This time, we wondered if the differences in cultures were as great as they seemed. After all, here we were, one Norwegian and one Lebanese, told to expect cultural oddities from Malagasies as if we didn’t have any significant differences between ourselves.
It didn’t take long for us to agree on the big lie that was in front of us all along: cultural differences were meaningless; the universality of human belonging was all.
We had come to this conclusion after Eirik recalled his emotional day.
He had spent the afternoon with one of the village Elders and told me that, upon entering the Elder’s house for a cup of coffee, he was thanked. When asked for what, the Elder told him: “For respecting me even though I am poor.”
Eirik didn’t know how to respond. He cried.It was as if this kind, smart, amazing man of respectable social status had automatically assumed that he would be beneath deserving Eirik’s respect.
When he told me,I sat still and didn’t say anything. How would I have reacted? In the same way, probably. We were both experiencing the very real shock that came when the walls were destroyed. We couldn’t believe how surreal and yet very real our encounters were. We were talking to these people, these people who are supposed to be different because of someone’s interpretation of economics and its importance.
We knew them, better and better every day, but we didn’t know how to react to their kindness. We had been on our guard “just in case”. But were now leaving our doors unlocked, open to anyone who wished to enter, anyone who wished to harm us. But no one did, we were safe all along. We finally realized it.
Breaking down the class barrier wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to act in an ‘appropriate’ way, do what we were told to do and leave feeling satisfied. But we had to break it.
We’d been there for over two weeks but were barely starting to really live. We were still the tourists, the Vazaha, the rich foreigners pretending to be living with the poor locals all the while respecting ‘cultural sensitivities’ as if they had their own mysterious raison d’être. This couldn’t go on any longer. It simply couldn’t.
As we came to our conclusion, Kristiny and Sasa passed in front of us, sending us ‘Salama’s before disappearing in the dark. They were probably going to get water from the nearby well. At that moment, I saw two Lebanese girls and two Norwegian girls doing the exact same thing. I smiled.
I realized that Kristiny was my own personal trigger, just as the Elder was for Eirik. Through accepting her, through accepting him, we discovered everyone else, ourselves included. If I hadn’t killed these walls, I would have never allowed my privileged self to get closer to her. The indifferent separation wall that we erected to protect us from potentially ego-damaging encounters and sightings had to go.
A few moments later, Kristiny and Sasa came back, each with a bucket of water on her head.
And at that moment I realized that the walls were destroyed.
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