by Ira Rabois
No umbrella, getting soaked,
I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.
~Daito Kokuji Zen Master from the 13th Century Japan
In 1969, after graduating from college, I served in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Sierra Leone. I taught English and sometimes math or health to children age seven to nineteen. English was the official language of the country, but for my students it was their third or fourth. The school was a cinder block rectangle, although most of the homes of my students were small mud buildings with a thatch roof. The only books the school had were old English novels. I remember finding H. Rider Haggard novels in the classroom. I was 22 years old, and when you’re that young, it’s easy to think you know something when you don’t.
The Republic of Sierra Leone is a country in West Africa on the equator. It had been a British colony until 1961, when it became an independent nation. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. When I flew into the country, I felt I was flying not only to a new place but also back in time. The green of the jungle seemed so much greener than any forests I had known. The straw huts of the countryside resembled the homes of people I had read about in history books.
One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. We were on a frequently used path, but the jungle was so thick that without my guide, I would barely have known it was there. The beginning of the rainy season was nearly upon us, so I carried with me a red, white, and orange umbrella—large, like a walking stick, with a solid wood core. Actually, the umbrella was a prized and valuable possession of mine. I used it once to fend off a poisonous grey snake I almost collided with when walking in a field. The only problem was that when I carried the umbrella, I sometimes felt like a movie version of a British colonialist swinging a cane as he walked.
The headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates. I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. His short hair was mostly black, with only a hint of grey. He walked at a good pace, like someone for whom exercise was a normal part of life, not something extra added at a gym.
As we came out from the cover of the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining, light and cool. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. In 1967, there had been, first, a closely contested election, then a coup d’etat, which was overturned by a military junta. In 1968, a popular movement overthrew the junta, which turned into one-party rule. It was not unusual for people to be imprisoned for what they said.
Since there was no one else around, I spoke frankly. I argued change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business in his country and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a reality but a necessity, because of the political conditions in his country. As the rain increased in intensity, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.”
“No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”
Instead of huddling to get away from the rain, the cold, and the miserable feeling of being soaked, I suddenly realized I could allow myself to feel the raindrops as my raincoat. I was not an isolated, skin-wrapped soaking package. I was one small element of a world constantly re-creating itself. And only when I acted with this larger perspective in mind would my actions be truly effective.