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Eva’s broom

Alex Coccia | Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Years ago, when “return to glory” was meant to address the anticipated football accomplishments of Tyrone Willingham, Ty gave a speech at the Washington game pep rally which I will never forget, and so I start with that:

A man got the chance to visit both heaven and hell before he died. For travel reasons he decided to visit hell first. When he arrived, he saw a group of people huddled around a cauldron of stew. This stew was their food. However, each person was starving with a disintegrating body, because each person had a very long spoon that was so long it could not reach one’s own mouth. And so, in hell, each person continued to starve.

Then the man went to heaven, and the scene was the same. A group of people was huddled around the cauldron, with their long spoons. But instead of attempting to feed themselves, all those in the circle fed the people next to them, for the spoon reached that far.

Ty used this story to talk about teamwork — that helping the one next to us is what allows us to survive — making me think of the idea embodied by a phrase spoken in Zimbabwe, “Ndakasimba Kana Makasimbawo,” or “I am strong if you are strong.”

In hell, it was the selfishness of the condemned that forced them to remain so. In heaven, it was the generosity of the saved that granted them eternal happiness. These images of the beyond, that timeless void which we constantly try to understand, can be applied to our current lives, which can themselves become narrow voids if the selfishness of hell does creep into our dispositions. The scene from heaven is the goal, and the scene from hell is what we all, some more than others, fall victims to every once in awhile.

When I was in Uganda this summer, I did not come across a Ty. I did, however, come across an entire community that embodies the belief in his story. Anyone who has traveled abroad to Uganda, who has stayed with someone in a village, who has visited the homes of people who have nothing but the roofs over their heads, can attest to the generosity of the community. Generosity there is the rule, not the exception.

Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Holocaust survivor, tells the story of her friend who “found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day” to give to Gerda that night on a leaf. “Imagine a world,” she says, “in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.” This world exists. It’s a world whose inhabitants own little, but give more.

Generosity such as I experienced in Uganda is difficult to accept, but understood in the context of their world-view, it is humbling. The people in the community are hospitable and welcoming even if it inconveniences them. Although, that’s my Westernized, narrow-focused self speaking.

For them, there is no question of inconvenience, nor did it seem like a concept which ever crossed their minds. Whenever I would visit a home to meet different families, I was given a gift as a symbol of their generosity and welcoming nature. Multiple people told me before my trip to expect their generosity.

My favorite experience — and it is very hard to choose — was one at the end of my trip. It was the last day at the Primary school in the village, and many of the kids brought things from home to give to me — avocados, pineapples, sugarcane, mangos, eggs and a live chicken.

One girl, a student in Primary 4, presented me with a broom. Many households have these types of brooms, which they use to brush the loose dirt off of the path leading to the home. The resources to make these brooms — different reeds, leaves and straw — are available, but the process of making them is very time consuming.

The broom that Betty presented to me was not only so nicely woven and tied together, but two names were also woven into the handle — a feat that takes great skill, time and artistic inclination. One name was mine, Alex. The other, Eva. Eva is Betty’s little sister. Although Betty had made it, she made it for me on behalf of her sister, Eva. It was not Betty’s, nor did she want the recognition of having made such a beautiful piece of functional art. She made it as a gift on behalf of her younger sister.

Danielle Guilfoyle, a junior Veterinary Science major, told me about a similar experience of generosity she had while in Honduras at the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage. Her first interaction with the children was at dinnertime.

Everyone sat in a circle to eat. After a moment of silence before the meal, everyone quickly began eating. When someone finished, he or she would look to the next person and offer the other child the rest of the food. If neither of the children on either side needed the food, the child would get up and walk around the circle, offering his or her food to another child.

In this true-life embodiment of Ty’s message, the kids displayed selfless generosity. It is just something that they do. It runs deeply in their culture.

As Danielle said, “They think about their lives within the context of an entire group” — their community, which, looking in on from outside, seems a lot like heaven.

And it is not just people in Uganda or Honduras. There are plenty of places in the world, I imagine, whose inhabitants too view guests and others as a blessing. So why even mention them? Why even mention Betty, when she did not ask for nor want any recognition for what she did on behalf of her sister?

I mention them as a source of inspiration for us. No one asked the children to get up and walk around the circle offering their food. It was something they did, no questions, no qualms and no complaints. Their love is what we owe each other – as human beings, as members of a community, which, all too often, loses sight of Ty’s vision of heaven.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily that of The Observer.