Image of Michael Baillif

PHOTO/CAPTION: Michael Baillif

Equality Safari-Style
by Michael Baillif

From the Editor: In the years since Michael Baillif first won an NFB scholarship in 1984, he has frequently contributed to the Braille Monitor. Often his articles are reflections on experiences he has had during trips to other countries. The following article is no exception. Here it is:

Our van had been bumping, thumping, and skidding over the nearly impassable road for what seemed like an eternity. Finally we had reached our destination—a village of a tribe known as the Masai Mara located in the Serengeti plain in Kenya, Africa. As part of a family vacation we had ventured to Kenya and spent the last several days traveling from Nairobi to Mount Kenya and now to the Serengeti plain. As one of the final stops before beginning the interminable homeward trip to the United States, we had decided to seek out a village which, but for the malign influence of tourists like us, was functioning more or less as it had for thousands of years.

After digging out my cane from between the van seats, where it had become almost immovably wedged, I stepped out of the van and breathed a sigh of relief. It was almost my undoing. I inhaled a cloud of dust particles that sent me into a paroxysm of coughing. When I had recovered sufficiently, I asked our guide, "What is all of that dust blowing around?"

"Oh, that's dry camel dung," he said. "The villagers use it to plaster their houses."

Attempting to breathe as shallowly as possible, I followed our group into the village. We were given a tour by one of the villagers who, with the aid of our guide, explained how the village operated and described a normal day in the life of a Masai Mara tribesman. He told us of how they cultivated maize and talked of occasional expeditions to hunt water-buck and gazelle.

We were even able to walk through one of the houses, a hut really, and watch as an elderly grandmother prepared the evening meal over an open fire. As we were observing this, the tribesman who had been showing us around approached one of my family members and asked if I were really blind. He shook his head sadly and said, "Can't see, too bad, too bad."

I wanted to explain that blindness really wasn't much of an issue for me because I had been lucky enough to acquire the attitudes and skills I needed to do pretty much whatever I wanted. But, given the language barrier, the best I could do was to point to my cane, make a dismissive gesture, and say, "It's okay."

As we walked out of the hut, I reflected that one can travel the world and be confronted with astonishingly consistent views regarding blindness. Be it an American university, an English pub, or an African village, the odds are high that one will encounter the same types of attitudes about blindness. People tend to look upon blindness as awful and upon blind people as sometimes worthless, sometimes admirable, and not uncommonly both at once.

Of course the reality is much different. Blindness, like any other characteristic, is no more and no less than what we, and our larger society, make of it. Given good training, positive attitudes, sufficient opportunities, and a community that doesn't get in the way, blindness really need not be a big deal.

But until these elements of equality become the norm, the social outlook and occasional reality will be that blindness is a terrible thing. Of course this perspective will be expressed in different ways depending upon the context, the culture, and the language. But make no mistake, it is every bit as universal as a Jungian archetype and every bit as long-lived as a Masai Mara village.

I was pondering how these threshold negative stereotypes regarding blindness could best be overcome when my musings were interrupted by the villager who had been leading our tour. He offered to sell me an African war club, hand-carved out of a single piece of teak wood. It really was beautiful and packed a whollop that would knock the recipient into next Sunday. All of a sudden, at least superficially, he had apparently come to terms with my blindness and now was cheerfully endeavoring to sell me the same products that were being offered to others in the group.

I asked the price of the club, and he quoted me a price of 250 shillings, but said that, since I was his good friend, I could have it for 100 shillings. I told him that I would think about the deal and went to confer with other members of my group. As it turned out, someone else had purchased a similar club for 100 shillings as well.

I returned to the villager and asked, "If I'm your good friend, how come I don't get a better deal than those guys?" We negotiated some more, but he held firm at 100 shillings.

Finally admitting defeat, I agreed to purchase the war club at his price. In order to complete our transaction, all that remained was to calculate the exchange rate between Kenyan shillings and U.S. dollars. This task took a bit longer than expected, though, because my friend kept trying to shave a few cents off of the exchange rate to his benefit.

What he did not know was that by trade I am a tax attorney. While tax attorneys may possess innumerable shortcomings, one thing we can do is keep track of the money flowing into and out of our pockets.

As I left the Masai Mara village carrying my newly acquired war club, I was quite pleased. The negotiations in general and my friend's attempted larceny in particular had made me feel good. The very man who had pitied me and genuinely felt sorry for my fate was, only a few minutes later, prepared to treat me as the equal of any sighted person when an economic transaction was concerned. Once the villager realized that I had something he wanted, he saw me in a much different light from the person for whom only sorrow and pity had been appropriate a few minutes before.

Whether or not the villager's actual perceptions of blindness changed on the spot I couldn't tell, but in a certain sense I didn't particularly care. What mattered to me more than what he might have thought about blindness was how he treated me as a blind person. Judging by that standard, I had been the recipient of equality safari-style.

Note: Michael Baillif reports that he has made a gift of the war club to the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where Jerry Whittle has it available to inspire inattentive Braille students.

Planned giving takes place when a contributor decides to leave a substantial gift to charity. It means planning as you would for any substantial purchase—a house, college tuition, or a car. The most common forms of planned giving are wills and life insurance policies. There are also several planned giving options through which you can simultaneously give a substantial contribution to the National Federation of the Blind, obtain a tax deduction, and receive lifetime income now or in the future. For more information write or call the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.