I Like Bananas but I am no Monkey
When I began Changes for New Hope back in 2009, I was not sure exactly what form the project would morph into. I had the general idea that the destitution found among the children would be eliminated where I could address it. With each passing week the lines were colored in and the project was more clearly defined as to what we needed to be doing. The children themselves were the best teachers to show me what their needs were in each growing group. Then there was Valeria.
Valeria was one of the sweetest little children among our Secsecpampa group. Getting to Secsecpampa was a workout. After a short combie ride, we would trek up the side of a mountain whose path was a series of narrow muddy paths with long drops to the hard ground below, washed out rocky gorges, as we pulled ourselves along using exposed root systems. I am quite sure that mountainside gets higher with every passing year. I take more breaks now than I did years ago.
A few of the Secsecpampa kids, Valeria on the far right
When she was just a little five year old, wide eyed curious newcomer, she told me something that amazed me. “My mommy said I can not come here anymore and I am sad.” I couldn’t imagine why, so I asked with gentle concern. “She said you are a Gringo and all Gringos are monkeys.” I could hear the needle scratching across a record. “Oh really! I am a gringo, but do you think I am a monkey?” Valeria was confused, ”No, that is why I am sad. Maybe you should come talk to my mommy.” Oh yes dear girl we will definitely be having a little chat with mom.
As it turned out her mother had never actually met anyone who was a gringo before, had no experiences with gringos except for passing them in the Huaraz streets when she went to the market each week. Somewhere along the way she had come to the conclusion that, as a gringo, I was no more evolved than my chimpanzee ancestors. While there may be a series of broken hearts back in Baltimore that would concur, in Peru, I had to end this before her racism spread to ill affect the entire village. What else could I say? “I like bananas but I am no monkey!” I went on to explain who I was, let her get to know me and once she understood and accepted why I was there, the fear of the unknown melted and we became friends. Valeria, seven years later, is a junior leader in our project.
Racism, discrimination, fear of the unfamiliar and ultimately attaching negative stereotypes is a line that gets drawn between people. The “Us” and “Them” mentality has been the cause of wars, bitter hatred and fighting that has torn families apart, communities and the world. A ten minute news story on any channel will confirm that. Hatred is hard. It takes a lot of energy to hate and continue hating. Courts are filled with people acting on their hate. Uniforms around the world define the “Us’s” and the “Them’s”. A better world is available to each of us just for the asking. Humanitarians are erasing those lines that divide us daily. We tear down walls that separate us. We resist the differences by building bridges where walls one stood.
When we realize that the street sweeper and the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company will both spend a very long time in the same deep earth, as will each of us from every political, religious, social strata, color or walk of life, it seems almost silly to draw lines between us. Once I had a conversation with Valeria’s mother, I evolved a million years in a short afternoon. From a knuckle-walking primate to a teacher and leader of a social movement in her community that has brought children hope, purpose and a passion for life. I smiled as I walked down the muddy trail back to the combie that would take me back to Huaraz, enjoying the banana she gave me.
Until next week, Live large my friends, live deliberately.