“Just Tell Them Our Stories”
From a journal entry, written after a recent visit with a politician to discuss Canada’s role in the nation of Colombia—a country I visited this past April as part of a Mennonite Central Committee Learning Tour.
So this is what they look like, these “official” buildings. A flag in front of the building. A cheery reception area with sun pouring through large windows. A bright, attractive receptionist who steers me toward a comfortable chair and brings weak coffee in a paper cup. We make polite conversation. I go over my notes.
And then, right on time, I meet the politician. My first “official” visit with a real politician! More polite conversation, introductions, questions. He seems like a nice enough fellow. Young, trim, engaging. He has a big desk and impressive looking pictures of important looking people throughout his office. He has a Blackberry. He has many meetings. He is a busy man. I will have half an hour.
Half an hour. Where to begin? I remember what we heard from the people we met in Colombia… Just tell our stories… Tell them what you saw. I shuffle my papers and clear my throat. I can do this. This man is an influential person—he sits in a big chair in a big building in a big city, and he argues about important things with other important people with big chairs. He looks a bit intimidating. But I’ve done my research and I have many interesting and important things to tell him. He needs to hear these stories—needs to know how big business and free trade affect those who aren’t very big or free.
Half an hour.
He doesn’t know much about Colombia, he says, so I begin to tell him. I tell him about the trip I went on, about big Canadian mining and displaced farmers, about confusing and harmful refugee policies. I talk about free trade agreements and the many and complex ways these affect the people I met. I tell him about hollow-eyed little boys and girls living in tin shacks with little to eat and little to hope for. I tell him about the violence that goes on and on and about the vulnerable people this affects. I tell him about vast tracts of land left desolate and those who must live in the wake of decisions made by important people in far away shiny office buildings with paper cups and weak coffee.
He nods earnestly. He asks a few questions. He thanks me for bringing this to his attention. He asks if I am aware of an upcoming presentation on abortion and a debate about “when life begins.” I shuffle my papers again. No, I was not aware.
I shake hands with the politician. I thank him for his time and for his ear. He asks for some of my material on Colombia and I promise I will send it. Perhaps he will bring it up. We will see.
My mind turns to a conversation with an MCC worker while in Colombia. I was trying to sort out the various armed groups, who was fighting who and for what reason, etc. She began to explain it to me, but then said, “But really, these are pretty arbitrary divisions. At the end of the day, everyone is just fighting for resources and power. That’s it.” Not political causes or “the revolution” or the government or “the people” or equality or ____. Just resources and power.
I walk out of the important government office and I wonder about the arbitrary lines that we draw and the words that we use. Free trade. Democracy. Development. Investment. Human rights. Sustainability. Bilateral relations. Security. Cooperation. All these words, all these lines… Who can say what they mean? Who can say if they mean anything at all? At the end of the day, only two words matter: resources and power. Whether it’s armed groups in the jungles of Colombia or important businessmen and politicians with their big desks and their Blackberries, whether it’s guns and threats or policies and initiatives, it’s all about resources and power.
I think again about the people of Colombia, and I feel sad. So many with no resources and no power. So few with all the resources and all the power. Nothing new here, but heartbreaking, all the same. These are not numbers, not statistics, not impediments to development, not situations to be “managed.” They are human beings. But I suppose human beings have always taken a back seat to resources and power.
Just tell them our stories… Tell them what you saw…
Yes, I can do that. For you. But your stories seem so small in important buildings with big desks and busy people. They seem so far away and hard to tell in the presence of other, more impressive and “official” stories about numbers and reports and international relations and dollars and cents and resources and power.
I think of other words, from other far away stories, other stories not always easy to tell. Words like “blessed are the poor,” “swords into ploughshares,” “last shall be first,” and “not so among you.” I am encouraged to hope and believe that small and unimpressive sounding words and stories that originate far from the halls of power are sometimes the most important words and the most hope-filled stories of all.
I took the photo above in April at a kids’ club in a slum south of Bogotá. It is a picture drawn by a little girl who attended the programs there. The four words are translated “peace” (paz), “life” (vida), “equality” (igualdad), and “joy” (alegria). Four small words on a wall far from the halls of power… Four huge and hopeful words.