What does either one of these things have to do with the other?
Everything, when two strangers who both work for an international organization meet for dinner in an unlikely part of town.
I love Italian cuisine—in very small doses. By day 4, my palate and dosha, based on the ayurvedic principles where the body is composed of five elements—air, fire, water, earth and space—are craving fire: i.e., spice.
When my newly acquainted colleague-to-be suggests that we have a working dinner, I’m delighted at the prospect of going to the sole Chinese restaurant, hidden on a tiny cobbled street behind the main cathedral in the center of Brindisi, just a stone’s throw away from a military base and seaport.
You see, he is about to be assigned to my present locale for three months: Bangui, Central African Republic. After sharing about the practicalities of the place—what to bring, what to expect and how to keep oneself mentally and spiritually together in an environment that is brutally challenging, we progress to other topics.
From Kerala, I share with him that during my time in India in 2009 that I spent nearly three months there. “Why?” he asks. “Well, my real passion and calling is yoga.”
“Is this how you maintain a spiritual base in Bangui?” he probes as his eyes also light up, revealing to me that feeling of gratitude that one feels when you’ve met someone with whom you can relate.
In our world of peace-keeping and peace-building, such encounters are special gifts. This is not to say that the most of our colleagues are roaming around unconsciously. Let’s just say that they may choose to have other coping/numbing mechanisms to handle the magnitude of uncertainty that we often court while working in ambiguous environments.
Our meal arrives and perhaps the only notion it satisfies is that it is neither pizza nor pasta. The petite waitress tries to appease us with providing an equally bland hot sauce.
As my appetite continues to be satiated by our riveting exchange, we’ve shifted gears from yoga to political systems, Communism in particular. Together we agree that there may be some merit to this system insofar as humanity’s basic needs of food, shelter, education and access to healthcare are largely met. We both hasten to add that this is not an opinion that we’d openly share with others and agree that it is not a matter of exclusivity of communism or capitalism, but rather where we are able to find and live within the balance of both. Neither [ideology] is entirely bad or good; both have failed to deliver, leaving the world in a quandary of, what’s next?
Our meal concludes and we both acknowledge each other for the stimulation that our exchange has provided.
It will be his first time in Africa—oh yes—there’s a tiny smattering about cricket that shows up in our conversation—given that we share the same British colonial legacy. Thankfully we digress quickly from it. I’m relieved that he doesn’t appear to have a passion for cricket, as it certainly isn’t one I share!
I tell him that my experience of Francophone Africa, solely through my time spent in CAR, has been polar opposites from what I’ve encountered in Anglophone Africa. I commiserate with him and encourage him to take some time to discover other parts of Africa with whom we share a similar colonial legacy.
As we arrive at my hotel and are about to bid each other farewell, he inquiries, “have you read the Bible from cover to cover?” This question startles me on two counts: (1) in an exchange with my mother a couple of days earlier, she implored me to read my Bible more and now (2) here I was with a Muslim stranger who was encouraging me to do as my mother implored.
I respond to him by sharing that while I’ve read several passages throughout my lifetime, I’ve not read The Good Book as my father often refers to it, from to Genesis to Revelation.
He smiles and comments that it may serve as a sound basis and compliment to my spiritual practice. Initially, I feel resistance towards his suggestion, almost as though a boundary has been over-stepped.
Reflection upon our varied exchanges as I say my prayers prior to bed that night reveals that precisely what I often say – it is human nature to fear that which we do not understand—is what his invitation has brought up for me.
Confronted by my own self, I realize, is this not the same way that I accuse those who project their fear-based misunderstandings onto me out of a lack of their own understanding?
In other words, how can I judge that of which I lack an informed knowledge and understanding?
I am reminded of one of my favorite mantras:
Seek to understand rather than to be understood.
This is the essential ingredient that the world, especially those of us working in the field of humanitarianism lack and need right now.
I smile at the beautiful irony of this encounter—that I, a female Jamaican purporting spirituality, am being encouraged by a Muslim, Indian male to read the Christian Bible.
I embrace these seemingly ordinary encounters that evoke extraordinary lessons; especially possible when we are willing to stay open to all that is, devoid of judgment and attachment and brimming with peace and love.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta