In preparation of my trip to Uganda, I am reading pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Freire. (I think that maybe I should reconsider having separate blogs. This is another topic that applies both here and at my “mzungumentor” blog. I’ll just post it here, though.)
A segment in Chapter 3 stood out to me today in which a scene was shared with some “tenement residents” in Santiago, Chile with the purpose of discussing their thoughts about it. The scene described a drunken man staggering past a group of three men conversing with one another. The residents immediately gave their interpretation that the drunk was the only decent fellow out of the bunch:
“…the only one there who is productive and useful to his country is the souse who is returning home after working all day for low wages and who is worried about his family because he can’t take care of their needs. He is the only worker. He is a decent worker and a souse like us.”
There are two important aspects to these declarations. On the one hand, they verbalize the connection between earning low wages, feeling exploited, and getting drunk – getting drunk as a flight from reality, as an attempt to overcome the frustration of inaction, as an ultimately self-destructive solution. On the other hand, they manifest the need to rate the drunkard highly. He is the “only one useful to his country, because he works, while the others only gab.” After praising the drunkard, the participants then identify themselves with him, as workers who also drink – “decent workers.” (Pg. 118)
My thoughts began to spin. If I were there, how could I convince those men that their lives would improve if freed of the influence of alcohol? If they really loved their families, wouldn’t they recognize that alcohol damages families? How could I help them see what I can see!?
I missed the point.
A major tenet of Freire’s pedagogy is the absolute need to understand not only what people perceive, but why. A leader or an educator must understand not only the objective reality of those he wishes to help, he must learn of that reality by dialoguing with the people, thereby also discovering their perception of that reality. If he fails to do this he will never be able to understand them. (Pg. 95)
The Chilean residents offered me a powerful lesson to learn, but I was too busy having the answers to all the world’s problems. In simple terms, they told me that their entire life was defined by their battle with poverty and hunger. They shared that their energy was consumed by worry and hard physical labor that allowed them to care for their family – albeit insufficiently. The worry, struggle, fear, doubt, stress, hard labor, feeling unappreciated and disrespected – all these things bore down on them, and they sought temporary escape through fraternal company and booze. Standing in their worn out shoes, I can hardly blame them.
My thoughts changed. How often have I come home feeling stressed from my secure, air conditioned, well-paying job? How many of those times did I escape into a book, movie, or video game, even if that meant that I neglected my kids who wanted to spend time with me? How could I ever presume to be better than another person? Moral high-ground suddenly seems to be perched precariously over a slippery slope.
Now I’m worried. If I was so quick to judge those Chilean workers, how many Ugandans will fall victim to my hasty conclusions. How many might I inadvertently oppress with my personal moral code? How many incredible individuals will I fail to see wholly – to understand – because I forget or choose not to listen? Maybe this is why I am learning from Paulo Freire at this time. I had never heard of him before, but there couldn’t be a better time for him to teach me that:
“One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.” (Pg. 95)