Many moons ago an old French woman visited the classrooms at my elementary school with a travelling bag in her arms full of all things French. She did this for years and it remained my favorite part of school during those primary years. Maybe it was because I never knew when she would come or what she’d bring in her bag but it made French hour the most special surprise. She came bearing gifts of French cookies and treats in little tin boxes. She always had a movie with a friendly monster named Muzzy who taught us how to count to 100 or pronounce the French alphabet. She regaled us with tales of little French children who placed their boots by the fireplace on Christmas Eve with hopes that Pere Noel would stuff their boots with trinkets and toys. (Interestingly enough, I knew that he was make-believe. The real gifter was Santa Claus!)
I was mesmerized by this land called France where the people speak a different language and don’t believe in flying reindeer. Imagine the mind-blowing experience for a six year old to learn that French fries aren’t French at all and go by another name; or that “shit” isn’t French and neither are any of the words we use just before we say “excuse my French.” But what really blew my mind was the understanding that there exists another world completely separate from my own. That halfway around the world sat two dozen six year old students in a city nothing like my own, in a country nothing like the United States, who learned to count to 100 in English from a little old American woman who had her American gifts to share with them. Maybe they had the same bag.
More than anything, I wanted to go to France. I couldn’t wait to hear non-stop French and I imagined the marketplaces like the tiny village in Beauty and the Beast. I couldn’t wait to witness a perspective on life minimally influenced by Americanism. I couldn’t waste to experience life outside of my own little world. By the time I arrived in France almost 13 years later, I’d placed it on a pretty high pedestal which it was timely knocked from after three days of non-stop French. Add to that my vis-à-vis with French cuisine and the understanding that some Parisians don’t change their clothes everyday or even every other day and I was sorely aching for all things American. Still, even after its fall from grace I grew to really love France. It’s the country that financially backed the American Revolutionary War, though I knew nothing of its own troubles with the First, Second, and Third Estates back then. It’s the country that gifted us the Statue of Liberty. It’s the country that gave us croissants and eclairs, pains au chocolat and baguettes. I will always love them for that.
And I will always love the French language because it connects me to people outside of my own little world. From the very beginning, it was my bridge outside of North Carolina, outside of the United States, outside of my limited experience. Rewind to my first period class on my first day of high school, Honors French 2 with a teacher not French or American but Egyptian. My little world was truly getting even bigger. A pair of sisters showed the second week of school with almost flawless French that was even better than their English. (Or maybe it was their heavy accents that made everyone in that French section feel as if they’d crossed a rite of passage when they finally understood a simple conversation.)
“Where yall from?” I asked. (Yes, I’m country and nosy.)
“Sierra Leone,” the younger sister replied. I was worldly enough back then to know Sierra Leone was in Africa but I couldn’t place it on a map. The previous fall, my Girl Scout troop researched different countries in South America and Africa but I only really remembered stuff about the country I picked, Venezuela. I did, however, remember that most Francophone Africans live in West Africa, so I started there.
“Is that in West Africa?” I asked.
“Does everyone speak French?”
“No.” Hadn’t planned for that. What next?
“Oh. Well that’s cool then that yall speak French so well. But what brings yall to America? Why are yall here?” Yes, I’m also rude but I can blame that on being American. And just for the record, I wasn’t being presumptuous either. Anyone could tell these girls weren’t just new to our high school but new to the country. While there was no language barrier there was a vast culture barrier between us and them. Still, I wasn’t expecting what I heard next.
The younger sister burst into tears. “There is a war in our country. We saw our parents murdered. Our brothers were kidnapped. We don’t know where they are but maybe they will come here. That was the plan if we were ever separated, to find our father’s aunt in North Carolina.”
I said nothing. I just sat in silence. Then the younger sister, still crying, left the classroom but not before saying what I would have never said after that kind of tragedy, “We were lucky.” I wanted to go after her but I couldn’t move. I stared at the older sister who had returned to the Bienvenue textbook exercises before class began.
For the rest of the school year, I couldn’t look at them without feeling sorry for them. I couldn’t look at them and feel completely helpless. It made me wish that I never knew their past, not because I didn’t care but because I couldn’t do anything to make it better. I wish I’d never asked so I could pretend they were just like everyone else. And then I would wonder what girls my age in Sierra Leone were doing. Did they sit in upper level French classes completely lost on relative pronouns. Was anyone going out of her mind with stark boredom during in-class readings of Animal Farm?
Or was it much worse than that? Were mothers raped and father murdered? Were brothers kidnapped into slavery over some stupid diamonds? And why wasn’t anyone talking about stuff that really mattered? In the summer of 1997, these two girls had lost everything and everyone but each other. One sister couldn’t stop crying, the other couldn’t will a single tear to well up in her eyes. And me? I couldn’t figure out how any of this had happened. It didn’t seem real. I didn’t know that degree of suffering existed in the world I live in.
In my world, the summer before high school was spent fretting over what to wear for the first week of school, how to make new friends, and how to manage all the homework and extra-curricular activities. I worried about all the things American teenage girls worry about without realizing that our worries aren’t the same for girls in Sierra Leone. And even with real life problems in the corridors, a family broken apart by divorce and my older sister away from home at college, I lived in such innocence. Innocence the Sierra Leone had long ago lost. They worried about their brothers. They worried about making a life in a country not their own. They worried about returning home someday and not recognizing it. They worried about the things that people who live through a civil war worry about; they worried about the possibilities of everything going from bad to worse.
As I thought about the simpleness of my life, it made me feel sick. How could this happen? These sisters and I spoke the same language. We spoke French; we loved French. How could this have happened? Don’t we live in the same world? Wasn’t the U.S. the most powerful country in the world? Weren’t we the moral police, the last remaining super power? Why hadn’t we stepped in like France during the American Revolution to rescue the people of Sierra Leone? Why weren’t we the heroes we promised we would be? Why didn’t we care? Why didn’t we do something?
It’s been almost fifteen years since my freshman year of high school and I’ve since forgotten the names of those sisters who opened my eyes to the fact that our world can be a cruel place for people in other parts of the world when we close our eyes to injustice and wish not to see. Despite my earnest desire to help them in some minuscule way, I felt helpless. I felt they were helpless. What could I or anyone do to turn back the hands of time and save their family? What could I do to end a civil war? What could I do to end slavery or child soldiers? I still don’t know but I think the social networking platforms empower us to share our lives with one another across the world and empower us to help one another regardless of where we physically live. France isn’t as far away as it was 20 years ago before the Internet. Neither is Africa, Asia or Austrailia. Today it feels like we really all do live in this same world. We’re one click away and though the distance may be far, we can establish virtual connections that just as real as the ones we have with the people in our daily lives.
Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube represent a new kind of worldly teacher who walks around our homes, classrooms, and countries with information from all over the world in an attempt to connect us with each other. Invisible Children educated tens of millions of people about Joseph Kony and their mission to capture him in 2012. I hope that happens. Will it put and end to the wars? No. Will governments, terrorist groups, and militia continue to put weapons in the arms of child soldiers? Yes. Will covering the night on April 20, 2012 make Joseph Kony famous and lead to his capture (assuming he’s not already dead)? I’m doubtful. What will Kony2012 bracelets accomplish? Probably nothing. Maybe everything. But people like to feel like they can do something to make things better and if buying a bracelet makes someone feel like they’re working to bring about peace, we can let them hold on to that innocence. It’s not such a bad thing to have in these days. One day they will wake up and see that sometimes the only thing you can do for someone else is hear their story, let them cry, and cry yourself.
But that Youtube video can also be about bringing the moral issue of child soldiers to dinner tables and Facebook walls. It can be about strengthening a collective voice to apply pressure to the United States to ratify UN treaties that protect childrens’ rights. It can be about applying pressure to the UN to adopt policies that allow them to protect human rights regardless of national borders. Maybe the topic of child soldiers will shift the conversation and address the issue gun violence that plagues U.S. cities like Chicago, D.C., Baltimore, Newark, Camden, and L.A. Maybe we can care about the future little black boys with guns even if they don’t live in Africa.
The world failed the Jews, the people of Rwanda, the people of Darfur and the people of Uganda. We are always too late, too late to know and too late to act. But maybe the advent of Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter will keep us in time. Now we have the opportunity to know, now we have the responsibility to respond without depending completely on our governments to step in and do the right and (financially) costly thing. When we wait for governments to protect the human rights of individuals or intervene on behalf of other countrymen we’re essentially upholding what was said during the Rwandan genocide “The United States has no friends. The United States only has interests.” We can afford to care. We can afford to care about everyone. It’s this kind of thinking that creates a sad and depressing world for us all. What makes it so sad is that some of us still don’t believe that’s true.
If knowledge is power, it’s also responsibility. It means, at least for me, that I can’t behave like the ninth grade school girl I used to be and just sit and stare. I have to do something. You do, too. It’s no longer enough to be my sister’s keeper. In a global sense, I have to be my neighbor’s keeper. I want that role. It means I have to expand my world to care about what goes on in Uganda, Japan, Iran, Peru, and Mexico. It means I have to be a little less self-absorbed and take time away from blogging and bar crawling on St. Patrick’s Day and praying for the people in my inner circle battling cancer to do something helpful for people I don’t know. And it’s actually not as hard as it sounds with everyone connected to the WWW these days. It starts with knowing.
I’m not covering the night on the anniversary of Columbine. I’m not sending Invisible Children any money for a bracelet and I’m not picking up and moving to Uganda. I care deeply and I still don’t know what to do or what our government should do. I hope the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act signed into legislation in May 2010 provides the resources to capture Kony. And I hope the U.S. decided that to take action though we have no financial interests in there but I’m hesitant after learning that Uganda struck oil along its border with the Congo. So I tell myself it’s enough that I’m a good person and that I don’t hate people for being White or Black or undocumented or Jewish or Christian or gay or stupid or bigoted or Republican. I tell myself it’s enough that (hopefully) someday I’ll raise my children to be compassionate and kind. And maybe they’ll have some ideas on how we can all live in harmony like one big happy world.