In the summer of 1961 this is the style of street car that I rode to and from work in downtown St. Louis.

I graduated from high school in 1961 and got a summer job before going to college. I was the outgoing mail clerk for the St. Louis Globe Democrat. Unfortunately I have to admit that this was the conservative newspaper in St. Louis, but then again conservatives in 1961 were not like the conservatives of these days. I ended work at 6:30 PM and took the same street car home each day.

One day when the street car stopped to pick up a passenger, the small, but drunk man got on the street car and began harassing the driver. The driver got upset and kicked the man off the bus.

The following day the driver stopped the street car at the same place, stood up to the passengers and said that the drunk man had stolen a roll of quarters worth $10 off his change rack next to the payment box. While $10 does not seem like very much today, it was more than I was making per day at the minimum wage of $1.15 per hour. He said that he had to have three witnesses to sign his report on the incident in order for him not to have the $10 deducted from his salary. He asked for three witnesses to come forward. I agreed to sign the statement because I had seen the incident. Another woman also agreed. That was two out of the three witnesses he needed.

The next day he again stopped at the same place and made the same appeal for that additional witness. No one came forward. Since I took the same street car every day I knew the regulars on the route. There were a good number of people who could have volunteered to be a witness, but none did. The driver continued to stop each day and give his appeal. No one came forward. Each day he became less and less “cheerful” in his presentation. After five or six days, he gave up and lost his $10.

I was very discouraged by the callousness of my fellow street car riders. All I had to do was sign the document with, I think, my phone number. Nothing much and yet all the other people on the street car but one other and myself shirked their responsibility to the man that drove them home from work every day – rugged American individualist self-centeredness.

A recent picture of the road to Muyenzi, looking much like it did 55 years ago when I used to walk on it to get to the nearest town, called Rulenge.

Three summers later in 1964 I was teaching in a refugee camp in northwestern Tanzania for Rwandan refugees. Half-way through my assignment at the Muyenzi Primary School, the UN High Commission for Refugees in its infinite wisdom decided to cut off all food aid to the 7,000 refugees in the camp. The refugees were hardly sufficient by that time. To avoid starving to death, many of the people including almost half of my students moved away to more prosperous parts of Tanzania. Others, particularly young men, left to work in other parts of Tanzania or Uganda to send money home for their family to buy food.

One of the activities that people used to survive was to take their excess clothes or other items and walk about 20 miles to the other side of Ngara District where the camp was. This part was more prosperous – the refugees had been placed in the Muyenzi camp because it had been an uninhabited forest. The person then tried to find a local person who was willing to barter the clothes for food. When the exchange was made, the person would walk back to the camp. Usually this ended up being a three day journey. Often my male students were the ones assigned for this journey. I knew this because they would miss school. One of my students contacted sleeping sickness on one of these journeys. The local hospital misdiagnosed his disease saying it was malaria and gave him the malaria medicine. This, of course, didn’t work and I am sorry to say that he passed away.

What amazed me at that time, remembering the incident on the street car, was that when people in the camp secured some food, they did not hoard it as I had expected, but shared what they could with their neighbors. I was shocked by this “generosity” in this time of starvation. I realized, though, that everyone did this so that when a neighbor received some food, he/she would also share it with the neighbors. In other words the zeitgeist was not to survive as an individual or a family, but rather to have the whole community survive.

As the Covid-19 pandemic in the US continues to get out of hand due to self-centered individualism, I thought that the example from the refugee camp might be a good lesson to contemplate.


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David Zarembka

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