This I Believe

Ellen - Albany, New York
Entered on April 18, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65

Common Goals, Uncommon People

I believe that people of different faiths and backgrounds can get along and work together if they can only find a common goal to work toward. It may be an elusive and tenuous peace, but I believe we have no other choice but to try.

I lived for many years in the Ivory Coast, and my most vivid memories revolve around the local organization I worked for. One project I oversaw was a revolving fund for market women. We gave them small loans to start up or expand their businesses, and invited them to monthly meetings where we talked about nutrition, hygiene, AIDS prevention, and aspects of running a microenterprise.

I worked with a team of four field agents — two men and two women, two Muslim and two Christian. We went into a half-dozen neighborhoods of Abidjan, where in each case the field worker who best spoke the local language would run the training session.

Sometimes we ate with the women. I ate attiéké with Adioukrou women, fried plantains with Bété women, drank spicy ginger juice with Dioula women, and sweet red bissap with Burkinabé women.

Each week the field workers would return to the neighborhoods to monitor the women’s progress and to collect a small amount of money in repayment of their loans. Our goal was to see the tiny businesses prosper, and our hope was to see the women’s families rise out of poverty. We had many success stories. Martine, who sold smoked fish in the market, earned enough money to send her children to school. Jacqueline learned enough to head her own neighborhood group.

But that was all ten years ago and much has changed in the Ivory Coast since then. A coup d’etat in 1999 led the country to the brink of civil war, in which there has been a stalemate for the last four years. My husband’s hometown now lies in a No-Man’s Land between the Muslim north and the Christian south. But that is such an over-simplification. In fact, the whole country is a mosaic of ethnic groups. It’s not half-and-half; it’s a mosaic — just like the rest of the world.

And what does the success of the Ivorian experiment matter — a small country of 15 million on the west coast of Africa? It matters because it’s a microcosm of what’s going on today in the rest of the world, where fanaticism has replaced moderation and tolerance. Is it even possible to talk about ecumenicalism in a Post 9/11 world? I believe we have no other choice but to try. But you have to believe in it strongly enough to walk in sandals through scorching sand, to step over piles of trash and dead rats to get to the meeting place, to take bush-taxis through dangerous neighborhoods where there may be no electricity or paved streets. But there, under the mango tree, the table is set with meat and fish. The others are waiting. I’ll meet you there.