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A philosophy to gain understanding

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Laaska News. December 07,2010.

By Hu Yinan (China Daily).
It was a sunny November day and I was sat in a Nairobi cafe with Muhyadin Ahmed Roble, a Somali journalist who narrowly fled war-torn Mogadishu in 2007 and has not seen his family since.

An armed Somali pirate sits on the coastline in Hobyo town in northeastern Somalia in this file photo from Jan 7 this year. In the distance is the Greek cargo ship, MV Filitsa, which at the time was being held by pirates. [Mohamed Dahir / for China Daily]

He was recalling vivid images of being held by his mother on the day a United States army Black Hawk crashed into his village in 1993 when he suddenly stopped, leaned over and asked: “Tell me. Why aren’t you Chinese really enemies with anyone?”

I paused for a second.

We had been chatting about the fundamental reasons behind the prevalent distrust, if not hatred, among Somalis of Western hegemony (and interference) in the region, which has nurtured extremist violence and made the country of Somalia what it is today: the most dangerous, failed state in any textbook around the world.

But there’s more to it than that. For years, Somali communities have tried to bring to light the role of foreign states and fleets in depleting local marine resources through fishing piracy, as well as nuclear- and toxic-waste dumping, which in the absence of a functioning government, has forced fishermen to resort to violence and, eventually, become pirates or pirate-sympathizers.

The point is not to justify piracy of any kind or argue that Somali sea piracy, as a form of resistance, is somehow emancipatory to exploited coastal communities.

Rather, we should be compelled to reexamine why people remain oblivious to the irreversible threats external forces have imposed and are imposing, all the time pointing fingers (and weapons) at not just pirates, but at all indigenous inhabitants, as if they were an inferior crowd who knows no better business than intimidating foreigners (whose “goodwill” is often hyped) with machine guns and grenades.

People naturally fear the unknown, but having spent more than a century suffering the same accusations, the Chinese are no strangers to developments like those in Somalia. China started to emerge from that same shadow not so long ago.

China, for all its vastness and complexity, intrinsically embraces diversity. Seeking harmony, not uniformity, is a founding virtue of Chinese civilization – according to Confucius, those who do the opposite are “bad people” – and countless generations of students have been trained to not command, impose or assume thanks to this philosophy.

In this troubled, multicultural world we live in, the idea translates into a much-needed non-interference orientation, a willingness to be open-minded and listen, and lend a helping hand in times of need. China is by no means perfect, but for decades it has advocated just that orientation.

I feel deeply grateful to have been raised under these influences.

Everyone who knew I was going to Kenya to visit Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi known as “Little Mogadishu” for its predominantly Somali inhabitants, and Mandera, a northeastern town bordering Somalia and Ethiopia where few non-Somalis go, advised me to avoid them because “they’re dangerous places that no ‘white person’ ever goes”.

Yet, I asked myself, who is to call the impoverished millions in these deserted areas “dangerous”? If they can live the way they do, who are we to say we can’t try to do the same and engage them in peace and with a smile?

Most of my interviewees during the nine days I spent in Kenya were as friendly as anyone can be – and I, for one, have the tolerant Chinese philosophy to thank for that.

The minute that an old Somali man from a remote Eastleigh neighborhood learned I am Chinese, he looked uplifted and asked: “So, you’re here to pump water for us then, right?”

The same happened in Elwak, Wajir and most other places along my 32-hour bus ride in Kenya’s North Eastern province, where people heard that Chinese engineers will be coming to help build roads. Many asked me when it would happen.

In Mandera, neither the security boss at the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees office nor the local police’s anti-terrorism unit believed a “white man from China” like me, with benign intentions and no knowledge of the Somali and Swahili languages, would hop on a shabby, “dangerous” bus with 30-odd Somalis to come this far – not to mention, leave on another bus that takes more than 40 hours and has to go through 14 to 15 roadblocks before getting to Nairobi.

Six officers questioned me in an interrogation room for three hours and tried, through every possible lead, to establish a link with “hostile forces”.

One of them, after flipping through my well-stamped passport (a result of my being part of the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay entourage that traveled to 21 countries and regions in 33 days), suspected I must have been in Kenya numerous times “for other activities” on a separate, personal passport with a different identity.

Just before all their efforts failed, the unit chief asked me: “You say you’re a journalist trying to write a story. So what’s your story going to be about?”

For the next 10 minutes, I told them exactly what I was going to write: how they and local residents alike are victims of a string of misconceptions by mainstream media outlets around the world who never bother to visit the ground, how they sustain and perpetuate both local instability and a negative image of the community, and that our paper’s aim is to present a more comprehensive, balanced picture.

A number of officers were nodding as I talked and by the time I’d finished the room was quiet. It stayed that way for a while.

About 30 minutes later, I was released.

It was already dark outside the police compound and the curfew was about to start. A number of Somali friends ran toward me happily as I walked out. They had been waiting there for more than three hours.

I knew I must go that extra mile, to travel alone on a bus to Eastleigh and Mandera (and later Mombasa) to gain people’s trust. Indeed, trust is a tricky thing. It’s too easy to fall into the “us and them” dichotomy, but I believe by showing some sincerity, things can change.

Anyone can lie or refuse to talk when asked for an interview by an alien visitor who simply knocks at the door, sits down for a cup of tea and leaves within an hour. Building trust and bond requires patience, suffering the same conditions and connecting with people for longer periods of time.

Ultimately, the strategy is never to be heavily opinionated and try to “blend in” with respect. That might mean chewing the same mirra (a Kenyan variant of khat, the green-leafed shrub), drinking the same chai, taking the same bus or sleeping in the same bed with locals.

If millions are doing it, why can’t we? Over time, fear and suspicion can, and most certainly will, evaporate.

There are, I’m sure, more complicated reasons why the Chinese “aren’t really enemies with anyone”. But essentially, for me, it comes down to a distinctively Chinese pattern of thinking that was arguably best illustrated by Bruce Lee.

“Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless – like water,” he once famously said. “You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; you put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash.

“Be water, my friend.”

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