Published July 19th, 2016
A little over 10 years ago, I was living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and was a member of a Rotary Club there. Our meetings were held during lunchtime on Thursdays, from 1pm. Afterward, I typically had a coffee with some other members while we waited for traffic to die down so we could get home.
One Thursday, I was sitting with the President of the club and he introduced me to his friend who passed by our table. The gentleman was a prominent attorney in town. The man greeted me in English and I responded in English. He then asked if I was British or American as he could not detect my accent. I said I was born and raised in the States. He then looked me directly in the eye and said "I hate Americans."
I wasn't completely taken aback as it was not uncommon to experience hostility in Dar towards Americans in 2004-05. The city is predominantly Muslim and there was a lot of anger surrounding the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many believed that there were better responses to the 9/11 attacks than starting wars.
I did feel a little bit cornered however. My Rotary friend had invited this attorney to sit with us and I would have felt strange excusing myself. What I did instead surprised me: I took a long breath and said "Sir, how would you like me to respond to that statement?"
He smiled. And began to share the reasons why he hated Americans. I listened, without saying a word. Being a highly-educated attorney having lived in Europe and fluent in English, his explanations were clear, rational and enlightening to me.
I was very interested in hearing this man speak as I was finally getting some context behind a lot of shouting and words and pictures on t-shirts calling for harm, even death to Americans, that were available in a lot of places along the Swahili coast.
The man, a practicing Muslim born and raised in Tanzania, explained to me that he felt that aspects of American culture were being pushed on people from his completely different culture, including images of nearly-naked women, children disrespecting their elders and authority figures, and a general attitude that a Christian worldview was superior to an Islamic way of life. He noted that American pop culture as expressed in movies and music was becoming easily available in Tanzania, and young people especially were vulnerable towards losing their Tanzanian values because "Vehicles of American culture are very aggressive, provide very little context, and stomp like an elephant over other people's cultures and values." I nodded my head in agreement as he spoke, as I understood how he could see things in this way. After all, I had been living in Tanzania myself for over 5 years by that point, and had certainly started to assimilate to the culture there in some ways; especially the strong cultural values of tolerance of diversity, and humility. When I did watch some American movies there, or the American news media, I also felt ambushed at times. I started to understand where this man was coming from.
Then he explained that the then President George W. Bush looked and behaved like an overgrown child and therefore, combining all he was hearing and seeing from America, he felt the country was contributing to conflict in the world, like a bunch of disrespectful children. He was quite upset about it all and therefore chose to greet me with his statement "I hate Americans."
I decided to respond to his story by putting on my Sociologist hat. I distilled a whole course in Political Sociology into about 10 minutes. I gave a basic explanation of the electoral college (as much as I understood it) and a brief history of the challenged relationship between religion and the State (separation in theory, but not so easily in practice). I was attempting to paint the picture for him that America is a huge country, it is very diverse, and that in truth, large numbers of people (probably the majority) did not vote for Bush. And, in fact, stood for different values and beliefs. My friend, the President of the Rotary Club was listening intently to my story as well. My power point ended up being that in a nutshell, President Bush, even though he was the leader of our country, should not be viewed as the representative of the whole population. Not everybody shared his worldview, and, in fact, many Americans were equally unhappy with some choices made by the President as this Tanzanian attorney was. In fact, a lot of Americans, probably the majority, wanted peace in the world, did not perceive themselves as superior to other human beings of different races or religions, and did not wish to create enemies.
After I finished speaking, the attorney took a long breath, held out his hand, looked me in the eye and said "I retract my statement. I am sorry."
I remembered feeling relieved, like I had succeeded in averting an argument and actually shifting towards a bit of peace. I imagined these two men sharing our conversation with others in their lives and starting off the story with "Hey, I just met an American, and I didn't hate her. And from what she told us, there may be many more like her."
Also, I remember thinking how more conversations like the one I had that afternoon in Dar es Salaam need to happen, often, and urgently. I had been feeling a growing divide of people in this world hanging out only with those like themselves, those who they felt most comfortable with. And the knowledge of people who they perceived as unlike them was limited and led to misperceptions, pre-judgements and downright fear.
I am sad to say that things seem to have gotten worse in some ways in many parts of the world in the past 10 years. I still believe one of the best ways we can be agents of positive change is to simply have more one-on-one conversations with each other. To really listen to where the other person is coming from, and to share our sides with honesty and truth. We may not agree with each other at the end of the day, but we will certainly dispel some hatred and replace it with a little bit of love.