Sometimes a frown doesn’t need to be turned upside down

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Notes from the field – By Laurie

One would think that something as simple as a smile or a frown would be pretty universal. And I think in many cases they are. Except that I’ve discovered that our kids in Goudoubo Refugee Camp draw frowns on the faces of happy people. Most often they’re being depicted as people living happily and peacefully together, sharing joys of life such as drinking tea, dancing, and camel racing. Whenever I see those frowns I have to double check with the boy or girl who drew them, just to make sure that I’m understanding correctly that the frowns actually mean they’re happy, because it seems so counterintuitive to me.

I think as people we’re quick make judgments about other people or cultures, without recognizing that we’re looking at things from our own very culturally defined perspective, and without considering that there may be more to the story than what we see. And I think we miss a lot of joy and human connection because of that. For example, if I didn’t ask Aminatou what her drawing of the frowning people meant, I would definitely think that everyone was very unhappy in that picture. I wouldn’t know the story of those families who have overcome their differences in order to live together peacefully, and enjoy the things they have in common.

Similarly, when I look through my western, developed-world lenses at a Malian boy named Boubacar, I might only see a boy who comes from the desert, has never been to school and has very little in terms of material possessions. I might think that he is boy who has so much potential and if only he could go to school and learn, then his life might be better in many ways. And while those things might be true, if I stop there and don’t get to know Boubacar and his story, I might assume that that was all he was – an unfortunate boy with untapped potential. I might get frustrated with him when I ask him to draw something related to education and he draws a page full of cows with their caretaker.

In fact, Boubacar is a hardworking boy who has a wealth of knowledge about breeding and rearing livestock. He spends hours, days and even months caring for his animals. He is a boy with passion for what he knows and loves and could definitely teach us a thing or two about how to take care of a sheep. When I looked at Boubacar’s drawing of cows and asked him with a touch of humor if this was a school for cows, he said yes and all of a sudden I had opened the door to his world and I had the opportunity to learn all about the things cows learn at cow school. I learned about how he sings songs and does dances for his cows, goats, sheep, and camels in order to encourage them to eat more so that they’ll produce more milk for him and his family.

As Westerners we often want to “fix” things in other cultures or countries according to our own values without stopping to understand what the full story is and if anything actually needs fixing. We want to teach a child the “correct” way to draw a happy face or to give our idea of a “good education” without recognizing that a child already has a rich education  – it’s just a different kind. Every culture and society has its challenges, but they also all have strengths as well. We would do well to take the time to find and truly understand these strengths in order to build on them, rather than simply trying to impose our own values and ideas of what “should” be. 

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