Commentary: I lived in Africa, the president has no idea

For two years I lived in a "shithole country."

It was the 1980s and the country was Kenya, one of those African nations our president graced with that nasty epithet while discussing immigration policy with legislators. Let me pass along what I remember about life there.

I taught at a school in a village on the lower slope of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The setting startled with its loveliness. The view out my window — I keep a photo of it in my office — began with the snowy mountain above and ranged to the savanna below, studded with flat-topped acacia trees. The road outside school was lined with jacaranda trees that dropped their leaves in a soft purple snow. Giraffes lived on the plains; one day, riding a bus out of the village, I looked out to see one ambling alongside, and marveled at how swiftly it moved. Our school was surrounded by cornfields, and if you walked through them at night, you hurried a little bit, for fear of the occasional prowling leopard.

My students were cheerful and diligent. This was a remote rural village, the typical parents were subsistence farmers, and the kids faced the future armed with little more than hope and hard work. Resources were meager, and students often shared two to a book. All walked to school, some from as far as five miles every day. Many were pious Christians, and the day began with hymn singing. I'd get dressed in the small, two-room house I shared with an African colleague and hear them chorusing:

Glory! Glory! This I sing —

Nothing but the blood of Jesus,

All my praise for this I bring —

As a visitor I was awed by the hospitality extended to me, again and again, in that village and in the half-dozen other African countries I traveled through. It was a never-ending lesson in generosity offered amid straitened circumstances. Everywhere families fed me, and often took me in for days at a time, with no expectation of anything in return — other, perhaps, than information, news about the world beyond (scarce in those pre-internet days) and in particular about the mighty country that was my home.

To the Africans I met, America was a matchless symbol of possibility. Most lived in great isolation, with a narrow range of options for their future. For the vast majority of my students, the prospect of ever getting to America was next to nil; finding the path to a life in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, was difficult enough. But that didn't matter; the mere existence of a place like the U.S., where immigrants were welcomed, and an individual's dreaming and hard work could be rewarded, helped make their lives better. I recall our very best student that year, a shyly brilliant and hardworking girl named Washo. I could clearly picture how she would thrive if she could somehow get to the U.S., how creative and productive she would be. She ended up immigrating to Belgium, and lives and works there still. She and others like her exemplified the dream of getting elsewhere, on a ticket written with talent, ambition and hard work.

The American president during my time in Africa was Ronald Reagan. I opposed his policies, but he was a man of instinctive personal decency, who moreover clearly possessed a deeply rooted sense of the dignity of the office. It is impossible to imagine him denigrating another country in such coarse terms, either private or publicly — especially publicly. I'm convinced Reagan would have regarded the prospect of a U.S. president calling another country a "shithole" with revulsion and alarm.

I've spent almost a decade of my life abroad, in Africa and Europe. The experience makes you alert to how the U.S. is perceived in the world. I'm aware how much attention is paid to how we in turn see other countries; to our worldview. Trump's worldview astonishes in its bellicose and even proud ignorance. As many observers have noted, his manner bears hallmarks of the authoritarian style; from boasting about his own sexual prowess to taunting political opponents and foreign leaders, he's a would-be strongman hiding (as so many do) behind a bogus populism.

Many of the African countries I visited have had dismaying experiences — then and now — under corrupt authoritarians who rule by crude self-assertion and reckless whim. They know that style of leadership when they smell it.

I wish all of us did.

Rand Richards Cooper of Hartford is a Contributing Editor at Commonweal.

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