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Becoming human

Story written during GLF 2017, a tribute to Bugonga community

Sohail Bawani, Pakistan

October 17, 2017 was the first day of our groups’ visit to Bugonga community. It was a disaster as we ruthlessly throw questions at the elderly people to document what they have been through during the lives and how HENU is helping them to revive. With much patience they gave us the time and energy to respond to our stupid questions.

This I realized during the debriefing session our group had after the visit. Where I was able to learn the difference between writing a ‘monographic review of communities’ to quote John Lean and the SALT approach to telling stories – which is all about connecting with the other so much so there is no boundaries are there between people. When the story teller is part of the story and not outside of the story. This is story is of not just ‘what I have learned’ in an intellectual way but about how this learning can transform your being and enable you to take action in your own lives. This is where I felt being chopped inside. My inner most core was devastated. The researcher in me died and a human being was born, which perhaps was there but was in hibernation.

The next day I was very relieved and relaxed. Free from the burden of capturing stories like an anthropologist; and was ready to meet and connect with people whom I felt a little connection while I was there in the meeting. This interaction on a deeper level I thought would be an ethical interaction where I did not want to extract anything from the other because a stupid funding agency or a project required them to be written and analyzed. I was there just to BE; to learn and listen; or if something emerges in my mind to share with the elderly people I am meeting. Whatever comes out of that encounter I will try to apply it to myself and will share with my friends, family and colleagues.

On October 18, 2017 I met Rose at her home she was very happy to receive us at home and offered black tea. She apologized for not offering us something to eat. She loved offering Morning Prayer and was excited to share her favorite bible verses. Her fascination for gardening was such that she asked us how we plough our fields and fertilize our gardens. We all shared our experiences. Contentment and smile on her face indicated that she liked this sharing. It was a surprise for her that moringa can be used as pesticide, a tree which is in abundance here in Uganda. She inquired how much quantity it should be used. She was also fascinated when I shared that moringa in Pakistan is used for improving quality of milk of buffaloes, cows, and goats. It seemed that it was a moment of transfer in language of SALT. The conversation on gardening suddenly changed the outlook of our being, as if in SALT way, we were near to that moment of ‘connection’ with Rose. But one could argue what connection is and what are measures of connection from humanistic perspective (here my little academician popped up in between).  

Rose shared that she makes brickets for fueling her stove and uses chicken fertilizer for her garden. This fascinated me and I could no longer resist asking her how she makes bricket and the fertilizer, which she generously explained with a sparkling smile. This was moment of learning for me as I suddenly realized that why in the Northern areas of Pakistan people chop woods for surviving the winters and fueling their stoves. Bricket is a highly sustainable alternative to wood fire for home consumption. Further, I also learned a new of composting my own backyard garden, and I was excited to share it with my wife at home who is so fond of composting and have tried several types of composting such as leave and warmy.     

From Rose’s home our group arrived at the Church in the Bugonga village. Christopher seemed eagerly waiting for our arrival. We both decided yesterday to meet at this place for a conversation. When we arrived, he took me to his village and to show how the village looks like. Juma, a friend of Christopher also accompanied us during the walk to the village. This walk was a bit of surprise. I was astonished to see the cleanliness of the roads. Even the small streets lanes were without a single hint of garbage. Which I realized is contradictory to what I see in the villages and squatter settlements I work.  

During the walk we met many young and old people and finally we arrived at an old woman’s house. The woman greeted us and offered some modest benches for seating. We all set and began our conversation.

I began with sharing my fascination and their strength: the cleanliness I observed during the walk. A woman whose name of Aliane said that ‘cleanliness does not come from money; even if you are poor you can be clean’. Christopher added to her comment and said that ‘even if you have a single piece of cloth you can be clean in that too’. Perhaps he meant that having more cloths or the capacity to buy new cloths does make you clean.

During the conversation I asked the Christopher, Juma, Daisy and Aliane whether they have any questions for me. Aliane was interested in knowing how in Pakistan people treat elderly? What happens to those old people who have not got any children? Christopher was eager to know how the youth in Pakistan are organized as he was concerned about delinquent youth in his communities. Juma was keen to learn about the types of livelihood we have in Pakistan? While Daisy wanted my suggestions on how to own a house of her own as she was in rented place. Further, they all shared their financial difficulties and how lack of money for instance for healthcare is bothering them.

I genuinely tried to listen and respond to their question with best of abilities. However, the common feedback that I received was this: ‘your country is like us…we are not different…it is same’. To me perhaps this moment was the connection with these people in terms of SALT; where they could find similarities.

With Daisy I shared my helplessness and my inability to respond to her query of how to own a house. In response I shared my own story of getting married and my father’s disapproval it; and how angry he was when I did the court marriage against his will and brought my wife to our house. The group was surprised to learn that my father threatened to get out of his house which I never did and was stringent on my position – I did not do anything wrong, it was my right. I shared that now I am looking for my own house but it is so expensive in Karachi. I added that I am saving some money bit by bit to get a small piece of land in other city so that at least we have shelter in case if my father throws me out of the house.

I also sought their responses on how to deal with my father’s situation as he does not speak to me to this date after that event. They were looking at my face with bewilderment (I had a huge inner laugh at that time :D).

The real transformation occurred to me when Christopher and Juma provided feedback on my encounter with them in the larger group. Christopher said ‘we felt that were at the same level’. Juma added that ‘he opened us up’ and ‘we felt no difference’. This made me thinking: what I did during the conversation that made them to realize this? This feedback was a surprise for me as I was not expecting this.     

During the self-dialogue a deeper learning occurred to me that perhaps I asked them mundane questions, questions that were about here and now and not about what they have been through in their lives – especially their sufferings. Maybe, I did not assume myself as an expert who can solve their perennial problems. But I was a curious person interested in appreciating what good things they are doing and how they are able to continue to do; and whether it can be transferred to other communities who may get benefit from practices in Bugonga village (not the least myself). For instance, how they are managing to make their environment so clean and whether this learning can be transferred to villages and slums in Pakistan. Perhaps, they could resonate their own struggles with my personal struggle with my elderly father, fear of homelessness, and the search for a proper shelter. Possibly, I made myself available to them as sincerely as possible to listen to what they wanted share and what I can share with them if something is worth sharing.

I have learned that the time I recollect the above process a shift occurred in myself: the analyst was no longer there casting nets on people’s lives as Karl Popper once said about theories; what was there was a person, vulnerable as Christopher, Juma, Daisy and Aliane were.  

When I left behind the sense of myself as an analyst, the people saw a different light in me.  

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Comment by Autry Haynes on October 27, 2017 at 1:42am

Dear Sohail, WOW!.....I have learned from your sharing this story. Not just the story but how it is presented and the deep meaning. While i shared the moment with you during this engagement I see a different side of our engagement. truly human. Am anxious now to learn from your future sharing of other experiences. Well done (^_^)

Comment by Autry Haynes on October 26, 2017 at 12:36pm

Dear Sohail, WOW!.....I have learned from your sharing this story. Not just the story but how it is presented and the deep meaning. While i shared the moment with you during this engagement I see a different side of our engagement. truly human. Am anxious now to learn from your future sharing of other experiences. Well done (^_^)

Comment by Loli Rey on October 26, 2017 at 7:33am

A great history Sohail. Reading your words I can feel your enthusiasm and deep sincerity. 

If we go to commaunaties as human being, you open the doors for mutual learning.

Thanks for this beautiful history. 

Comment by Célicia Theys on October 25, 2017 at 2:23pm

So, so beautiful Sohail! Your story brings to my mind this lesson, which echoes many experiences I've also had: "When we show up as human beings and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, then we encourage others to do the same and the result is authentic human connection"

Comment by Sohail Amir Ali Bawani on October 25, 2017 at 1:32pm

Thank you Rituu for your comment and validating what I have learned. I think whatever I will do, this consciousness will keep providing warmth, I hope forever :-)

Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on October 25, 2017 at 1:22pm

When one has has the courage to be oneself, to expose one's vulnerability,  to be human,  others begin to confide and share...that is when people connect. Your story has re-affirmed my experience. Its so much beyond participatory tools and questionnaires:-) 

Thank you Sohail for the reminder.

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