Those recognizable words can easily be rounded out with the phrase “on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” Pretty sure every American or even westerner is familiar with those spoken fairy tale phrases.
I wondered about this phrase as I was out in the Tanzanian bush with the Massai. How old is this fairy tale and to what cultures did it spring from? One thing is for sure regardless of where it was conceived it has no life here out in the dry barren land of the village of red rock. Located about 1 ½ hours of rough terrain by vehicle lies this community of families who cannot relate to this whimsical phrase.
In my short 10 day stint here, I never saw myself once, at least not physically. There are no mirrors and thank goodness I had the foresight NOT to bring one. I started to wonder about this on day 3 when I’m sure I was a hideous mess and I could feel my hair but could not see what it was doing. . That was probably best. I must be quite the sight. But then another thought occurred to me. Who cares? Not my fellow travelers, and I know that the villagers don’t care. Heck they think I’m strange person anyway with the muzungo skin and the platinum white hair (that I earned, not paid for).
No one has a mirror here. And I started thinking about that and how it‘s absence plays into their culture. You look in the mirror to look at YOURSELF. To see, admire, judge or correct your appearance. They don’t have or do that here. In fact they just don’t place a lot of focus on self. They don’t take selfies, they don’t own cameras. They don’t have time to sketch, paint or draw portraits of themselves or have others do it for them.
That’s a lot of time freed up right there. Don’t think it adds up to a lot?
Count today how many times you look in the mirror- at home, in your car, at work, in the bathrooms at shopping establishments or restaurants. And then think about all the places you try to get a glimpse of yourself: reflections in windows, water or silverware (I have seen this, don’t laugh) I’m so guilty of this. My mother once said I never met a window glance I didn’t like! ( Haa and ouch!)
Now add in how many selfies you take a day. How many pictures you are in taken by others. How many social media sites you post to and how many pictures you look at where you try to find yourself in them. And then repost, comment and relook. How much money have we spent on pictures, portraits and painting of ourselves? I’m a scrapbook guru, I love the recording of memories. But I also realize that all the recording actually makes my mind’s memory weaker. I don’t have to memorize your face. I can just document it.
SO this thinking became very interesting to me and a bit convicting.
I’m not rubbing it in anyone’s faces, just sharing this epiphany I had and inviting you to examine your own actions. And while a simple selfie is harmless enough and the majority of people do them. I feel as though we never really ask “why?” we do the common things we do. Why do we take a selfie? Why does everyone do it? Why is it good or bad? What does is contribute to? Is it worth doing because the majority do It.? Is it simple fun that got infected with a hit of self-absorption steroids? I mean if the majority jumped off a bridge, would you do that too? (I know I have just quoted the majority of everyone’s mother here- irony)
But what would happen if we as intelligent human beings stopped and asked ourselves a few why questions? And then actually heard and listened to our own answers? Would it all make sense or would we be confused as to why we do what we do., or even ashamed?
So one thing I noticed about the Massai community that is lacking in my own is the interdependence. We preach independence, but in Africa I found that interdependence is essential to the community, to the family and to each individual. One reason being that life is harder in Africa. Harder to get water, to cook meals, to travel, to maintain a home, to receive an education, to develop a skill, to bear children, to earn an income. Because of this, there is not a great deal of time leftover for self-focused activities like selfies or gazing in the mirror.
As the week went on I found that I thought less and less about how I looked and more and more about how I functioned. I paid attention to my body and its abilities, and limitations; to my conscious and my thinking patterns. I paid attention to those in front of me and the work we shared before us. , . My vision wasn’t blocked by my selfie shot, camera, or phone. I didn’t speak the same language as these women and yet rather than a barrier it kept me focused on our interactions. Focused on their faces and body language. Attention was paid to their words as I tried to decipher what was being said to me and concentrate on what was coming out of my mouth. It also kept me focused in harmony on things that we were doing together; from serving a meal, to dancing, attempting conversation, or worship.
It is an attention factor that I had lost somewhere in the attention grabbing, never focusing, concentration starved world I live in I have , the ability to really look and to really listen to others,, but I am guilty of letting distraction take me away.. And to be honest, focusing was more natural to do in Tanzania without the noise of modern life. Those radios in my every background, traffic sounds, ringing phones, electronics chirps, and the TV on for the sake of piercing the silence just didn’t exist. The Africans speak very softly because they can. One person talks at a time. They don’t interrupt. They say honest and important things. They don’t use extra words. They just look you in the eye, speak intentional and soft. And this is how they respect you, they give you the greatest offering they have. Their time and their full attention. This was a humbling and beautiful lesson for a loud and spazy chick from Alabama.
The mirror, the one that isn’t on their wall, clearly speaks back, claiming that the fairest of them all is not the one who seeks to be named, but the one who looks into the faces and souls of others.