Well, I’ve mentioned this before, but it is newly relevant for reasons that will become apparent. It’s about a curious realization I had one time in Africa.
In my thirties, I worked as a consultant for the US Peace Corps. In passing let me say that the Peace Corps is one of the finest foreign aid programs the US has. I’d encourage anyone to become involved with it at any level.
Anyhow, my task on this trip back in the 1980s was to do a cost-benefit analysis of some projects done by Peace Corps Volunteers in various villages out in the outback. My workmate and I were in yet another small village somewhere in the Sahel. It was a hot afternoon, and for some reason I had to walk the length of the village. I was likely contemplating the hoary song about how only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun, and since I clearly wasn’t English … here are a couple of photos I took on that trip.
I’d walked about half-way through, assessing the village. I’ve walked through a lot of villages in the developing world. Like people, villages have distinct personalities. Some are full of life. Some are bitter and lonely. Looking back, I’d describe the personality of this one as “poor and friendly”. I’ve been in “poor and unfriendly” villages, no bueno, but this was the opposite. Nice folks.
There were a lot of people of all ages that didn’t seem to have much to do other than check me out. Streams and eddies of kids. Every door was open, everyone looking out as is the custom in poor villages everywhere. The clothing for the kids was various scraps of cloth whose indeterminate ancestry was vaguely traceable to what passed for clothing on the adults. Like most African villages the women were dressed clean, and proud … but cheap thin cloth of the poorest grade.
For footwear, there were three choices. The majority vote was “None”. It won by a landslide. The rest were divided between cheap imported plastic flip-flops, or local sandals. In very few cases did anyone have more than one pair. If someone had two pair, yeah, they might own two pair, but their cousin wore the second best pair every day of the year except when the owner wanted them.
I remember the dust. I remember the sun. I remember every footstep coming down in fine soft dust with that funny “poof” sound that thick dust makes. I remember the cloud of dust coming up from each step, and dust sticking to my sweaty skin. I remember the sun, always the sun, and people wisely sitting in the shade.
And I remember the eyes—eyes looking back at me, lovely white eyes in gentle black faces, young mothers’ eyes in short shy glances, kids’ eyes sparkling with wonder, young men’s eyes taking my measure, old men watching under lowered lids, old women with soft sad eyes that had done far too much weeping, all the eyes …
And at some point I had a funny thought, a most curious thought, a thought I’d never had before.
I thought … I’ve won.
I looked around me. Here’s what I’d realized. Every person that I could see, every person looking at me and wondering about me, this is what I saw about them—every single thing that they wanted to have, every single thing that they wanted to be, the sum total of their craziest, wildest dreams … I had all of that, but not only that. What I had was way beyond that.
Here’s maybe the simplest example. I had my bush shoes on, the older comfortable ones that had lots of outback miles on them. They were far and away the nicest shoes in the whole village. No competition, nobody even close. My shoes alone made me rich in their eyes, they dreamed of having one glorious pair of shoes like mine in their short lives, just once to walk in them and see what it felt like …
But what they didn’t conceive of was that back at the hotel I also had my good working shoes and a pair of dress shoes for nice occasions. And back at my house in the US I had work boots, and rain boots, and sea boots, and my new bush shoes I was just breaking in, and snow boots, and sandals, and …
The same was true of every article of clothing I had on. I had shirts and shirts for all occasions and climates—dress shirts, t-shirts, wool shirts, warm shirts, work shirts, cool shirts … they had one tired shirt, bought from a 400-pound bale of used and reject shirts brought in by some trader from overseas, and maybe another shirt in reserve.
Same for everything I was wearing. Where they had one, I had twenty. And that was just what I was wearing.
I took stock. I had my youth and health. I had a college education. I had a good job, one of those things that are mythical in the world I was walking through. I was making in a day probably more cash than they saw in a year. I was being paid to get on a jet plane and go to strange countries and meet fascinating new people.
But wait, as they say, there’s more. Back home I had my gorgeous ex-fiancee. And I owned my own house. Not a big house, to be true … but then I built it myself with my own hands, and most importantly I owned it free and clear.
And I had a newish car, and an old pickup truck. I had a house full of furniture. I had a couple of nice guitars. I had boxes and boxes of tools of all kinds—carpentry, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, concrete, everything I’d used to build and plumb and wire my house. I was partners in a 27′ fishing boat. A somewhat old and tired boat, to be fair, but the fish didn’t care. I had a hard-to-get commercial salmon fishing permit.
Then there were the things I had that they’d maybe heard of but nobody they knew owned. Like say a bank account. Odds were very great that not one person among the dozens looking back at me as I walked that hot street had a bank account. Or a safe deposit box. A passport. Or how about say … credit? I could tap much more money than I had on hand.
I assure you, it was a strange feeling to be there with the sun beating down and me sweating like crazy and looking around and thinking that about half the people in the world live like this or worse … and I have everything they’ve ever dreamed of, everything they’ve wished for, and a whole lot more, stuff that their dreams don’t even have room for. I thought, I’ve done it! I’ve made it! I’ve won!
My life changed on that day. I was released from some kind of striving, some kind of grasping, some kind of push to be first. The most curious change for me was contemplating a new question I’d never had to face … what does a man do once he’s won?
Well … after some contemplation, my choice was to give it away. Not like “Give everything to the poor”, but to give away my assistance, and my joy, and my abilities, and my support, and my knowledge to anybody who was interested.
One of the changes was I took up a new slant on life. Here’s what I found out:
I can accomplish anything if I don’t care who gets the credit.
It’s why I don’t worry about copyright or primacy of publication or the like. If someone wants to take an idea of mine and say it’s theirs, or take it and use it to good effect, more power to them. I cast my ideas on the electronic winds, they are there for anyone to take as their own.
Regards to all, me and the gorgeous ex-fiancee are off on a rainy night to listen to our friend play sax in a Tower of Power tribute band … like I said … all the things that half the world dreams of but never realistically hope to have …
And for all of you, I can only wish that you notice your own position in the wide world of global winning-ness and that you adjust your gyroscopes accordingly …
PS—My Usual Request: If you disagree with someone please QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS YOU OBJECT TO. Otherwise, there’s often no clue to exactly what is being discussed.