By Jacky Yenga
This translates into “we are together” in Maka’a, a dialect from the East of Cameroon.
In my country, we say that a lot, usually at the time when we are leaving, as if to remind the other person that although we are no longer going to be with them physically, we are still together in spirit. It’s not just an expression, it’s a REAL and meaningful experience of togetherness. You KNOW that a person is speaking the truth when they say “we are together” as they leave, because it’s a reality that we collectively share and agree upon.
For me, community is both a FEELING and a MINDSET. It has nothing to do with an event or a group of people who happen to share common interests. The embodiment of the feeling and the mindset is what I call the Spirit of the Village. It is the KNOWING beyond any doubt that people are standing behind me, and they will step up to be on my side when I need them. I believe that people here in North America don’t easily speak up and stand up against bullies or against something wrong when they witness it because they KNOW that no one else will stand with them when it really comes down to it. They won’t be followed by the collective, so why take a chance? In such an environment, standing up is not an act of courage but more like a suicide mission or a death wish! No wonder whenever somebody stands up to do the right thing, we see them on TV and talk about this “exceptional” and heroic thing they did. In my country we don’t… it’s just business as usual and in fact it is the act of not doing anything that would stand out and be talked about!
As a child, I was taught that I had to protect those who were younger than me and more at risk. I would be scolded if I was the one being mean to a younger child, and would be explained that they didn’t yet know better and therefore as the older kid, it was my responsibility to guide and protect them. This is not just a nice concept and a great principle to hope to live by! This is how I was brought up, and it was my reality when I was living in Cameroon as a child. A lot of things have changed in my country since then, but this still remains true today. I have often witnessed people collectively standing up to defend their own. Even when that person or child did something wrong, they would first stand up to defend and protect them and then discipline them afterward for doing something wrong in the first place. When I was a child, my own sense of self, sense of value, self-assurance and sense of safety depended on KNOWING that people were standing behind me and would stand up FOR ME when I’d need it.
As a result, moving to France at the age of 9 and not experiencing that same commitment toward “being together” both inside my new home and outside was for me an indication that I no longer had any worth as a human being, I was insignificant and I didn’t matter enough for people to bother to want to protect me, to include me and make me feel safe. I was on my own! For the first time in my short life! It was a deeply traumatic experience that also brought a great sense of shame: what was so wrong about me that no one was standing beside or behind me? What did I do so wrong that God was punishing me in what was for me at the time, based on my experience in Cameroon and my understanding of life, the WORST possible way? I guess this was, has been and still is my mountain to climb.
What about you?
WHO IS STANDING BEHIND YOU?
Do you ponder upon that in the background of your mind, as you live your day to day life?
What does community mean to you? And what does it mean to live as a community on a daily basis and to have a SENSE of being IN community? Hopefully your definition of community includes BELONGING and BEING INVOLVED. That’s the feeling part.
How do you perceive others in your community? Would you stand behind them, whether they are friends or perfect strangers, when it’s the right thing to do? Can you stand behind them even when you are disappointed with or mad at them? Is your commitment to community conditional to how you feel, or is it embedded in you? Is it what life is about for you?
This is NOT about a nice feel-good concept or another inspiring story… Community comes together in celebration AND in difficulty. It’s all of it, good or bad. That’s the mindset part. It doesn’t matter how you feel, when it’s your turn to stand behind someone you do it because that’s the only way to live: in support of each other, the best we can.
People here have so much to say about community, and yet I do not experience the sense of KNOWING what community is about. If you were to go to my village, Abong-Mbang, and ask villagers what community is, they wouldn’t know what to say! They don’t have a definition of community because they are too busy living as a community… In fact, the word community doesn’t exist in my dialect, nor does the word family for that matter, because the words are irrelevant. Here we get fooled by the fact that we CAN talk about something and still not know about it, but we act as if we knew! And the more we use scientific or complicated words to describe something, the more we APPEAR to know what we are talking about! I once heard someone say that “you really only KNOW what you DEMONSTRATE”! Until people demonstrate a real sense of community living, I don’t think they know what they are talking about. Most people just want to feel inspired and are easily seduced by nice stories that make them feel good and hopeful about our human race, while others are sincere in their desire for real community living, but go about it by focusing on programs, systems and structures. The truth is, all of this does not matter! Unless you already feel community and have a community mindset, all the great structures in the world won’t give you the experience of community, only the illusion of it. But when you have the “right” mindset, you will more likely develop programs, systems and structures that will support such a mindset.
Remember: one process does not lead to another. You cannot hold individualistic values in your mind and expect that connection and a sense of togetherness will be the manifested result in the outer world. You have to FIRST create that sense of TOGETHERNESS within you, and only then will you more easily and effortlessly manifest it in the outside reality. If systems, programs and structures where the answer, all the community programs and community centers we have around Vancouver BC would be enough to bring people together and get them more involved in our collective experience. In fact, we wouldn’t really need them… and no one would commit suicide because they’d feel too lonely.
In Vancouver, we have such a unique opportunity to have the best of both worlds: material abundance combined with a real sense of community. It IS possible to achieve it.
In your definition of community, you have to move from conceptual to functional and figure out a way to make community real in your day-to-day experience of life.
How do you do that? You develop a community mindset.
How do you develop a community mindset? That’s another story…
About Jacky Yenga
My African ancestors knew that focussing on our relationships to one another resulted in wellbeing, a greater sense of belonging, and more harmony and abundance in the village. This is true everywhere. I am honored to be the messenger of their wisdom, to help celebrate life, to heal and enrich lives. To find out more about The Spirit of the Village, check out my programs page.