Tuesday, October 25, 2016

One Step Removed

Face to face and familiar; that's the norm for community.  In a community of just a few thousand residents, most days will include regular encounters with friends and acquaintances. Such a community has natural constraints for behavior, manners, family, and business practices.

Just one step removed, anonymity.  In a densely populated region, coming and going commonly occurs without familiar faces.  Those with whom you share the road are just shadow people of no consequence.  We needn't greet them politely or treat them graciously.  If fact, rude words are common, and aggressive maneuvers are frequent, things you'd never do to a friend or a family member.  Why might that be?

In one small west African country, everyone knows everyone and their parents and siblings and cousins.  There is no anonymity, and consequently, little misbehavior and no particular crime to worry about.  Children run free and everyone watches out for them.  Extended families are close, and they depend on each other.  Only a few have extracted themselves from the culture to pursue wealth and prestige instead of place and belonging.  Most are too intimately tied to one another to stray far.  It's an interesting dynamic; is it preferable?

Apart from poverty and frequently inadequate diet, citizens of this small country are better equipped for life than most in the developed world.  Children are confident, cross-generationally engaged, and knowledgeable about their culture and environment.  They learn essential skills by working alongside their parents and others.  Compared to inner-city children in the U.S., these African children are perhaps fortunate in many ways.

In inner-city Baltimore, most children in one student group had a family member or friend they knew who had died from street violence, most were regularly exposed to the drug culture, most had an unstable home life.  Those issues are minimal or nonexistent in this one African community.  Uncommon, perhaps, but instructive.
Despite my poor grasp of their language, they patiently
educated me in the ways of family, work, and respect.
It took a few years, and there is still so much more.
Every day, I'm thankful to these great folks.

I was a stranger working in their country, and they took me in.  They made a place for me among them and taught me much about the real world.  That reality, more than years of academic pursuit, has opened doors I didn't know were there.

It's easy in our busy lives to remain comfortably narrow in our circle of friends, but should we perhaps deliberately expand to include ... more of the real world?

Social theory suggests, among other things, that healthy community includes interpersonal engagement, residential proximity, and open area for activities.  It suggests that complex engagement and interaction produces equality, opportunity, advancement, and benefit for most if not all.  
It suggests further that high density population areas tend to decline in all of those categories.  Why might that be?