Saturday, September 18, 2010

a wise man

You know the kind of person that you just want to sit at their feet listen to them talk, because every word they say seems to be soaked with wisdom and depth?

I met someone like that yesterday. A friend of a friend told me I just had to meet this man, but didn't explain to me why. So I went to his home with no idea of what to expect.

When we arrived at the house, a 2-year-old boy was standing in the entry. We shook his hand: it just seemed like the right thing to do. He smiled back as we passed into a small courtyard containing some vines, flowers and household junk. I followed my friend into the salon: two beds with brown embroidered bedspreads and six metal chairs with flimsy cushions. A small television with a battery pack sat in the seat of honour at the end of the narrow room. Broken concrete floors and shipped yellow painting on the walls told me that this was not a wealthy house. But everything was tidy and clean and I felt I was in a home where there was love.

After waiting a few moments, a booming family man in a light blue robe burst in. He greeted each of us warmly and chuckled as I told him a mutual friend had recommended I come to meet him. He disappeared again and when he returned, he bore a tray with Sprite and candies

At first, we talked about mundane things: common friends, the fact that he's originally from a different part of the country but has lived here for almost 30 years, some of the projects he has worked on. Then, on a whim, I asked him if I could broach a more personal question: "Have you ever been asked by any of your neighbours or local friends to settle disputes, like between families or between tribes?"

"All the time!", he said. He hesitated to give me details, but I sensed it was humility, not timidity, that held him back. So I probed a bit more and, sure enough, he started talking. He told me of how he'd been called to distant villages to settle land disputes between nomads and farmers. How he'd been asked to review agricultural data and property deeds to recommend a solution when people he knew were at an impasse with a neighbour.

But as we talked, I discovered that there is one issue that he holds more dearly than others. That issue is gender. He shared a story of a man who divorced his wife over the phone. My new friend called up the man and asked if he could arbitrate to reconcile him with his wife, and began a slow and painful process of tempering his friend's expectations and encouraging the wife to make the decision that would be best for their children. He engaged trusted elders in their respected families to convince them, and they are now back together.

He also told me more heartbreaking stories, of women who had been mistreated by their husbands, and his face was pained as he told the stories. But I knew he was a wise man when he also explained to me the advice he would give to women to avoid such situations in the first place. No issue is one-sided, and here was someone who saw both sides.

I'd already overstayed my welcome, and he had a family to tend to. As I left, his wife came out to bid us farewell. She was a strong, joyful woman, and I could see in both pairs of eyes that they are good partners. Then we accompanied us out to the car, and he greeted our driver like a long-lost friend. I asked how they knew each other, and he just laughed and said he knows lots of people around town.

Yes, I most certainly want to sit at his feet for hours on end, and learn from him - and from his wife.

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