The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.
–Hallie in Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
Our small plane landed at the Addis Ababa International Airport where my father eagerly awaited our arrival. An esteemed and sought-after archaeologist, he was used to spending many months at a time away from us in the company of two-hundred-thousand-year-old rocks and bones. But years in the field had taken its toll on our family. So he decided we should spend some time with him in his world—the excavations on the side of a collapsed volcano known as Gademotta.
My mother held our hands tightly as we walked through the baggage claim area, our bags found strewn about amongst chickens in cages, goats and overstuffed baskets bound by rope and string. No one seemed dismayed by the chaos. But everyone was alert to the two small, very blond white children suddenly amongst them—an extremely rare sight in that region of Africa in the 1970s. I was seven my brother, only three.
We were driven deep into the drought- and famine-stricken country—although Ethiopia had not yet seen the full human tragedy destined to come with the looming civil war.
Children raced after our car as we passed villages—straw huts surrounded by proud colourfully-beaded women. We drove on one of the few paved roads at the time, to a town called Ziway. Finally we arrived at the small blue motel, whose presence in the deserted bush seemed absurd. Named Motel Bekle Molla (after its owner Bekle Molla), it would be our home for the next few weeks. From there we would take our daily journeys to the 235,000 year-old excavation sites in the Ethiopian Rift Valley.
Several months before, while driving to school, my father tried to explain the different culture we would encounter in Africa. We would be living amongst people with dark skin, he said—trying to keep the conversation age-appropriate. They would talk differently and dress strangely. He wanted me to know that people might seem different to us, but in fact, we were all the same. He was pushing hard against the social norm. At seven, I had integrated the concept of separation. There were ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘girl’ and ‘boy’, ‘white’ and ‘black’, ‘family’ and ‘not family’… I was instructed to be respectful to these new people I was about to live amongst.
Respect was not something I needed to be reminded of, as Ethiopia’s people were not only friendly and open, but dignified and strong. My first encounter was with the tall Oromo guard my father had hired to watch over my brother and me while he was out working in the field (the Oromo are the indigenous people of East Africa).
Although the country was relatively peaceful at the time, a lingering unrest remained on its edges. Extreme poverty often provokes extreme behaviours and my father didn’t want to take any chances. The guard’s name was Bakri, and he was to remain near us 24-hours a day.
Dressed in only a small loin-cloth, he was lean and stood much taller than his height. His job was his honour. He stood by us as we played in the dust of the sites, propped against his spear, a thin and silent sentinel. At night while we slept, he stood by our door, seemingly ever awake. I never saw him sit down. In time, my brother and I convinced him that playing with us was part of his job description. Reluctantly he swung us around in circles and tossed us in the air while archaeologists and geologists crouched busily nearby. We grew warmly accustomed to each other, though not a single word was spoken between us.
My days in Africa were spent like this, in the company of someone who crossed the barrier of language, culture and family to become a friend.
It was very early in the morning when we finally departed from our tiny motel. The sky was still dark and car headlights lit our porch so we could pack up. There was much activity and many people to help with our suitcases, and the ongoing undecipherable chatter in Cushitic that had become familiar to me.
The only one not talking, and not working was Bakri. He was sitting down in a chair by our door, sad and withdrawn. Not able to comprehend the situation, I bounced happily on to his lap and hugged him around the neck. It never occurred to me he might be sad about our going. He held me tightly, like I was one of his own. I pulled away slightly and smiled at him—our faces close. But I was shocked to see tears streaming down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen a man cry. And in that moment, I guess because of his vulnerability, I saw our sameness. Two hearts joined over a chasm of thousands-of-years-old cultural beliefs. Indeed there was no ‘other’… we belonged to each other, as two members of the human family.
My assumed world of me and ‘other’ fell to pieces. Here was someone who was apparently completely different to me—an Ethiopian man of a different colour, culture, creed, religion and even different time period—crying as if I were his own child. It shattered a concept, a story I had been told—that all of us have been told—that we are separate. Indeed I had been lied to, and so had everyone else. I hoped that everyone could know what was true, that we all belonged to each other.
When I think of all the issues Kindred addresses—localisation, attachment and bonding, food integrity, relationships, ethics and education reform—it all boils down to one word: belonging. Our collective work, to heal the earth and ourselves, seems to be in bridging the chasm of separation that has been indoctrinated and bred into our culture—separation from the earth, from ourselves and from each other. And to do this we need to recognise what belonging is and how it feels. We need visceral experiences of belonging because for many of us, belonging is an abstract concept.
Recently I spent time back in my homeland, the southern Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico. It’s a place much older than the United States, inhabited by the mixed lineages of Spanish, Mexican and Native American peoples. The depth of its culture and history cradled me like a wise ancient mother who had nurtured thousands of offspring before me. As a child I spent my days in the sagebrush and piñon, remaining close to the elements of nature. There was little my parents had to nag me about: be home before dark and take care of your brother. It was a land I belonged to, and thus, it took care of me. Being back there again brought back that sense of belonging. I was floored by its poignancy. The smells, the texture of it, went straight through to my bone marrow. It stopped me in my tracks and I realised that this is what we all yearn for—to belong, and to know it and feel it as so.
When I returned to Australia, I shared my experience with a friend. ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced what you are speaking of,’ she said.
Until we begin to have experiential confirmations of what it is we seek, belonging just remains some hypothetical theory. The facts tell us that it’s better for us to have more farmers’ markets, or that we respond to our baby’s cries, or that children’s educational needs be met more holistically, but without the experience, it becomes just another rhetorical politicised idea. And in fact, politicisation of these ideas is exactly what is working against them.
Pundits like to slice and dice everything into factions—liberal, conservative, left, right, green and not green. But conservatives want to belong as much as liberals do. The healing of our civilisation and our planet is not a partisan issue, it is a moral issue. It’s about all of us coming home.
Today we find ourselves strangely at odds with ourselves. We yearn for this sense of belonging, while at the same time strive to be independent and alone. Like plane passengers watching the same film on their own tiny screen, we’re together in our apartness, thinking our independence gives us choice and freedom, when really all it gives is hollowness and isolation. Separateness has become venerated. We value freedom, individualism and detachment, and implant such values in our young.
Preschools and early day-care tout the advantages of teaching young children and babies to become more independent. Nurses prompt mothers to practise ‘controlled crying’ in an attempt to teach babies to ‘self-soothe’. The elderly are pushed into retirement homes. Mothers are pushed into work. A population torn apart from itself grows up to inflict the same separation upon itself. We have become a culture of disconnection. We yearn to connect, but think the only way to do so is by worshipping the individual; or else, by giving ourselves over naïvely to a particular group, blindly adopting its party line to avoid persecution.
The symptoms of our disconnection are everywhere, but perhaps most heartbreakingly so with our children. Recently the UK’s Daily Telegraph published an open letter authored and signed by over one hundred of early childhood’s leading thinkers. In it they wrote: ‘As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe that this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.’
In a similar vein, the US Commission on Children at Risk (a panel of 33 leading children’s doctors, neuroscientists, research scholars and youth service professionals), stated in their report, Hardwired to Connect, ‘…what’s causing this crisis of American childhood is a lack of connectedness. We mean two kinds of connectedness—close connections to other people, and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning’.
We as human beings are neurologically hardwired to connect—we are born expecting to continue the connection we experienced in the womb, not only with our mother, but to the whole. As our connections to others increase—bonding with mother, father, family and the world—our brain’s neural synapses increase in number, making more neurological connections—the internal mirroring the external. When connection is not forthcoming, the numbers of synapses decrease, leading to sadness and fearfulness. Sadness and fear lead to complacence, hardness, anger and defensiveness. In fact, the first few years of our life is the time we either step into our sense of ‘belonging’ to the whole, or conclude that we do not belong.
However, fear is not our natural state. Love is. This is where my hope lies—in our biologically-ordained destiny to belong. This is the profound, and dare I say, divine, invitation that lurks beneath all our sadness and anxiety. Our hearts and minds are literally calling us home. This, to me, is just so completely awesome—that all human beings have inside them their very own homing devices.
So when we do experience belonging, we need to acknowledge it—to recognise it as the stuff of what it means to be alive. It might come in a brief moment over dinner with our family, or while tending our garden, or in taking a walk in the woods. The point is, to know that it’s possible to experience it as a physical, undeniable presence. Let it stop you in your tracks, and hold you tightly like a long lost family member.
And if you haven’t experienced belonging, then start by knowing it exists. Just this shift will open you to the discovery. You will find it in the most ordinary of places, but remember to meet it with reverence and respect. Belonging reveals itself like an ancient stranger from a far away land. It surprises you at your door. It shows you his tear-stained face and asks, ‘Where have you been?’ and welcomes you into its arms. Its warm embrace is not only what we seek; it is what we are.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.