Whether it concerns an individual, or a family, communities or nations, the most pressing question for humanity is this: What does the future hold? Then, the most frequently asked questions are: Where do we go from here? Where are we headed to? How do we get to where we desire to be? It isn’t very often that we pause to ponder and ask where we have come from and how as humans we got here from the starting point. Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies with captivating detail (at times a little overpowering and consuming on account of his biologist background) helps us do just that. He brings the reader to realize the importance of the past, its implications and impact on the present. He builds his thesis on the premise that all humans are born with the same abilities but the unequal playing grounds that have been chosen or forcefully allocated, have led to the present biases. (Radford 2010)
The reading reminded me of an experience I had several years ago while travelling to the northern region of Sri Lanka while still under the siege of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Makeshift roadside ‘customs’ ‘immigration’ and ‘security’ counters were set up and manned by teenage men and women soldiers at the borders. The young men and women should be credited for the kind and polite manner with which all strangers were approached, nevertheless they were truly rigorous and detailed beyond description.
It was during the peak of the civil unrest in that country that I had planned to visit the war torn areas of the north and east and encourage Christian congregations and leaders there. Movements of foreigners were closely monitored and controlled. Tamils from India visiting the northern region were particularly suspect and so I was prepared for some inconveniences and interrogation, ready with answers to possible questions related to my whereabouts since entering the country, reasons for travel in Northern Sri Lanka, my intentions there and people to visit. But what awaited me caught me totally off guard. They had received prior information and were prepared for my arrival at the border crossing. After an exhaustive ‘security check’ involving the removal and deflating of all the tyres and unscrewing every side panel of the van I travelled in, I was taken into a small thatched hut for interrogation by a young officer. Immigration was eager to know where I was coming from; not just geographically, but wanted my life story.
The young immigration officer sat facing me across the table with a brand new 200 page notebook and pen in hand and said surprisingly with a gentle demeanor : “I would like to know more about you.” I replied: “sure I’d be glad to tell you, which stage of my life do you want me to begin?” Without batting an eyelid he said, “How about starting with your grand father?” Assuming it to be a friendly gesture intended to humour me a bit, I said with a nervous smile, “You must be kidding me. Actually I have never seen my grandfather. He died prior to my birth,” expecting that answer would get me out of my predicament; it didn’t. He was dead serious. Two teenagers standing on either side of me with automatic weapons weren’t a great help either as I was trying to relax or desperately making an attempt to look so. The man replied, “I am sure you know must know where your grandfather was born and where he lived. You must have heard your parents talk about him. Tell me everything you know about your past.”
So the conversation began and over the next three hours I was coerced through question after question to narrate everything I knew about myself starting from two generations before me until the present day. I was stopped and questioned whenever a year or two of history seemed missing from previous generations and a month or two from my own. He made sure that every seeming gap was filled and that there were no missing links whatsoever. Without exaggeration, at the end the young man had almost 200 pages of my life story. (I was tempted to ask him if I could have a copy of his notes but held back.) After all that grilling and such torment I had gone through, I was just anxious to get out of that hut as quick as possible. Finally, the most obvious questions that I had prepped myself for were never asked.
Although it was a frustrating experience, looking back, going through such a process brought a new perspective of my life, providing a better understanding of myself and my willingness to take the risks involved in the journey. They were based on my values, goals, ideals constructed with building blocks from the past. That experience made me conscious of the significance of the past and the playing fields that have shaped my present. By looking back I learnt more about my person – the person shaped by the past as much as the present. Having done that, now, questions concerning the future get more easily answered.
Diamond, Jared. “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Kindle Edition. Kindle Edition. New York: W.W. Norton And Company.
Radford, Tim. The Guardian Review. February 11, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/feb/18/guns-germs-steel-jared-diamond (accessed May 6, 2014).