Guest Post by OWYP Thought Leadership Fellow, Vivian Ojo
One afternoon, four months into the academic year, I returned from class to find my roommate in a frantic state. She was concerned that because our two countries were engaged in active war, our friendship was now in jeopardy. She did not want “politics to come between us”. The gesture came from a good place, however, I am not from Libya, I am in fact from Namibia. “But it is all the same thing isn’t it, one country with different states, just like here?” I smiled at the 20-year-old in awe and proceeded to give her a detailed geography lesson from which she learned that Egypt was in Africa while Haiti was not. Four months into our relationship, she wanted to know about where I was from because she already knew who I was. It was not the other way around. Today my roommate is one of my closest friends and I have since learnt so much from her, but that incident left me concerned about the undercurrent of a greater global issue that I believe we must begin to address.
I joined OWYP in December 2011 with this very mission of global paradigm shifting. The OWYP mission of globalizing education in the global world is a simple concept. The premise is this; the world we live in is changing. We are becoming more technologically, economically and scientifically integrated with one another, so we must equip ourselves with the capacity to culturally integrate. I do not conclude that not many people know that Africa is a continent of many independent nations, but with the low level of global empathy and understanding of others in many areas, this may as well be the case.
Since Woodrow Wilson’s ‘jaw jaw jaw’ analogy in 1945, the trend has leaned toward talking about global issues using intense spurts of dialogues in the form of summits and conferences. However, if we do not know who we are talking to and see the commonalities between us then we talk in vain. It is not enough to just care about the issues we are trying to solve. Be it global hunger, global warming or even global dialogue, we must care about the characters with whom we are dealing with in problem solving in order to come up with sustainable and effective solutions.
From pioneer armchair anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan to contemporary outlooks on inter-cultural relations, it is clear to see that there has been progress. We no longer just read books about pristine “tribes” afar. Instead we leave the comforts of our cultures to explore others. The world has done a relatively good job of creating a type of global museum in which we can do tours and cruises and complete the check list of things to see in different countries, ranging from Eiffel tower to the Gaza pyramids. This is not enough. While this curiosity has its merits, without applying and even adopting the lessons of others to our own nations and communities, we may as well go to Vegas to complete the checklist in one location at a lower cost. Even if we know who we are as individual actors in our world, we must also understand who we are as a global cast, an ensemble.
I have few recollections about elementary school. I remember Mrs Hill’s bright yellow flowery dress that she seemed to wear daily, always accompanied by a big smile. I often wondered if she had many of the same dress stashed in her wardrobe. I do not remember much about Pythagoras’ theorem or even the songs we learnt to memorize the different countries in the world. What I do remember is my friend from Iran who was Baha’i. I don’t recall very much of my 6th grade syllabus but today if you asked me, I could tell you quite a bit about what it was like for a Baha’i girl in a Catholic school in Namibia. School is a fantastic place to learn about others. Not simply because the environment is centered around learning but also because as a student, your prejudices have not yet been fully fortified by society’s historical experiences. You like those who are nice to you, you eat that which taste good and you spend time with those you have fun with. If differences are inherent then finding similarities in spite of them is learned and we cannot allow the next generation to be unqualified in the valuable field.
Movements like OWYP are trying to shift basic anthropological rhetoric from questions like “how different are we?” to questions like “how similar are our differences and how can we contribute to our similar goals?” The basic answer in my opinion is relationships. All seven billion of us cannot be friends but we can each build well informed and empathetic relationship with the people we interact with and especially those who we learn with. Relationships are the most powerful resources we have to change our world. I will not forget Mrs Hill’s bright dress and matching smile, my friend from sixth grade and my roommate. Because I identified with their stories, I am inclined to consider the impact of my actions on the next Baha’i sixth grader in Namibia, or the next college student whose world map is distorted. I have been lucky to go to school in quite a few different countries where I could identify these stories and build these relationships. If we can create a space where these relationships can be created without the financial and even environmental cost of constant travel, then we have created a space for relationships that can change the trajectory of cultural relationships.