Like an annoying tune stuck in my head for hours, four words keep flooding my mind: “the soul of nations”. I am puzzled by the persistence of this ethereal message, so I look up the definition of the word “soul”. There are two definitions in Mirriam-Webster that come close to the sentiment I associate with my phrase. “: a (nation’s) deeply felt moral and emotional nature” and “: the ability of a (nation) to feel kindness and sympathy for others, to appreciate beauty and art”. For both definitions I substituted the word “nation” for “person”.
During this journey through many countries I have come to accept as reality the concept of nations possessing individual souls. But far from gaining a thorough understanding of the issues each country faces and the struggles people face, I have only managed to capture glimpses of the souls of nations. If you care enough, you sense the moral and emotional nature of a country the moment you set foot outside the port and you see the ability of a nation’s government to treat its people with kindness, compassion and sympathy in the eyes of men, women and children walking the streets. In many cases, what you pick up with your eyes and your senses belies the words of the tour guide.
But for us who come from the developed world, it is so easy to point fingers. The solutions to a country’s problem appear so simple if only the will and determination were present in leadership. Move over and let me handle it! Just clean up the garbage, get rid of your corrupt leaders, take charge of your country’s resources and work towards the common good for everyone. Done – problem solved!
The souls of many nations show deep wounds. Wounds inflicted by powers from the outside through centuries (if not millennia) of various types of colonialism and slavery and most recently by the very individuals who have been entrusted with the well-being of its own people. But also consider the “false prophets”, countries like China and Japan which are currently reaching out with a helping hand only to expect access to the countries’ resources in return.
But what do we expect: that Angola should act like Norway and Brunei like New Zealand? The wounded soul of a nation takes generations to heal. I believe effective change can come from the people and through the people as soon as they start to believe in their own worth and power – something akin to a deliberate and gentle “Arab Spring”. That is something the world community can encourage but not impose on wounded nations.
My wife Kit asked me this morning: “Why have you been so quiet during the past few days?” I don’t know, but her question prompted me to explore my inner state. Did this journey affect me that deeply? Did I see myself in the eyes of the many adults and children I photographed? Has my soul been touched by the things I have seen and experienced? How has the journey changed my view of the world? To what a degree did I have to face my own demons as I crawled into the slave dungeon in Togo?
Of all the pictures I have taken during this journey, this simple and not so great photo has touched me the most. I took it out of a bus window on my way to Grand Bassam in Cote d’Ivoire. The seemingly forlorn woman gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean, the beauty for the landscape, the ever-present garbage – the picture speaks volumes about the contrasting faces of Africa, especially when you consider the scene across the street: a dirty, crowded market with yelling vendors, smoldering trash and stifling heat. Is the woman dreaming of a better life or is she just having a cigarette while taking a break from her shopping?
That is the challenge we all face as travelers. How can we travel and assess fairly the human condition with our own set of filters that have been shaped by our upbringing, our experiences and our beliefs?
It will take me some time to adjust to my daily routine at home, to put into perspective everything I have experienced and to sieve through my sad, happy and angry emotions that have been triggered in the various places.
Better wait a couple of weeks before checking out the itinerary for my next journey…