Are You On the Right Bus?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai died last week. I saw her speak in 2009 and thought she was amazing. To honor her memory, I decided to repost an edited version of what I wrote after seeing her.


Dr. Maathai’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize was somewhat controversial — she was the first environmentalist to do so — but she started her talk last night with idea that lack of resources generates conflict, and thus there is a direct connection between peace and environmental degradation.

When Wangari Maathai was growing up (she was born in 1940), the area where she lived in central Kenya was lush and fertile, her family and neighbors were able to grow healthy food, they always had enough to eat, there were springs and streams with plenty of fresh water.

When she went back years later, the stream where she had fetched water as a girl — where she played with frog eggs and then saw hundreds of tadpoles that hadn’t been there the day before and thought, “Where did these come from?” — had dried up. There were no eggs, no tadpoles, no frogs. And no water to drink. Crops weren’t growing, people didn’t have enough food.

How did this happen?

She saw the connections between the trees being cut down and the water drying up. She started working to fix it. She’s been working on it ever since.

She is amazing.

Her whole talk was great, and I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, Unbowed.

The thing I want to talk about here is the great metaphor she had about how things go wrong.

When I was in college, I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. My friends and I would joke about that, we used that phrase all the time.

Dr. Maathai also has a great bus metaphor.

She talks about “wrong bus syndrome” — you find yourself in a situation where things have gone wrong. Your crops didn’t grow, you have no food to feed your family. How did this happen?

She said that Kenyans take a lot of buses, it’s something everyone is familiar with, so in the agriculture workshops they would hold, they started explaining these problems in terms of having taken the wrong bus.

She told a little story. She said, “I was in Cleveland yesterday. What would have happened if, instead of coming to Raleigh, I had taken a bus to New York?”

What would have happened?

Well, no one would have been there to meet me. I wouldn’t have seen the nice people I saw today when I got to Raleigh, who picked me up and drove me to a nice hotel. I wouldn’t be here in this beautiful setting talking to all of you nice people who came out to hear me.

I would be in New York.

I wouldn’t know anyone. I wouldn’t have any money. No one would know who I was or why I was there. Probably the police would stop me and ask what I was doing out on the street. All kinds of bad things would happen.

It would be terrible. And all of that would be because I was in the wrong place — because I had taken the wrong bus.

She then talked about why people end up on the wrong bus. What are the reasons?

She said you might be at the bus station and you might not know which bus to take. So ignorance was one reason. There are no signs, or you can’t read the signs, so you don’t know which bus is yours. You just get on the first bus that comes and take it wherever it goes.

Another problem is misinformation — someone tells you this is your bus, but it isn’t.

(And I loved her example of misinformation. She talked about how before the missionaries arrived, people in Kenya believed that God lived on Mount Kenya. Sometimes he would walk around, take trips, but mostly he lived up there, in the distance, on the snowy peak.

The missionaries came and told the people that God didn’t live on Mount Kenya, he lived in Heaven.

She said, “Now, I went to Catholic school and there I learned that God is omnipresent. God is everywhere. He lives in the Alps and in the Andes and in the Himalayas, and even on Mount Kenya. So the missionaries were wrong. God does live on Mount Kenya.”)

Often you get on the right bus, and things start out just fine but after a little while you realize that the person driving the bus doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s taking the bus in the wrong direction.

So another reason you can end up in the wrong place is that you have a bad driver.

What are the things that keep people from stopping the bus when it goes in the wrong direction, from getting off and getting on another bus?

One problem is uncertainty and fear — people aren’t sure, they’re afraid of being wrong, so they stay quiet even though it seems like the bus is not going in the right direction.

Another problem, which she said is a problem in Kenya right now, is violence and intimidation. People know they’re on the wrong bus, they know the bus is going in the wrong direction, but the men driving the bus have guns and will not turn the bus around, will not let them off the bus.

She said that is a problem that’s hard to solve, that everyone on the bus needs to work together to turn things around and to get the bus going in the right direction.

Here’s an article she wrote that talks about her work and gives the bus metaphor and some other examples, for those of you who are interested.

I especially love this idea of the bus because, like all great metaphors, it’s simple yet powerful, and it applies to so many different situations.

How did I get here? Is this where I want to be? Am I going in the right direction?

Am I on the right bus?

If you look at your life, and it isn’t what you want, if things don’t look like you thought they would, perhaps you are not on the right bus. And when you realize you’re not on the right bus, that the bus you’re on is not going in the right direction, you need to do something about it.

Don’t stay on the wrong bus, don’t stay on a bus with a bad driver. Stop the bus and get on another one, or get the driver to turn the bus around.

This is something we all would do well to remember.

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