Claire and I were preparing for a camping trip with some friends. I found myself increasingly frustrated when packing my bike. All these things! Two tents, two ground pads, two yoga mats, a flute, a headlamp, and some food – all strapped to my bike. On my way to town, I left my bike at a friend’s by the roadside (in an effort to hide the exaggerated amount of things I was carrying – a stark contrast to the material humility of those living around us). I then walked the half mile to another friend’s, whose granddaughter had passed away the night before.
I arrived to women wailing, and sat with my friend Remy. His eyes stared blankly at the ground, as if he could gaze right through the hard earth and what lay underneath could somehow show him meaning. He looked tired, and sad to have lost his granddaughter. I offered my condolences, went into the house, and mourned. Once inside, many women wailed and men sat stoically, as the story of the deceased was repeated. This is the culture of mourning among the Bemba. It’s almost as if the family has to repeat the story countless times, to help the reality of the situation sink in. Remy’s daughter had two children, now they have both passed away. She sat outside on a stoop and wailed – asking God why he had taken her children.
After maybe an hour of sitting in silence next to my friend, with some few words exchanged, I left. He walked me down the road, and we chatted casually. About halfway to my bike, he said goodbye, and we shook hands. I wished there was something I could do – anything to see this beautiful, bright-spirited man smile. It’s so easy to find meaning in happiness, but suffering is the true test of one’s faith.
I walked back to my bike, rode to town, and arrived at the house of our friends Luke and Steph. It was a good old ‘Musungu’ gathering, and I found about 10 friends sitting, chatting, and having some beers. I found the adjustment difficult, as I often do. I often tell Bembas when they ask about the differences of our cultures: “Here, you have too many friends and not enough materials – in our country, we have too many materials and not enough friends”. Maybe, as I think about it, the difference is more about spirit than friendship.
As I sat in Remy’s house and prayed, I couldn’t doubt that spirit is real, that this reality is paper thin and that other dimensions drift about, mixing and melding with this one like currents of an interdimensional sea. Yet here at Luke and Stephs, surrounded by drinks and food and plenty, this world seemed thick and impenetrable – almost suffocating. After 5 years here, the disparity is still hard to reconcile. Why do we have so much, while so many are caught in a race, running just to get by? Where is the balance between a culture so attached to the material that greater meaning is crushed by the weight of all the things, and a people whose hunger and pain keeps spirit too close for comfort?
As the night progressed, I eased further into the world of the ‘Musungu’. I ate wonderful, tasty food and drank a bit of wine, knowingly numbing my spirit to sleep. I awoke at 5am to start my meditation, and found that my bike was not outside where I had left it. I looked up and down. I woke up Luke and asked if he had moved it. The bike was gone, with all the things strapped to it. I looked at the ground where the bike had stood, and found the only thing which remained was a wish lantern which had fallen from the bike during its escape.
I went to the police station and filed a report with a middle-aged man dressed in green camouflage. He went through the motions, asking me what was stolen and where. Then, he asked me to make an estimate of the value of goods stolen – this seemed, from his perspective, to be an absolutely critical point. I shouldn’t guess, I should be sure. I sat down and thought it out – tents, mats, the bike, the flute, and came to about 5,000 kwatcha (500 bucks). Of course, the sentimental value of a gifted flute is more, but he just wanted a figure. He didn’t seem in the mood for a philosophical conversation about ‘value’ being a concept inadequately described by currency.
Right at the point when I realized that he didn’t give a damn about my bike, and that all ‘my’ things were gone, I started feeling sorry for myself. If I’m here helping people and I need the bike to do it, and if that flute brings so much happiness to me and those around me, why were they gone – destined to be mistreated and soon discarded?
Amidst these thoughts, a young man entered. He was about 25 – he looked tired and disheveled.
“What do you want?” The officer asked without nearly the same smile or respect he gave to me, the white man, just minutes before.
“I need to file a report.” The man responded.
“For what?” Snapped the officer.
“I had all of my things stolen from my house.”
“What things – and their total value?” The officer indifferently probed.
“A pillow, mattress, pots, pans, and some clothes. The total value was about 300 kwacha ($30).”
“Sit down, I’ll be with you…”
The man sat down, piercing the ground with a hard stare reminiscent of that which Remy had used the day before. I had to fight back tears in the middle of the police station. Tears of anguish and guilt. Here I was feeling sorry for myself about having lost a bunch of expensive things – all things that I would be able to replace. Meanwhile, the man sitting next to me (surely a teacher crossing my path), had lost everything he had – and its value, looked at economically, was almost nothing. So much for my strivings towards non-attachment… It was a strong reminder of how far I am from letting go of the material.
After another 30 minutes, I left the officer with his report and little hope of recovering my things. As I walked back to Luke and Steph’s, I remembered my frustration the morning before. I had to stop and laugh. The universe is so clever! I was so angry about having to carry and pack all these things – I wanted to travel light and be unburdened by so much ‘stuff’. So spirit listened, and that evening – sneakily and inauspiciously – my things were carried off. I was unburdened. “Don’t want those things? No problem… they’re gone!” Hah!
The following night, we all circled around the wish lantern. We each made a prayer as we lit the wax inside the paper, and held it aloft until the heat carried it away. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed that I would take this lesson and push myself to become less attached to things. I vowed that I would walk more, aligning my pace to that of the people around me. I prayed for Remy, and the man whose possessions had been stolen. I felt incredibly grateful for my family and circumstance, who assure that I need not worry about money or material goods. And I prayed to forgive those who stole from me.
The lantern lifted itself into the sky, its light dimming and shrinking as it floated away. Hunger pushes people to limits far from the understanding of those who have eaten. The things stolen from me are needed more wherever they are now than they were needed while in my possession. They were, after all, never ‘mine’. They just were – and they still are. They’re just somewhere else, with someone else. As the lantern’s light flickered and faded, the lesson became clear. By challenging my attachment to possessions, I have been given the blessing of another lesson in impermanence.