October 29, 2007


When I like to be pretentious, one of my favorite words to use is reify or reification. The word comes from the Latin word res, which literally means “thing” or “situation” and survives in English in, for instance, the word republic, which comes from the Latin phrase res publica meaning “the public thing.” (I may not always be pretentious but I’m always pedantic.) So reify means something like “to make thing-like,” i.e. to become real.

I mention all this because the word reification has been continually popping into my head as a way to describe my experience in Itipini so far. I have said frequently that I am learning a lot from working in Itipini every day but it is probably more fair to say the experience in Itipini is reifying what I already know. For instance, I knew before I arrived here that many people in the world didn’t have enough food to eat. But it is only now that I can attach particular names and faces to that bit of knowledge. I knew that HIV was endemic in South Africa and particularly affected women but it is only now that I can see the wide variety of people living with HIV and see how it affects the context and fabric of relationships in this country. I was familiar before coming here with the common stereotype of flies landing on poor African children, who are so accustomed to unsanitary conditions they do nothing to shoo the flies away. But now I can see it happening with particular flies and, more importantly, particular African children. (And I see it happening to me – and I too am getting accustomed to it and resigned to it.)

Clearly, reification deepens learning and understanding. When I speak with hungry people, I can get a sense of some of their background that has led them to be without food, stories that don’t come across in statistics. When I make friends with people who are HIV-positive, I can see how they continue to lead their lives in a dignified and proud way despite their diagnosis.

Sometimes reification and learning happen simultaneously. I must confess that one part of African life I knew very little about before moving here was school fees and just how much it costs to send children for what would be free education in the U.S. or Canada. Now, when I speak to parents they tell me just how much it costs them to send their children to get an education so that I can’t think of the issue of school fees without thinking of these particular families.

I’ve been reading some of Desmond Tutu’s sermons and writings lately. In his sermon at Steve Biko’s funeral, he talks about how reconciliation needs to happen between true persons who “assert their own personhood and acknowledge and respect that of others.” (This is a lot like a phrase I have heard frequently that we must strive to see the face of Jesus in others and have others see the face of Jesus in us.) In Tutu’s context, he was saying that peace would only come when Blacks respected themselves as Blacks but also acknowledged the contributions of Whites and vice versa. But in my context, of rich-world/poor-world relations, I think it means more that I have to see beyond statistics and stereotypes I am far too familiar with and actually see the people who are inhabiting those statistics and providing the root of the stereotypes. Because it is only then, when I see that the people I need to be reconciled to are true people with needs and concerns much like my own but expressed in a unique context, that I might be able to take some steps towards the reconciliation I am supposed to help bring about.