Occasionally, we learn lessons that become unforgettable. I can't help of thinking of this moment in Africa a year ago. I'm using the post again this morning after reading
"Freeing Christians From Americhristianity," a webpost by John Pavlovitz.
I have come to believe that Mohammad Atta and his suicide gang of 9-11 hijackers have inflicted upon me and most of America a frightening case of PTSD.
I'm embarrassed to admit this, but in Africa I was in airports where it's entirely possible that myself and the two men I was traveling with were the only passengers going up the walkway who weren't Muslim.
Seriously. The association that I can make--and do, altogether too quickly--is that a Muslim and an airplane instantaneously create a cocktail I'll turn down in a heartbeat. After all, if the Muslim beside me is not a terrorist, he most certainly still harbors this god-awful hatred of me, a white American who's a Christian on top of it. You sit at an airport gate surrounded by a hundred Muslims, and you start praying even if you haven't prayed your way onto a plane in years.
It was, I hate to admit, more than a little disconcerting to be way out in the hinterlands in Mali or Ghana or Niger and realize that, for the most part, the many people I was meeting were Muslim, all of them--or at least most of them.
The very first night I spent at a rural clinic had my head spinning because the men and women in the waiting area of the hospital were, by and large, all Islamic. The women were dressed in the most vivid African colors, all dolled up for the big religious holiday, Tabaski; and the men, some of them anyway, probably the really religious ones, looked as if they had just stepped out of some grainy film from the French Foreign Legion.
Okay, there was probably only one other white person in the vicinity, and for some guy from the white and wintery upper Midwest to be so severely outnumbered is, well, daunting.
But it wasn't the African thing, not racial. It was the Muslim thing that had me unsettled, the sheer numbers.
So we're walking away up the road, the clinic behind us, and I just can't help feeling I'm in the presence of some danger. Ebola is one thing, after all; Islamic fanaticism is yet another. This whole huge congregation of Muslims all around me has me worried. We're not all that far from Nigeria either--kidnappings, ransoms, rape, and bombings. Some rogue Islamist fanatics might just show up here. An old white guy like me has to be pretty fair game.
So I turned to Dr. John Boeteng, the CEO of the place, a beautiful Christian man walking up the road beside me. He may not like this characterization, but think of him as big, black angel with salt-and-pepper sideburns, the man whose vision and industry and commitment created St. Luke's Hospital in rural Kasei, Ghana. I told him how strange it felt for me, an American, to be in the company of so very many Islamic people. Okay, let's be frank--I told him it was difficult for me not to be a little scared.
The belly laugh he gave me wasn't at all angelic, but it was authentic, and it was real, and it was a blessing, medicine for the soul. And then he said something that came out of heart of his own people and culture and language; and he said it in the language of the people.
He looked at me as if I was the looniest white man he'd ever seen, and he just kept laughing.
"Translation?" I said.
"Among my people," he told me, "we like to say that the man who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm."
Then he laughed more. Not so much at me, but at what he considered the sheer madness of my being scared of the patients his clinic has been serving for a quarter century. Preposterous, he might have said. Impossible. You got to be kidding.
I should have recorded the belly laughs. Right now, I'd love to have you hear them.
The next Sunday we found ourselves in the middle of big Muslim holiday, Tabaski, a celebration of the sacrificial lamb given to Abraham in the wilderness when he was ready, at God's own command, to butcher his son for the sacrifice God had required. Hundreds of sheep were slaughtered in the streets of the village where we celebrated that holiday, thousands, I'm sure, throughout Niger, the country we were visiting that day, millions throughout west Africa. Blood, sacrificial blood, flowed in the streets, literally.
There we sat, visitors, Christians, Americans, white folks, with dozens and dozens of Muslims at the heart of a great annual festival, greatly welcomed, honorably welcomed. I could have eaten more veal cutlets on Monday morning than I'd ever seen before in my life. We were guests, and they were honored to have us, these Muslims.
"He who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm." Perhaps the most obvious lesson of my short stay in west Africa was that hating Muslims wholesale, even distrusting them as a people, is not only immoral, it's idioicy. Committed Muslim men told me they disliked Arab Muslims far more than they did Americans--and with good historical reasons. Very few Nigerian Muslims have sympathy for Boco Haram, the radical group who stole 450 young girls to give away as concubines.
"He who is bitten by a snake is afraid of a worm."
I should put that on a t-shirt. Or on one of my photos from Africa.
But I don't need to. That line is written already on my heart, thanks to the good Doctor, his worthy folk wisdom, and an ample laugh I can still hear today.