My first night in Mampujan, the community leaders came to Juana’s house to meet me. The evening turned into an impromptu meeting about community events. Voices were raised. I didn’t understand everything, but the tone felt was harsh. I went to bed that night convinced that I had witness the fragmentation of leadership. I woke up in the morning to the sounds of Juana cooking breakfast as Alex cut Gabriel’s hair before church. Last night’s incident meant nothing in the laughter of the day.
I gradually learned that all of this was normal- that people expressed their passions a bit more in this part of Colombia than in my part of Canada- and that a few direct phrases were never the end of the world. In my last week in Mampujan, Juana laughed until she cried when I finally told her how convinced I had been that first night that everything was over. Everytime we saw each other over the years, she would remind me of the incident, bursting into laughter all over again.
Everything is orderly here in Ottawa. Politicians do yell at each other across the aisles in the House of Commons, but only at the prescribed time for yelling. The rest of the time, we nod politely at each other, plan out events for three years in the future, start our meetings precisely on time, and focus on saving for our retirement funds. Besides the polite nodding, I no longer know how to do any of this.
Of course, life here isn’t simply stable and steady. Domestic violence. Sexual abuse. Structuralized racism. The increasing awareness that we ourselves are not only the perpetrators, but also the victims of climate change. Yet somehow life has shrunk into the quiet surfaces of an Alice Munro story: everything is happening, but nothing appears disturbed. I have trouble distinguishing despair from complacency. It is easy to assume that a soft-spoken answer is a passive one after spending years in a context that recites Pablo Neruda and breathes struggle.
On a recent plane ride back to Ottawa, from another round of meetings, my seat companion and I strike up a conversation. He is an Indigenous chaplain and a member of the Canadian forces. I am a Mennonite development practitioner. As the conversation meanders, we gently prod each other’s motivations and actions. How can you dare to go to another country and tell people how to live? Isn’t the army simply one more form of colonization? We discuss complexity, culture, conflict, and tell each other stories about how we see the world. We circle back to humility and the joy that lies in discovering mistakes. To recognize when we are wrong means that we are opening ourselves to new ways of understanding.
“I once watched two members of the community raise their voices with each others. I assumed it was anger.” He tells me, a life lesson in story form. “My aunt, an elder in training, asked me to look at other ways to understand the emotions present. She guided me to see passion, to see concern, and to see the deep care for the community present.” He paused and leaned forward. “I was able to better understand and do my work when I allowed my interpretation of events to be wrong.”
Instantly, I am back in Mampujan, watching community leaders in heated discussion. I tell my new friend the story. He also roars with laughter. As we gather our belongings and prepare to return to our everyday lives, we remind each other of the importance of conversations and relationships, of history and friendship that shapes and informs the way we understand the world.
I miss the way my mouth feels when I speak Spanish. I miss the shared vocabulary of vocation: lucha, resistencia, solidaridad. Am I willing to learn how to see all over again? To make mistakes, to learn from them, to question assumptions I don’t even know I have? This is a journey for humility and laughter.