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Parker: A Lesson in Civility from a “Developing” Nation

Ross Parker

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office
 
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

A recent trip with a dozen friends to Malawi in southeastern Africa provided much food for thought about the meaning of the character of a nation.

We were a group of well meaning but amateur voluntourists from a nation many consider to be the most advanced civilization in the world and we were traveling to one of the world’s poorest countries. Our objective was to help a rural village build a school but, along the way, we brought home some perplexing thoughts about our two countries’ value systems.

By any conventional and objective measurement, Malawi is a desperately poor people who have little educational opportunity, are largely undernourished, live a short life expectancy, and have limited health and medical care. They live on about a dollar a day. In the rural areas where 85% of the population lives, few have electricity or ready access to clean, running water.

What kind of reception could we from the Land of Conspicuous Consumption expect in such a place? Particularly in a time when Americans seem to be increasingly vilified around the world.

“We love you, Muzungus,” (Bantu for people of European descent) came the joyous cries of children in village after village as we traveled along the rutted dirt road to our project. Nor was this friendly reception limited to children. Adults out gutting a goat or tending a garden would pause, smile and wave to these strangers who had nothing to offer but a return wave.

After 17 days of this, we could only conclude that people in Malawi are just plain nice. Nice to each other, and nice to visitors whether they bear gifts or not.

This experience was disconcerting for Americans who are becoming increasingly accustomed to the erosion of civility in our daily lives. Let’s face it, in all walks of life in America people are less and less civil to each other.

On line discussions and transmissions are commonly vile. Most of us have tuned out politicians who would rather demonize than compromise. Bullying is a rite of passage in school. Rage on our roads, throats cut in business, rude customers, stressed out elementary children, drugs for recreation and anaesthetisation.

One day while we were shopping for supplies in the market of Mangochi, a medium sized city, I got separated from the Muzungu Bus. As I was wandering around, a young guy realized my plight, helped me on the back of his bicycle, and we toured around until we sighted my colleagues. I tried to give him a few kwacha but he just smiled, patted me on the back and pedaled off. Each of us could tell a dozen such stories of kindness.

That’s why they call their country the “Warm Heart of Africa.” I guess.

There is considerable debate about the benefits of these kinds of projects in “developing” Third World nations. No doubt there is a serious negative potential from those which are poorly conceived and without local control and participation.

But consider the phenomenon from a different perspective.

Countries like America which seem to be “developing” in the wrong direction need all the help we can get from civilizations that have learned that, even in the most difficult life circumstances, people can be polite, generous, and civil to each other.

 


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