Seeing Culture

What you see is what you get. . . . .

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across and hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

What do a sheep’s head, a crowded thoroughfare, and a hole in the ground have to do with each other? When you take your time to actually see your surroundings and meditate on them (instead of just looking at them), they begin to teach you culture.

Two days ago, I was running up a mountain in the early morning mist (training for a local trail run). At the top of this rocky slope is a viewpoint where you can see Toliara stretching out underneath, and just past that is a large hole in the ground.

It’s nothing special . . . just a hole in the ground with a lot of trash in it. Or is it?

The hole

On my way back from a Bible story-crafting group, I noticed a stand on the side of the road. A lady sat swinging a rag back-and-forth over a roughly constructed wooden table. On one side of the table was a neat mound of leafy greens, in the middle, boiled cassava root, still steaming underneath its plastic wrap. This lineup was then concluded by a severed sheep’s head, plopped prominently, if not unceremoniously, in a tin bowl. Let me just confirm, all these items were for sale.

I moved on from this to enter the clogged artery of rickshaws, people and freight trucks squeezing around each other on the main road. No one seems to be paying attention to each other. People cross the road with little more than a side-ways glance at the oncoming traffic. Both bodies and bicycle rickshaws are pressed as close together as possible. At the last minute, people and vehicles swerve ever-so-slightly to avoid certain collision. All this happens at such a pace and velocity of back-to-back snap judgements that I actually feel as if I’m entering into some kind of sentient organism. Is this hive mind?

The unpracticed eye might not make anything of these observations; they are events or arrangements of items that merely appear strange. If we’re especially not careful, we’ll start abstracting moral lessons from what we see: these people are trashy, not concerned with hygiene, unaware of proper social boundaries, etc. What we would be missing is the lessons these familiar scenes offer about Malagasy culture and the material reality from which their worldview arises.

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

Take the hole. On my second lap, I stopped and did my best Sherlock Holmes impression: I tried to not just see but to observe.

Approaching the pit it is clear there have been many visitors to this place. Smouldered remains are scattered all around: ashy rocks, blackened sticks, dark spots where flames have flickered, makeshift fires started in darkness. There are bits of tattered clothing left behind; the leftovers of a rope tethered to a root hangs limp by the edge of the hole. That’s where they tied it up, I think. Sure enough, a quick scan reveals a horn, chicken feathers, and oily, crimson stains along the mouth of the shale cavity.

It’s not just a hole, this is a place of sacrifice. And that’s not just trash. True, the hole is littered with plastic bottles of various shapes and sizes. Yet the spilled-out innards of those containers reveal they are charms, filled with earth and seeds and hair: bits of life brought together to forever alter it with other-worldly knowledge. This place is a symbol of animism. Spirit and material reality are a unified entity and even at a place that, at a glance, looks like a trashy hole in the ground.

Then there’s the seller’s table with the sheep’s head. Everything about the seller communicates hardscrabble ingenuity. The table is made from leftover scraps of wood. The roots and leaves of the humble cassava are sold and eaten as food. Even the base of the plant is dried and stored away to be planted next season. The best part, the thick, potato-like root, has been boiled and wrapped in dusty plastic, plastic that once encased high-priced filtered water bottles. Now, salvaged from the trash and repurposed, the plastic traps the heat of this staple food, boiled in dirty water. Nothing is wasted. The epitome of this is the sheep’s head. It is not sitting on the table as a ghastly warning. It is prime food. Like the cassava, animals are harvested for every valuable piece. Hide, hoof, and head, yes, even down to tongue and cheek, will be sold and eaten. Nothing is wasted because choices are limited.

And the roadside manner. People here are used to living very close together. Personal space has not been invented yet in Madagascar. I joke, but in many ways that is true. There is a connection between poverty, limited choices, and closeness. Affluence grants distance, independence, autonomy, true. But people with many choices do not have nearly the social IQ, they don’t have to. There is a certain paradox seen in the street where raised in interdependence are both highly aware of their own responsibility and yet simultaneously aware of others’ as well. I will step off the road just before you run me over, because ultimately I have to fend for myself. But I also know you will swerve just before you hit me, because ultimately it behooves you to keep yourself disentangled from me and my problems (which of course will end the moment you crash into me). The careening sea of humanity is humming along to the song of interdependency: sometimes discordant harmony of expectations and roles. And the worst thing someone can do is step into the middle of that song and try to belt out a solo. Most likely they will get hit by a bus, literally and figuratively.

The best way, then, is to notice these curiosities. Store them away and ponder them, like Mary, in your heart. Take your cue from Sherlock Holmes and learn the picture between the pieces, that s logic. Or like Annie Dillard marveling at the gift of sight and how often we do not make good use of it, don’t miss the daily miracles surrounding you. If we can practice seeing the people and place around us, we will finally know where we are and what it means. And we may even start to understand if and where we can fit in among these strange new scenarios.

I believe in every place and in every culture God has already placed an invitation for us to accept and join him in his work. But if you do not ever slow down, you may never see it.