It’s a Monday in Costa Rica and the new class on International Refugee Law is beginning. I am very excited. I run to get the school bus at 8:30 am which takes me about 15 minutes to get to school. The school bus is generally not a place you think very touchy discussions will take place, touchy to the point of forcing you to write about them. I am seated in the bus, not much to say apart from a few hellos and trying to figure out who is the new class. Then half way the journey I hear this good discussion on insurgents somewhere in Asia. I am so interested so I listen to two students exchange their views.
Then at one point comes the question of statistics. Are there Muslims in your country? Yes but a small number like about one percent and the rest is other religions.
And the next question is shot: so what’s the rest? Answer: Buddhists. And Christians? Also few like one percent. Then a sigh… “I am glad there are few Christians in your country.” I turn around to observe the reactions and i hear “I don’t like Christians” with an expression as if Christians were something filthy.
Watching this I felt my stomach tighten. I guess out of anger but not quite because I didn’t feel the thing around my neck that sometimes makes it hard to breath. I think it was a mixture of anger, surprise and disappointment. Surprise because I have not heard someone insult me seated that close and someone I see every day. Disappointment , well I always expect a certain degree of respect.
From Uganda, I have heard people loudly say certain slurs about my tribe – not exclusive, every tribe its own punches but they make much more impact when you’re the target. But when such comes from a certain people off the street then you tend to overlook it many times. You hope at they will someday unlearn their hatred and the whole guilt by associations that has reigned in many societies.
So this bus conversation reminded me of those street and taxi insults. The difference in this case is that not only you’re insulted but that it comes from people you expect to keep respecting. I wanted to lean forward ask what this student’s story was. What bad experiences they had seen so maybe I could try to ‘justify’ their insensitive portrayal of their dislike but since that wasn’t my conversation in the first place that was out of bounds.
Karl Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses and he was never wrong. The conversation comes after a weekend of seeing gross stories and pictures from Jos, Nigeria where at least 265 people believed to have died in religious rioting hit headlines. Then I asked myself would such kind of dislike allow such a person to see that the 265 Nigerians were Muslim and Christians most of them just victims? Would such a person feel for Haitians of whom about 85 percent are catholic? I don’t know, I am only left to wonder about when the opium will run out or if it will ever.
I believe you don’t have to hate another religion to justify your own beliefs. I love Gandhi’s words, “I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
May be this student has seen so many unchrist-like people but to profess your hatred of a people in a bus where about 2 in five are Christians is not the modest way to disagree.
Well I was compelled to write this bus ride conversation because it’s not the only one I have found puzzling. I have for instance heard comments like, “I was in Africa for a few months and when I finish my studies here I will head back there to save some Africans. They really need help.” All this well audible for at least four Africans on the bus to hear.
Then there have been others like people in the southern hemisphere are lazy. Not said to me but in the midst of many people from that part of the world. I am sure more such conversations take place in many places and such constructed views of the world exist among people you least expect but trust me it always has a knocking down effect to those who are there to listen.
2 thoughts on “Conversations from a School bus”
I’ve always loved that quote. I was an intern at a Christian organization before and when i left, they didnt give a good impression of Christians. I think there is a story behind their insult but it doesn’t give them a right to insult a whole group.
I would have felt bad myself. I hate tribalism, fighting between religions…i hate it all…i do love bus conversations but i hardly talk.
Anywhere else in the world, as you imply, this would almost be a non-issue; people who subscribe to exclusionary, absolutist belief structures will always persecute subscribers of different exclusionary, absolutist belief structures.
At the University for Peace, this is seriously depressing. If this kind of openly discriminatory attitude and closed-mindedness can prevail in the global paragon for tolerance, understanding, compassion and cooperation, then I wonder at what kind of rational optimism there can be for the foreseeable future.
My prescription: many strong drinks.