Are we really that smart?

I recently moved to dry and sunny Southern Alberta with treeless mountains and gullies.  This landscape started a chain reaction of memories leading to my life in a small village in Lesotho in Southern Africa and back to Canada and Toronto”s search for a new land-fill site.   It was in 1969 in a small isolated village where I learned Sesotho – the language of the country.  I loved the way
its address was written – "Cana via Tyatyaneng".  We lived in a 150 year old mission station away from any urban center.   The house was built next to a church and a primary school.  We received lessons from a French missionary in the mornings using a text book written by an English woman.  We spent afternoons walking around the village and talking with people.  It was intended to be an opportunity to practice the language we learned in the text book.   We enjoyed looking and walking around more than practicing the language.

The village primary school had about 300 children.  Some of them were boarders from far away villages.  It was wonderful to hear them singing at night.  There was no book, nor radio, nor TV.  So singing and dancing were the only entertainments for them.  And it was good.  When I heard a South African singing  group "Black Mombazo", I remembered those nights going to bed hearing children singing in the mountains of Lesotho.  They sounded like that.  It didn”t take me too long to notice that there was no washroom in the school compound. Children fetched water from the one and only water tap in the village enjoying visits with other
people while waiting for their turns at the water tap.  So,  I knew how the washing part of the toilet was taken cared of.   But what about other things?    "Where do they go?"  I wasn”t sure if it was an OK thing to ask such a question, so I didn”t.   I had not figured that out until I got talking with a Canadian doctor who was working for a hospital run by our partner church – the Lesotho
Evangelical Church.   Doug Abby came from sunny Okanagan, B.C.  He and I often had fun talking about some of the silly things  foreign "development jet-setters" did while trying to "civilize" Africa.  One  day the topic was the toilet.   "Latrine" was the favorite word used by the aid agencies in their project proposals.  It didn”t seem that any explanation was needed why the latrine had to be built in every public institution.  It was a common sense first step towards "civilization";  to build an outhouse everywhere there were people.  But Doug  surprised me.  He said that it was a stupid idea in some parts of  Lesotho to build the outhouse.  He argued: "The country is poor and land is badly eroded.   But the Sun is plentiful.   It is hot and strong, and shines all the time like it does in Okanagan."  If anything, the Sun was too much and that created problems.  Drought was a constant threat.  And in such a place,  Doug thought that the way "they go" traditionally was very sensible.  I didn”t get it.  "What do you mean?" I asked.

"Have you noticed school kids taking a walk one by one towards donga?" Doug asked.  Yes, I did notice that.  I thought that they were just having a nice walk.  "Donga", by the way,  is the word for the gully.  In Alberta and interior of the Northwestern States, they call it "coulee".  It”s a crevasse which is created by erosion, often the result of over grazing and/or  deforestation.  Every rain sweeps scarce top soil away into the rivers and into the ocean, because there was no vegetation to stop it.  Donga is  a part of the familiar landscape in Lesotho.   They are everywhere.    They made the country looking like  a wrinkled face of a very old person.  People may call them "Moonscape".  Some of them are very deep and wide, but others are 6 feet deep or less and narrow.   You can jump in and out of them easily.  You can have privacy there.  It”s where a boy meets a girl.  Doug said, "They go,  in the donga."  I didn”t know that.  Polite people don”t tell us about their bathroom habits, I guess.  Doug continued,  "The Sun is so strong that it kills all germs in minutes.   It can kill you too, if you stay out in the Sun too long.  In a few hours, cow dung becomes cooking fuel.  It”s very clean.  But if you build a community outhouse, you create an instant germ factory.  It”s dark and warm in there.  Germs do very well there, thank you very much."  Of course, this life-style would not work in populated urban situations.  But
Doug had a point or two.  Every place has its own unique and appropriate ways, and the other people”s ways are not always good in every situation.  The so-called civilized solution does not always work everywhere, and can even make the existing situation worse.  Doug”s another point which is an important lesson for the technologically advanced people like us is that, in Western
civilization, we often don”t take responsibility for the consequence of our own actions.   But we must.  We must realize that our "civilized" life-style often lets us forget about the mess we leave behind, just like the same way we flush the toilet.  Somebody has to take care of  it, but we think it is not our problem.  We ignore the mess that is there in a dark and warm pit.   It will come
back to haunt us sometime.

We had a foster child for a few years.  He was fascinated by the toilet, as we began to toilet-train him.  Every time he flushed it, he looked at the whole process with intense fascination.  When it”s all gone, he would declare, "All gone!" and sigh.   He thought it was an absolutely amazing magic.  "Where does it go?" he asked.  "Sewage," I said.  "Where does the sewage go?"  "To the river," I said.  But I didn”t tell him that we drunk that water and ate the fish that lived in that river.  I knew that, but I didn”t want to talk about it.   We know that it isn”t "all gone, " but pretend that it is.  How long can we keep pretending that the mess we create is taken cared of?  

My Old Testament Professor in Japan studied in Germany during the Nazi era.  He told us about his visit to the sewage treatment plant in Berlin which was the pride and joy of the Nazi regime.  They claimed it to be another example of the greatest achievements of German science.  I suppose it was a rare thing during the thirties of the last Century.  He was shown a glass of water.  It was the end result of the sewage treatment process.  The guide asked my professor if he wanted to drink it.  "It is absolutely clean.  In fact, it is cleaner than tap water," he said.  But my teacher could not drink it, because he saw how the intake had looked like.  I guess it is our blissful ignorance that lets us forget what we put into our environment, and drink and eat out of it.  I belong to the generation who saw our lives progressed from the outhouse to the indoor plumbing, from the septic tank to the municipal sewage system.  We think the progress is wonderful.  It makes life more convenient at every step and makes our life cleaner and more sanitary; sort of  "more civilized."  But we forget that often what we call ”progress” is shifting responsibility to others without asking if it is OK to do that.  We think it”s "all gone."  But it isn”t all gone.

We are brainwashed to assume that progress is always good and wonderful.  We have to realize that it isn”t always so.  We must think deeply what progress means and what it is doing, not just now, but for the future.  I love to remember and retell the story about an old African wise gentleman who didn”t want to take the ride which was offered to him.  One hot day, an old man
was sitting by a dusty mountain road looking very tired.  An eager young foreigner stopped his Land Rover and offered him a ride.  But the old man said, "No."  The foreigner didn”t understand it.  So he insisted.  The old man said, "I walked a long way.  I sit here waiting for my spirit to catch up with me."  I am not against progress.  I am not a Ludite.  But I happen to think that we all have to stop and think about the consequence of  the steps we take.   Stewardship is not only about setting priorities and give money to church.  I think it is also about being responsible .


Tad Mitsui
February 6, 2001
Lethbridge, Alberta

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