We spent Christmas in Malawi, arriving soon after the rainy season started. The earth in East Africa is bright red, and green maize plants were shooting up everywhere. My sister took us to see the house that her friend Esther is having built, at the top of the hill in the village of Kauma, a world apart from San Francisco. It’s made of brick! The red earth is easily fired, and we saw backyard brickstacks everywhere we went. As soon as Esther had bought the land for her house, she planted it with maize. It’s what you do with land in Malawi: you don’t just own it, you use it. The house has three bedrooms off a simple living room, with a brand new corrugated tin roof, just put on. Esther is not planning on having glass in the windows, just gauze to keep out the mosquitoes. It wasn’t clear to us where her water will come from.
I stood on the unfinished floor in one of the bedrooms with its new occupant, Esther’s 8-year old son Roland, feeling the difference between living here and there. What to say, to this person whose house, and life, is so different from mine? Our house has no windows facing onto our back yard, but Roland’s new bedroom window looks out over the gently rolling fields down to the city of Lilongwe. Great view, I said - much better than ours at home.
On a visit to Arizona in December before we left, I got talking to a taxi driver during the half hour ride to the airport on my way home. A burly man, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Willis, he asked me where I was from, and as soon as I said “San Francisco,” I felt a frosty defensiveness emanate from the tensed-up action figure in the front seat. Without comment, he reached forward, tattoos rippling, and pointedly turned on Talk radio.
We listened for a few minutes to a panel discussing immigration. A big issue in Arizona, I offered. Oh yes, I learned: my driver was hopeful that the border would be tightened right up. For him, the immigration discussion seemed to bring up some fear of being over-run, of the world changing from what he had been comfortable with. He certainly felt under attack: the response to the election results had shocked him. We’ve had an electoral college for two hundred years, he said, it’s not new, it’s there for a reason! Small states like Arizona need to have a say, he said. I agreed: in a democracy, you have to protect the minorities from the majority.
There was a pause.
And then he said: Tolerance! That’s what we need. Not just saying you are, but really, truly being tolerant of others. I guessed he may have had other passengers from the university that were not as tolerant as he would have liked, but here was something on which we were of like mind. I couldn’t agree more! I said. But how do we get from there to here? By listening to each other, I guess, he said.
On the kerb at the airport, he pulled my suitcase out of the trunk and shook my hand. I wish there were more like you, he said. I was glad not to have argued with him. I tend to avoid conflict at the best of times, but it seemed especially prudent when in a speeding car with a seething driver. There is safety in the things we agree upon, and we can see our differences better from that patch of common ground.