Awakin.org

Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

What I Learned In Africa

--by Henning Mankell (Feb 20, 2012)


I ended up in Africa because the plane ticket there was cheapest. I came and I stayed. For nearly 25 years I’ve lived off and on in Mozambique. Time has passed, and I'm no longer young; in fact, I'm approaching old age. But my motive for living this straddled existence, with one foot in African sand and the other in European snow, in the melancholy region of Norrland in Sweden where I grew up, has to do with wanting to see clearly, to understand.

The simplest way to explain what I've learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.

In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It's a principle that's been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. From my own experience, I’ve noticed how much faster I have to answer a question during a TV interview than I did 10, maybe even 5, years ago. It's as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at a loss for an answer. [...]

A number of years ago I sat down on a stone bench outside the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique, where I work as an artistic consultant. It was a hot day, and we were taking a break from rehearsals so we fled outside, hoping that a cool breeze would drift past. The theater’s air-conditioning system had long since stopped functioning. It must have been over 100 degrees inside while we were working.

Two old African men were sitting on that bench, but there was room for me, too. In Africa people share more than just water in a brotherly or sisterly fashion. Even when it comes to shade, people are generous.

I heard the two men talking about a third old man who had recently died. One of them said, "I was visiting him at his home. He started to tell me an amazing story about something that had happened to him when he was young. But it was a long story. Night came, and we decided that I should come back the next day to hear the rest. But when I arrived, he was dead."

The man fell silent. I decided not to leave that bench until I heard how the other man would respond to what he’d heard. I had an instinctive feeling that it would prove to be important.

Finally he, too, spoke.

"That's not a good way to die — before you’ve told the end of your story."

It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.

--Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally


Add Your Reflection:

Send me an email when another comment is posted on this passage.
Name: Email:

13 Previous Reflections:

 
On Oct 30, 2015 adam wrote:

i need help!!!! 



On Apr 11, 2015 Ongoiba wrote:

 It's through oral tradition that many African tribes transmit their history after the Nubian; Ancient Egyptian or Arabs writing; there no so much manuscript African history, it older that scripture



On Feb 23, 2012 Dinesh Mehta wrote:
 "Audio clip from this week's circle of sharing ..."



On Feb 21, 2012 Fay Acker wrote:
 

On Feb 21, 2012 Nancy Smeltzer wrote:
 I really resonated with the statement that we are afraid of silence because we don't know what to say.

On Feb 20, 2012 xiaoshan wrote:
 A good listener is one who also does not easily judge anything... or self opinionated.

On Feb 20, 2012 Manisha wrote:

Months ago I was sitting by the fire on a chilly night in the mountains. We had just finished watching the sun set and I turned my attention downward, looking deep into the lake. There was the crackle of the golden fire, the fish jumping in the water, the coyotes howling in the mountains, the paws and hooves of the bears and wild horses in the woods surrounding us. All the creatures moving, speaking, breathing, eating, living under the brilliant, starry sky. Everything was so alive. Each and every day, the lake reflects the stars, reverberates the coyote's howls, plays with the fish, and nourishes the bears and wild horses. It tells the stories of all the beings, the story with no ending. So I closed my eyes and listened to what the lake had to say. And in those moments I learned a few things about the lake itself. It is expansive, like a mother with her arms wide open to the children. It is unconditional in feeding the creatures, the rivers, and continuously softening the earth ar  See full.

Months ago I was sitting by the fire on a chilly night in the mountains. We had just finished watching the sun set and I turned my attention downward, looking deep into the lake. There was the crackle of the golden fire, the fish jumping in the water, the coyotes howling in the mountains, the paws and hooves of the bears and wild horses in the woods surrounding us. All the creatures moving, speaking, breathing, eating, living under the brilliant, starry sky. Everything was so alive. Each and every day, the lake reflects the stars, reverberates the coyote's howls, plays with the fish, and nourishes the bears and wild horses. It tells the stories of all the beings, the story with no ending. So I closed my eyes and listened to what the lake had to say. And in those moments I learned a few things about the lake itself. It is expansive, like a mother with her arms wide open to the children. It is unconditional in feeding the creatures, the rivers, and continuously softening the earth around it. And even with all of the life teeming within and outside of it, the lake is remarkably still, gentle, and forgiving. I yearn to be like the lake, the great listener in the heart of the valley.

Hide full comment.

On Feb 18, 2012 David Doane wrote:
 I also think we talk compulsively and listen poorly.  As Alcoholics Anonymous points out, we would do well to get the cotton out of our ears and put it in our mouths.  Talking can be valuable, when I have something worth saying and not just to avoid silence.  Listening can also be valuable, be it listening to myself or to others.  And it is important to listen to myself as well as to others.  Sometimes I'm surprised at what I hear in listening to myself or others, and those are sometimes enlightening moments.  I also think listening is a way to care and be respectful.  I think we cultivate the ability to listen in the same way we cultivate any other skill -- by practicing listening, disciplining ourselves to truly listen.  Lastly, I think it is a combination of meaningful talk and genuine listening that works best.  Enough -- time to listen. 

On Feb 18, 2012 Conrad P. Pritscher wrote:
When it comes to hearing about my flaws, I find I am  a poor listener.  I immediately start thinking of how I might defend myself.  My experience with a wide variety of exercises at the  Gestalt  Institute of Cleveland helped me listen better though I still do not consider myself as a good listener.  I still erroneously often think that I have more to say then I have to hear.  Maturing and becoming wise has been slow for me.  I have found it helpful for me to learn to forgive myself and not be overly worried about my flaws. Thomas Keating's idea: "God's first language is silence; all else is a poor translation," has been helpful to me but I still find it difficult to be silent. I see "God" as the universe and being silent and listening to what the universe is telling me has been helpful. Thanks for listening. Peace and warm and kind regards to everyone.

On Feb 18, 2012 Ricky wrote:

What an amazing insight, not only with the observation about western culture and it’s incessant white noise, but about the art of listening, and the application of the African parable two ears, one mouth.  I teach teens in a public high school.  They are quick to connect with each other by BFF and gossip via technology-texting-(we used to write notes on paper in class).  In one of the classes I teach students are learning about the world of work, real life applications of skills learned in the classroom, and I decided they needed to learn how to listen.  On the first day, even before I outline the expectations of the class, they fill out a survey about how they listen by their personal investment to peers, adults in authority, their guardians, and then strangers.  They also recount the best conversation they have had within that past week, identifying the finer points of body language, and how they felt afterwards.  Then we move on to partner listeni  See full.

What an amazing insight, not only with the observation about western culture and it’s incessant white noise, but about the art of listening, and the application of the African parable two ears, one mouth. 
I teach teens in a public high school.  They are quick to connect with each other by BFF and gossip via technology-texting-(we used to write notes on paper in class).  In one of the classes I teach students are learning about the world of work, real life applications of skills learned in the classroom, and I decided they needed to learn how to listen.  On the first day, even before I outline the expectations of the class, they fill out a survey about how they listen by their personal investment to peers, adults in authority, their guardians, and then strangers.  They also recount the best conversation they have had within that past week, identifying the finer points of body language, and how they felt afterwards.  Then we move on to partner listening training.  My focus is modeled after Rosa Say’s management technique of the Daily Five Minutes, where managers actively seek out their employees and get to know them better (family life, struggles, joys, gripes) by offering them five minutes of uninterrupted listening to better be able to meet the needs of their employees and find out patterns of behavior and understanding in the company.
In the classroom, I have modified this to these steps.  Each day the students are expected to seek out another person in the room at the beginning of class.  In a large high school, many students will never meet everyone, always in tight groups of safety.  First, the students must turn their chairs to face each other, feet flat on the floor, knees facing each other, sitting upright at the edge of the chair.  To me, this is offering the speaker your heart.  Students need to fully turn to each other to begin the process.  Next, students are to give each other eye contact.  This is offering the speaker your soul, your true self, the part of you that deeply connects the two together.  By now, the class is squirming and there is a plethora of uncomfortable smirks, and even some scowls.  We press on.  They are handed a list of probable topics for prompts in case the next four minutes do have the uncomfortable silence…remember, the students are learning this technique.  For the next four minutes, one person is designated the speaker, the other the listener.  The only direction for the speaker is the list of probable topics and can talk about anything, but the listener is directed to close the mouth, open both ears wide, maintain eye contact, nod encouragement if necessary, and practice listening with an empty mind.  After the four minutes, I prompt the group to switch focus for one minute, and now the listener recaps what they have heard, as the speaker maintains eye contact, posture, and nods encouragement.  Teens will be teens, so at times there is a small discussion, but they are also learning to remain comfortable in their skin, and become active listeners.  Then roles are reversed.  I know it seems counterintuitive to have a timer on this, but what I have found is even the most timid participant makes it through the process, and there is much more ease within the classroom.
For me, practically, I am ensuring that the students will be able to be comfortable in the front of the room by the end of the several months we are together to present a final project, because ideally they know each other or at least have listened to each other.  Beyond that, the students are encouraged to acknowledge each other outside the class room with eye contact and a smile.  This is huge in a large comprehensive diverse high school.  However, on a much deeper level, my hope is that they begin to trust the process, and develop strategies to remain calm, and realize that we only have this unique moment, ‘now’, and that the ‘now’ is the most powerful teacher there is.  In western society there are very few role models for youngsters to emulate calm, so teaching the skill of listening, being present in the moment, and understanding you don’t need to solve everything, you just need to be there, is for me a focus I will continue to offer.  Animals live the present moment even if they don’t listen as humans can, so we can take that and enhance our relationships with each other by including listening with an empty mind, without blurting whatever comes to mind, without needing to tell our own story, and with an understanding that listening is a great way to learn about and experience life.
 

Hide full comment.

On Feb 18, 2012 Derek wrote:
 When we listen more.. we connect more...

On Feb 17, 2012 Ganoba wrote:
 Listening from the heart begins when we listen to our own voice. This prepares us to listen to others, particularly when they ramble. When a person is beating around the bush he/she has something very important to share and is just testing the ground to make sure that it is safe to plunge in.

On Feb 17, 2012 PK wrote:
 I am a talkative guy. When i listen to something deep or interesting, it stirs some memories, insights and then I talk. There were a few situations, where, i just listened and did not know what to respond and how to respond as well. Interestingly, that is when I was told i gave best advice!