US author David Foster Wallace called it our natural, hard-wired, default position, the belief each of us has that we are the absolute centre of the universe.
The problem with that default position, he goes on, is that our own feelings and thoughts are so immediate, pressing and real that we can only ever see the rest of the world through the lens of our own singular experience. The usual result is “blind certainty, a closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.”
Leongatha resident, Cherie Smirl, knows a bit about this profoundly human disability. Looking back on her childhood on a dairy farm she confesses: “I must have driven my mother crazy because I always wanted to be going somewhere”.
She milked cows with her husband for 20 years but over the years she grew bolder. She opened the popular Hard Loch Cafe in Loch and simultaneously ran a successful catering business, “I’ve always felt pigeon-holed and that’s always made me want to rebel,” she says.
She travelled through India, Thailand and much of Asia. South Africa affected her the most, especially Soweto. She was moved by the intimate relationship between skin colour and social injustice, between black skin and poverty.
Wanting to do something, she contacted Projects Abroad, a global volunteering organisation, and last year, aged 60, spent a month in a Tanzanian orphanage. Projects Abroad had organised her placement in Arusha, given her training and a support network. She took music games and play dough. She was going, so she thought, well prepared.
But no. After less than an hour in Arusha she was overwhelmed by grief and panic. “The naysayers were right,” she told herself. “I’ve made a terrible mistake!”
It was the taxi ride through the frenzied chaos of the city that undid her: the cooking fires, the goats, poultry, piki piki bikes, Dalla Dalla buses, donkeys, mutant dogs, rubbish and, everywhere, people “vying for a share of a frail and diminished economy”.
“It was incredibly confronting. The poverty, yes, but I think more so, the sheer extent of it.” Delusion-free, she now saw that “a month here was a hopeless gesture and could achieve little”.
Cherie Smirl, dairy farmer, chef, grandmother, had lost her compass; she was lost in some grey no-man’s land where nothing was familiar, nothing certain. She’d thought it was a matter of kissing a few cheeks, having some fun times and lives would change. And here she was in the orphanage – “it was my home, after all, for a month – and suddenly all my play dough and music games seemed incredibly meaningless in the scale of what was needed.” She had understood nothing.
It was the children at Tumaini Children’s Village who stood her back on her feet and restored her sense of self. Their love and delight were unconditional. “To feel valued by people who have nothing is part of it,” Cherie explains. “We in the West are given so much but struggle to express appreciation.”
The children gave her something else that was equally extraordinary: a sense of her own unique self. “They didn’t see me as a 60-year-old grandmother. They saw me as me. I loved that!”
Tanzania made her question more intensely the values she’d been brought up with: that a black skin is intrinsically suspect; that material possessions are linked to happiness; that poverty is acceptable.
She’s learned that people who live in abject poverty can be more open-hearted than we are. A visit to a Maasai Village was a defining moment. “They were as proud and strong as I had ever imagined.” She knew that she was over her initial sense of dislocation, she says, “when I could laugh aloud about my own life and how it might look to them”.
In the end, her own strength surprised and encouraged her. “Encountering a culture in this way requires an incredible resolve to respect and appreciate where we might easily pity and want to change.”
David Foster Wallace would have cheered. We have real choices, he says. We can choose to be a slave to our head and to our “natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out”. Or, he says, we can do the incredibly hard thing of paying attention, day by day, to the world around us.
In Tanzania, Cherie was paying attention to a reality that said “no child asks to be born, definitely not in these circumstances, and love alone is just not enough to get them through”.
She had never anticipated the level of responsibility she would feel toward the children at the orphanage or that, having paid attention, she would feel unwaveringly, deeply obligated.
She’s talked to the Tanzanian consul about educational resources she’s developing with her Danish friend, a volunteer teacher she met in Arusha. They hope to strengthen the children’s academic performance so they can go up to the next level rather than disappear into the streets. She’s lucky, she says, because she has real links to a place with real needs “that I have the resources to meet”.
Cherie is due to return to Tanzania in June. She’s off, as she describes it, to put her toe in the water.
Projects Abroad offers volunteer placements world wide in an immense range of vocations. The Tumaini for Africa Foundation orphanage cares for 22 orphans. You can contact Cherie firstname.lastname@example.org.