Sensitivity and freedom

Jul 17th, 2009 | By | Category: International

An evening spent discussing support for work in a small corner of Africa; funds to be raised locally without expense and to be sent directly to those in need without administration costs; the work to be a partnership between those here and those there, not based on charity but on justice and equality.

Allowing local people to present their own projects and to manage funds themselves means not imposing our ideas (and not driving around in logo adorned jeeps, or having offices on city streets, or paying multiples of local salaries for expatriate Europeans to do jobs that could be done locally).

Sometimes, though, there are moments when questions about whose culture is appropriate do arise.

Travelling back from Nairobi on an overnight flight, two weeks ago, the seat seemed so far back that there was a danger of sitting in the toilets.

At the window sat an Asian woman in a sari.  Very old, she was so diminutive her feet bare touched the cabin floor.  Flying seemed an alien experience to her; she spoke no English but gestured that she had no idea as to how to fasten the seatbelt.  The airline meals presented further problems, she looked baffled at the food and could not open the plastic bags containing the cutlery.  Eventually she was persuaded to take a glass of water, a bread roll and some fruit.  Breakfast was easier than dinner, showing that yogurt could be eaten with a spoon encouraged her to at least eat the tub of yogurt along with a croissant that was sealed in a particularly tricky bag.

Crossing the English channel, the flight attendant came down the cabin with landing cards to be completed by people with non-EU passports.  How was this to be explained to someone who communicated with the odd ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but mostly with gestures?

Handing the UK Border Agency card to the lady produced a most unexpected response.  She did not take the card but delved into her handbag, and said ‘British Passport’.  The passport she held up was as British as my own.

There was some confusion as she thought the passport was required there and then.  Eventually she put the passport back into the handbag and we landed at Heathrow.

The plane was virtually empty by the time we moved out from our seats, she shuffled along ahead while I carried her two bags.  “How will you cope?” I said.  She did not seem to understand.  “Is there someone to meet you?”

We had reached the front of the plane and she stood to the side as I gave her the two bags.  “Are you all right?”

“Wheelchair”, she said. She bowed low and said, “Thank you”.

The woman was at least eighty and had clearly spent her life in a community where she had been allowed no contact with the English-speaking world in which she lived.  Some husband or brother had decided that she, presumably with other woman in their community, should live lives on the edge of society.

Sometimes seeking freedom means seeking your own vision of the world.

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  1. Ian if that Asian Passenger dressed in a sari was as old as you say or at least older than I am, surely she would automatically be entitled to a ‘British Passport’ just as I am. Both my parents were born in the south of Ireland before it became a republic.

  2. I suspect the British passport arose from some past quirky piece of British colonialism, but the lady was not able to converse with anyone. She seemed to understand a little of the Swahili, spoken by the cabin crew, and a little English, but seemed cut off from the world.

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