One advantage to being in a foreign country and not knowing the language is that a major political crisis can happen while you remain largely ignorant of how serious it is. I was in Colombia during the Chavez–Uribe standoff last week, and my lack of Spanish prevented me from following along with the local daily news. Since the only thing Colombians could personally communicate to me was “Chavez es loco,” at no time did I feel like war was about to break out. I wonder if this is how people who are kidnapped feel right before they get carted away by guerillas.
To be fair, I wasn’t completely ignorant of what was happening. I was there on a learning tour sponsored by the Mennonite Church, and also to visit a sister church of First Mennonite in Urbana. But the irony of a learning tour is that we were being filled with so much background information on the history and political/economic conditions of Colombia, that we didn’t have much brain power left over at the end of the day to be worried about current political crises.
Another irony is that although I was in Colombia, the news analysis I was reading was the same US-based, internet sources that I usually read. The Washington Post told me not to worry (saying essentially “Chavez es loco”, but in English), and C-U’s own Robert Naiman over at The Huffington Post enlightened me as to how the Democrats might not be any more helpful in Colombia than Republicans have been. So, I didn’t worry. Chavez might be crazy, but he can’t be that crazy.
Nonetheless, Colombians were paying more attention to the crisis than I realized. On the Friday of the Rio Group meeting, where all the Latin American presidents were arguing about the crisis in Santo Domingo, we happened to be touring a very poor area in Bucaramanga (where our sister church has a children’s feeding program that First Mennonite supports). It was revealing that in every home we visited, some of which had only two rooms total, TVs were all playing the Rio Group meeting. Later that afternoon, we visited the town of Giron, a touristy area, and every bar, restaurant and hotel had their TVs playing Rio Group meeting. It was like a Colombian World Cup match, except with geopolitics.
Although I couldn’t understand what was being said on the TV, I understood by their presence that Colombians themselves were very concerned about possible war. The Colombian husband of one of our hosts said he could not remember a time when the political situation was this tense.
Ignorance is bliss, indeed.
Ignorance also came in handy when we were touring the hills and valleys around Bucaramanga. We went to San Marcos, which is a bit outside the more populated areas, and where our sister church has another feeding program for children. The pastor mentioned after we arrived that this was an area mostly controlled by guerillas but that he had gotten permission to be there. Also, the guy from whom he had gotten permission had been shot. They have about four murders a day there, in a population of 20,000. But, don’t worry, we are safe. Also, probably everyone knows by now that he has brought three gringos and a gringa into town.
Our pastor is very well-respected in the area, and I’m sure nothing would have happened to us with him there. However, that was the only time I felt a twinge of nervousness about the possibility of being ransom-bait during my trip. I’m glad I didn’t know this before arriving though. Ignorance allowed me to enjoy the beautiful countryside on the drive there, whereas knowledge of possible danger would have been a total killjoy.
I am not normally a fan of ignorance. I get very frustrated when Americans remain willfully unaware of what is being done in our name across the world, from illegal rendition, to torture, to fumigation of Colombia’s rich farmland as an attempt to solve our own drug problem. Ignorance is too often used as a shield from difficult realities, in the service of comfortable lives without responsibility to others.
And yet, ignorance of larger geopolitical matters can be forgiven for those who have trouble simply getting through the day. Maslow’s hierarchy can be very real, where basic needs must met before more abstract concerns can be addressed. There are plenty who suffer from the equivalent of not knowing the language, and whose struggle to understand their surroundings leaves them sapped of strength at the end of the day, without room to cope with the bigger picture.
Ignorance only becomes neglect once we gain our footing in the world. If I lived long-term in Colombia as a prosperous American, I would have the responsibility to learn Spanish, understand what is really going on there, and be a voice for more immediate, positive change. As both the Bible and Spiderman have taught us, to whom much is given, much is expected. As our capability to effect change increases, we lose our excuses for remaining ignorant of the unpleasant realities of the world.