We are not often inspired to think deeply and contemplate life when faced with the mundane routines of the everyday. We call those dull moments ‘mind numbing’ and get through them in a semi-coma like state, hardly realising the excitement of life is passing us by. I admit that on rare occasions a meaningful insight might pop into mind during one of these dazes, but more often it is the strange and unusual situations we stumble into, the truly unordinary, that suddenly make us look at life from a different angle. It’s in those moments that the fog of the mundane lifts and we can come to a more clear realisation of what life is really about.
And so my story begins with the mundane.
I heard my name. “Carlos!”
It’s just a dream.
But then again. “Carlos!” And again, louder this time, “CARLOS!”
I opened my eyes and groggily checked the time. It was almost 2 A.M. I heard a heavy rain rattle the tin roof above my head. It had rained hard last night as well, I thought to myself.
“CARLOS!”This time with a heavy knock at my door.
The sudden understanding that it was my neighbour, Abel, yelling my name to wake me up at 2 in the morning got me out of bed and walking to the door quickly.
Something’s happened, I worried.
I opened the door to see him standing there, flashlight in hand and clothes dripping from the rain. A foot behind him, to my great surprise, was the river. And then I understood.
His house, only a few meters from mine but which sits a few feet lower, was already flooded. Overnight the river had risen higher than I had ever seen it before. We waded through the water to start moving things from his house to mine when I heard laughter. I looked up and at Abel’s door floated up a canoe, at least 50 ft away from where the river had been flowing only a day before. In it were three youth from the village, standing confidently in the narrow dug-out log, counter-balancing each other with the long paddles in their hands, a bright almost mischievous look in their eyes. You could tell that despite their soaking wet clothes and the hectic running around that was taking place in the flooding house, they were having fun. After all, it’s not often they got to head out in the middle of the night and canoe right up to someone’s door. The mundane cycle of their night time routine was broken in a most fantastic way.
Behind them, in the darkness of the night, I could see other canoes passing back and forth through the mud square where children usually play soccer in the afternoons. The water there was now well above a grown man’s head. As I looked closer I could see that these canoes weren’t simply going around to get a better look at the flooding homes, no, they were laden with those homes’ possessions, going back and forth in the night to get everything important to higher ground, safe from the ever rising water. There were so many of them. Big ones sitting low in the water, heavy with stoves and fridges. Small ones carrying boxes of clothes and photo albums. The whole village seemed to have woken up together to help those who were being hit hardest, those whose homes had water already up to the roofs.
It was a strange and unusual situation I had stumbled out of bed to witness and be a part of. Truly unordinary. And then the metaphorical fog lifted.
These possessions that my friends were frantically loading onto canoes, possessions they had worked so hard to buy and make and which were material representations of the very real blood, sweat and tears they had shed working on their farms, would have been washed away and destroyed if they did not possess something much more important and valuable beforehand: community.
It’s not a ground-breaking revelation, I know that, and I knew it in the moment as well, but seeing that idea so tangibly displayed before me made the thought ever more visceral. Community, when it comes down to it, is what truly gives our life value.
We have this strong desire, impossible to dismiss, to seek out and be with people who look like us, talk like us, think like us or whatever other permutation of possible similarities we can find in another person. I think it’s because the people around us act as mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected. It is only through meaningfully interacting with people, that is being a part of community, that we can see who we really are and get to know and understand our own worth. The more diverse our community the more reflections of self we can see. Through this process we come to feel whole, and we like that, so we seek it out wherever we go, like a white African who grew up in suburban Canada who finds community in an Afro village along a jungle river in Northern Ecuador. No matter where we find ourselves we can’t shake that desire to connect with the person beside us.
There are some cultures around the world who seem to understand the great importance of community more than others. The Shona of my native Zimbabwe, for example, cherish and pass down their philosophy of Unhu, more widely known by it’s Zulu name, Ubuntu. It’s the concept of acknowledging ones own humanity through the recognition and affirmation of the humanity of another. The idea that I am only because of who we are.
I saw this philosophy so clearly put into practice that night. People whose homes were high on the hills were coming down to help those who lived on the river’s edge because they understood that if their friends were less than whole, so were they. They didn’t have to be asked to help, they just instinctively knew that that’s what’s done in a community. That instinct that comes with seeing it acted out day after day their entire lives. In that respect we see that maybe the mundane isn’t merely a coma inducing bore. It serves a very real purpose because community doesn’t always come easily. It takes time and effort. The manifestations of community that touch us so deeply, like the one I saw that night, come only after the members of that community have served and stood beside each other through the mundane, through being together and living and growing up together through everything that comes with living in a small, remote village: slogging through the thick red mud; the hours spent chatting in the afternoon sun until you know almost everything there is to know about a person; communally raising each other’s children; building each other’s houses; working on each other’s farms; standing waist deep in the river for hours on end washing your families’ laundry together; fighting racism, stigma and inequality together. These are the everyday things that build up a community that’s strong enough to come together in the middle of the night, get out of bed and step out into the cold rain with a long oar in hand and work together until the danger is passed.
My friends have built a strong community, tucked away in the jungle. It’s made up of many unique individuals that come together to form a common identity. An identity that is colourful, loud, industrious, tough and loving. It is a beautiful identity that allows people who look into it to see their own inner beauty reflected back at them. I can say that with confidence because I’ve experienced it for myself. The best thing about community is that it exists everywhere. We need only seek it out and be bold enough to be an active part of it.
I am so grateful to this community who show me time and time again that I am only because We are.