I sometimes say good morning to people on the street as I walk to work as a form of social experiment. Nuns are my favourite as they are quick to respond, usually with a smile. Others usually look at me, perplexed, and then may mumble something or just ignore me altogether. The shoeshine man always greets me before I have a chance to say anything to him, but I believe other factors may be involved.
“No da papaya” is a popular saying here in Bogota. It literally translates to “Don´t give papaya” and means not allowing someone the opportunity to take advantage of you. There is a high level of mistrust and urban crime in the city and we are encouraged not to stop to talk to strangers, to be aware of our surroundings at all times, not to carry valuables, not to take money out of ATMs at night, etc. Not following these safety precautions is the equivalent of handing out free tropical fruit to everyone on the street.
Everyone has a story about how they were taken advantage of in some way, or know someone who has. In a team meeting, a colleague shared about an incident on the Transmileno (Bogota´s above ground metro system) where a woman holding a small child was repeatedly bumping against a seated man in the crowded bus. Holding to common courtesy, the man stood up to give his seat to the woman and her child. Later, he realized that she has picked his pockets while appearing to only need a seat. Another colleague then told us how he had witnessed a fight break out on his way to work over who had to give up their seat to a very pregnant woman on the bus. Other friends have told me how they have stopped to help someone asking for directions and then been robbed.
It all makes sense. As a blonde, green-eyed woman, I am automatically a giant walking papaya and need to take the appropriate security precautions. I have been mugged before (not in Bogotá) and understand the validity of taking precautions. Yet, it is hard to think of a post-conflict scenario with all of this mistrust in the air. How can we rebuild this country if we cannot even say good morning to each other on the street without questioning motives?
I am a firm believer in peace processes and signed accords. But I also believe that changing the narrative we tell about each other and ourselves is a way of building peace from the bottom up. A new incentive, of which Justpaz is part, is called Reconciliation Colombia that focuses on telling stories of ordinary people who have done the extraordinary: communities that have forgiven perpetrators of violence, former combatants in different armed groups working together, people from different regions coming together to discuss differences and similarities, campesinos planting cocoa instead of coca.
Yet, we cannot only focus on the extraordinary. Each one of us also has a story about the good things we have experienced from strangers. For example, I have seen countless people give up their seats for children or disabled people on the Transmilenio, yet we hold to the narrative that those around us always have our worst interests in mind and those are the incidents that we talk about. What would happen if every day I told my colleagues and myself about all the people I passed that did not attack me, the taxi drivers that did not kidnap me, the men that did not remark on how attractive they found my legs? What if I remembered that I also do not always have the worst interest of those around me in mind?
This does not mean we deny the complex challenges facing Colombian society and the reality of urban crime, but rather recognize that part of overcoming these challenges means changing the story we tell about ourselves and about the other. Martin Buber, the author of I and Thou writes, “I do not know of any political activity more harmful than regarding ones ally or opponent as if he were cast in a fixed mold. When we consider him ‘like that,’ we fall victim to the irrationality of his existence, only when we pay attention to the fact that human nature is much the same the world over will we be able to come to reality.” We all are able to change and move beyond imposed stereotypes, papaya or not.