In the time of COVID, community isn’t just a word

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Sudanese children roast corn
Little moments of community happen all of the time in South Sudanese society. Here, young children take an afternoon break to roast some corn for a snack, in October 2012. (Rebecca Miller photo)

“If you walk alone, they’ll just think you don’t have any friends.” I still remember that comment as I prepared to travel from Kenya to the Upper Nile State for almost two months to tell stories about people working in medicine, water purification, education and women’s literacy.

My normal routine as an independent woman would not fly there. Not only because I was in a foreign country, but, because, culturally, I would already be very strange to the local Sudanese. I would laugh later, as I trundled along on a beat up bicycle, in my long skirt and sandals, through a refugee camp, drawing audible gasps. Women do not ride bicycles.

But I had to get out to a water purification community outreach, accessible only by a single track trail, to shoot photos and write a story. Some culturally accepted things would have to be ignored. Considering I was a white, blond haired, blue eyed foreigner, it didn’t take much to pass that threshold.

Community

I write about and think about things I experienced in Africa a lot. That’s because it taught me more about life than any other experience I’ve had. One of those lessons: community is more than a word.

I’ll never forget the first time I had Sudanese coffee, sitting under a baobab tree with a group of Mabaan. If an unexpected visitor showed up, people would shuffle seats to make room, scrounge another cup or donate theirs. Even with limited resources, they made sure everyone had coffee. Over and over again, I saw those gestures in South Sudan and elsewhere in Africa: deep rooted community is part of many tribal and national African cultures.

As we wade into yet another week of fair quasi-cancellations, angst over masks and reflection over the country’s history with civil rights movements, I think about community. And I wonder what we are teaching young people.

Life lessons

I do not have children. Sometimes, it feels like I have 500 — between recalcitrant sheep, dogs, cats and a donkey named Sarah — but not the human kind. So, I watch how other folks’ children handle adversity and obstacles. I watch how other adults handle obstacles that directly affect youth. There have been plenty of examples this year.

I compare how one teen who spoke at a Columbiana County Fair Board meeting in June handled adversity — namely, saying the fair should not expect any sponsorship or donations from the family if the fair was completely canceled. Now, I used to do 4-H projects at that very fair. The last thing on my mind was whether I would be financially supporting the fair later in life. Maybe I’m the exception, but when I read the coverage of that meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder how much adult influence played a part.

I compare it to Shelby Ullom, who is featured in a story from Marshall County, West Virginia, in this issue. She said she wasn’t surprised the fair was canceled, but was more upset it was so close to fair time. “We should have been canceled months ago,” she said.

My point? When this pandemic passes, whenever that is, what lessons will the youth have learned? Have they learned how to handle disappointment with poise? Because it’s not only fairs, but rites of passage such as graduations and other milestones, that have gone by the wayside too.

I have watched how some fairs have flip flopped back and forth, swayed by the adamant demands of those in their counties that they have to have a fair of some kind for the youth.
I compare that to Carroll County Fair. After making the decision to completely cancel the fair, the fair board stuck to that decision, despite the initial loosening of state guidelines in June. It culminated in a sale July 24, where exhibitors were not present.

When I spoke with someone involved in the junior fair prior to the sale, he was clear and definite. They wanted to keep the youth home, but help them sell their projects. I was struck by the clarity. I’m sure some were not happy with the decision, but the board’s goal was to make the best decision for everyone with the information it had on hand.

Reality

I’m not going to argue whether COVID-19 is real. I have friends who work in health care. One is in an intensive care unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients, in the Boston, Massachusetts, area. It’s real. I have family members who are very much at risk, and I take it very seriously. Believing it’s real does not mean I sit around worrying, but I try to do my due diligence, for my family.

Mike Rowe, known for his television show, “Dirty Jobs,” is a favorite of people from varying political and philosophical perspectives. He wrote an open letter to someone, who asked him why he continued to travel to film his show. He explains, pragmatically, he believes a lot of people will get sick — perhaps even himself — and a lot of people will probably die. He feels the information parlayed to this point has been hard to follow and that’s led to either fear or skepticism.

Car accident data is astonishing, but since it’s not piled on in a short period of time, we don’t analyze that risk the same, he said.

For our neighbors

But he also added, that doesn’t mean he’s ignoring COVID-19 or pretending it’s not real. “I take precautions. I get tested as often as I can, and if I can’t physically distance, I wear a mask – especially around higher risk people. Likewise, I wear a seat belt, obey the speed limits and check my mirrors before changing lanes,” Rowe wrote. “Yes — I’m aware that we’d all be a lot safer if we kept our cars in the garage. I’m also aware we’d be a lot safer if we all kept ourselves in the house. But that’s not why cars, or people, exist.”

I share this because I know if I shared medical studies or opinion pieces from major media, some might skip past that part. In our day and age, Mike Rowe is more trusted than other sources. He is direct, winsome and at the end of the day, he is willing to do things to help other people — by getting tested and masking up when he’s in close quarters with other people.

In a way, this is what community has to look like in 2020. I hope that — rather than making decisions based on whether we agree with certain politicians, political parties, public figures or the current theory du jour of how COVID-19 spread — we make our decisions on what’s best for our neighbor.

It takes humility and vulnerability. I’m not sure we’re very good at that sometimes. But there’s still time to figure it out.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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