Sunday, July 24, 2011

Difficult Days

Four days a week I make peanut butter and jam sandwiches for kids. The other three days they get "biscuits" or cookies and juice drink when they come to visit. Somewhere around 20 boys and 8 girls come by each day, including a few little ones who only ask for half a sandwich. Each week, we use 4 kilos of peanut butter, 10 loaves of bread, and four large cans of jam, plus the juice drink and biscuits/cookie ingredients. It adds up.

Moses, my gardener, was in the house the other day when a big group of boys came asking for sandwiches. Perhaps he had overheard me exclaiming to Violet about how high my grocery bill was last week, or perhaps he was mad at the kids because someone had taken some of the tomatoes I was allowing to ripen on the vine. Whatever the reason, he started yelling at the kids. They shouted back, and before I could intervene, Moses had gone out on the porch an slapped one of the boys for being disrespectful.

I went out to put an end to the situation, but it was escalating out of control. I couldn't tell what they were shouting at one another because it was in Bemba, but the voices were loud and angry. One of the boys, visibly upset, ran to the field next door, picked up rocks and clods of dirt, and started throwing them at Moses, who continued to yell and shake his fist in a threatening manner. I stood between the warring parties and tried to make them stop, but it was several minutes before I was able to calm everyone down. The boy who was upset said that Moses had been insulting his father.

One reason it was so hard to resolve this situation was that we were dealing with cultural issues. In Zambia, it is acceptable for parents to beat their children. It is expected that children will respect and obey their elders. Even though I had told Moses that physical punishment is not permissible in my family and beatings are not allowed in America, he felt he was behaving appropriately. (Spare the rod and spoil the child.) The children know that I do not approve of yelling at them or striking them, so they felt free to go against the norm and challenge Moses. Once the conflict started, it gathered steam and only grew worse and worse.

I spoke with all the parties separately. Moses understood that I meant what I said about hitting children. I may not be able to prevent him from shouting, but there will be no more physical contact. The boys agreed that they needed to apologize to Moses and to show him respect in the future. I offered to teach them some non-violent problem-solving approaches during their school break.

Apparently the boys and Moses met and talked a couple of days after the incident, and things are calm again. And I do plan to follow up with some vacation activities with the kids. Constructive, non-violent problem-solving is a skill we all need to cultivate.

Just a few days ago, I heard about the tragic bombing and shooting spree in Norway in which nearly 100 people died. Most of them were youths who were at a camp on an island. One man, a native Norwegian who called himself a Christian, has admitted responsibility. As always, these incidents raise many questions. Before the perpetrator was identified, the bombing in Oslo was labeled as a "typical al qaeda attack." Once the shooter was found to be a native Norwegian, suddenly it was simply a "crazed individual." The evidence show that this was a carefully planned attack, not the sudden rage of a depressed or unbalanced individual.

Just as we try to keep track of the potentially dangerous al qaeda terrorists, I believe we need to recognize and watch the potentially dangerous far-right extremists (or any extremist, for that matter). And although I have heard no mention of it in any news reports, I suggest that we should be asking questions about access to automatic weapons and ammunition.

The one positive note in this situation was the report that among the many people who gathered at the cathedral in Oslo after the tragedy were many Muslim citizens. When asked why they were going into a Christian church, they said they wanted to show their solidarity and share in the grieving.

May that spirit of unity prevail in these difficult days.

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