I once met a man when I was 14. He was drunk on homemade spirits at a clandestine rooftop get together in a country where alcohol is and was illegal. Everyone else was chatting away and he was sitting close to the edge by himself enjoying the night enshrouded city view before us.
He was quiet for the longest time and I stood nearby half in fear that he may take the plunge. I knew that this man was from Lithuania, that he was royalty of sorts and that he was pledged to enter the Catholic church to be a priest due to him being the youngest male in his family. He’d fled his home and family destiny to become a pilot. With that kind of background, I wasn’t going to take my chances, even though I was 14 and he was a giant. I was pretty sure I could stop him if he chose to dive. At 14 we are all invincible.
As time passed the background voices faded and he started to talk. What he said, even though a bit slurred, had such a profound effect on me. Still, to this day, it shapes many of the decisions I make and ultimately shaped me into the person I am today.
You know nothing, nothing at all until you have traveled and have seen how the other people live, breathe, and be. You grow up thinking this is poverty, this is rich, this is kindness, this is peace and this is chaos. But you know nothing. Nothing.
It seemed that the last word he uttered lasted for an eternity only interrupted by his intermittent snores and grunts. As he slept in his drunken stupor I stood speechless for what he’d said hit me in every way possible.
I’d just traveled half the world with my 7-year-old brother to visit our mother in Kenya and then on to where she was at that time, based in the Middle East. It was our first international flight by ourselves and a huge adventure but also the first thing I thought of as the drunken man slept.
I am from a diverse African country, one which had just gone through Apartheid and one that had a lot of poverty. I had seen things that no child should see and have experienced things no child should ever experience. That was the sum of my world.
But Kenya, beautiful Kenya, had gone through something different yet similar. It was an African country also colonized by Britain but left in a different state. They had the Mau Mau uprising where white colonists were hunted, they had corruption and they too had poverty.
Driving through the rolling hills Ngong in the Great Rift Valley, seeing men in suits walking miles upon miles to get to work without complaint as it was work, women with buckets of water on their heads and smiles on their faces as they walked the miles back home in order to cook dinner. Shacks so close together no one could walk in between, children playing on the sandy paths barely clothed yet happy. It was different to the poverty I had known back home in turbulent South Africa.
During the week we were there they also held an Election. For 2 days we couldn’t leave the house in fear for our lives, back in those times elections often turned violent and the death toll would be the highest with indiscriminate killings and being of the wrong color or wrong tribe. It was a turbulent time in Africa, a time we all try to forget. At this point in time, I had never seen or heard that a government could rig an election or be so corrupt. My eyes were opened.
What the man had said made sense and stayed with me when I traveled to England after the Middle East. Here everyone didn’t smile as much yet there was so much freedom. All races were walking around busy with their days, everywhere you looked there were shops, restaurants and more shops. History older than my country stood on every corner, ancient castles, bridges in songs I had learned as a little kid, cops with funny hats and trains that ran underground!
In England no one was rioting with burning tires, no one was killing each other over the tribe they were from, no one seemed to be hungry or walking miles upon miles to get water or food. People seemed free to speak, free to listen to whatever music they had. Man did they have a lot of music choices.
I found myself absorbing every last bit I could during my trip to England, sights, sounds, tastes and everything else I experienced and savored with my new found knowledge that I knew absolutely nothing. Nothing.
I haven’t stopped seeing, tasting, learning and experiencing. I never forget that although I may think I know so much and I may be oh so wise, the truth is I still know nothing.
With each new country and place I visit, I learn something new about the world. How I grew up in South Africa is not normal for everyone else, our culture, our superstitions, our food, our lifestyle is different. Does it mean that my country isn’t perfect?
I have learned that no country is perfect, no one is better than anyone else, we are all unique, both country and self.
Who are we to judge another for who they are or where they come from? Especially if we have not taken the time to see how the other lives, if we have not experienced their culture, their lives, and walked a mile in their shoes.
In order to truly learn something, we have to accept that we know nothing, leave our perceptions and preconceived ideas on the fence.