the opposite of serving: a short tale of the humanitarian worker who took a break from the field to be a bridesmaid
When I reflect on my time in Liberia, all the things I have posted before and all the things that are likely to come after will probably represent the larger majority of the parts of my experience, but a true composition of my memories will include a memory that will make it uniquely mine. This memory is the night I was a bridesmaid wearing an African made dress surrounded by new, yet profoundly important, friends.
The events leading up to the big day suggested everything should have been a disaster; but, either because it was meant to be (or simply because of unqualified luck) the actual event went off without a hitch and moved me in a way everyone hopes to be moved each time they attend a wedding.
Because I was only a sub-character in a much larger drama, I don’t know exactly how to write about this event, so I won’t write about the real things exactly and I won’t write about the imaginarily things that typically fill my head when I find myself near so much love. I will simply write about the things I know and the things I thought about, because when it comes to feelings, specifically my own, I sometimes feel I don’t have words to capture anything adequately, so more often than not they go unmentioned.
catching the bouquet
Even though I don’t believe in the myth of what a tossed bouquet means and have historically had absolutely no desire to catch one of these bunches of dying flowers, it was a funny experience when it happened to me on this ever so slightly cool night on a beach in Liberia.
First you should know that by design there is nothing within my realm of consciousness that would cause me to feel anything when a wedding bouquet is tossed. I think that because I was feeling moved by the whole event, a desire to feel more began to grow within me and so when we paused to engage in this ceremonial tradition, I unconsciously struggled to uncover a new emotion. Then I saw her peek and I knew.
She made a big show of it and tossed it gingerly up into the air. Heading straight towards me, I let my arms fall to my sides thinking I would let it pass; but then, as I watched it floating down in front of me I cringed at the thought of it falling to the sand, and so I snatched it from the air gently and brought it tenderly to my chest.
My heart was in my throat and for one split second I felt charmed. This beautiful bouquet of flowers with magical powers was all mine: the flowers, the meaning behind it, the chance to to be the next to find love: mine. I can admit, I am not a woman of greatness, I get anxious too quickly, I cry too easily, I don’t’ have a head or a body for silence, intimacy overwhelms me, words often fail me, while others pray I only move my lips, and love usually eludes me, but in this moment the possibilities seemed endless.
At the end of the day the actual ceremony is just one moment wrapped in other more vivid moments of preparations and celebrations. What I remember about the days, hours and minutes that preceded the ceremony I will forever remember as the good and the bad parts or should I say: the tragic and the amazing parts.
the tragic parts:
1) The fact that her friend failed her miserably: every promise, ever offer, every pledge was broken. These broken promises were not out of vengeance; however, but rather a result of this friend’s own demons, demons that get the best of her when she finds herself too close to other people’s love for each other. She had a hard time getting out of bed, difficult memories of her childhood collect around her like the half empty glasses around her bed and any additional stressor makes her spiral out of control. Only due to uncanny intelligence and a relentless drive to survive (even though she would deny this drive) is she even making it in this world today. The ripple effects of this friends decompensation was catastrophic and when the bride and groom found themselves without a house to sleep in, without supplies for the ceremony, without a cook for a number of promised dishes, and down 750 dollars in purchased beauty products for this friend from the States (causing serious financial pressures as this is a country without ATMs or the capacity to use credit cards), this couple drove around in a wounded vehicle and simply adapted. Even though they both cared deeply for this friend, they were forced to disconnect from this toxic energy, found a guest house to stay in and tried to not feel so injured by the feelings of disappointment and displacement.
2) The fact that the car broke down and every stop we made for three days prior to the wedding resulted in a catastrophe. Every break down called for a 3rd gear push off running jump start that equated to me pushing and grunting loud enough that eventually some nearby soul would feel bad for me and help out. After getting the car rolling and the engine jumped the bride to be would reach in her bag for the courtesy 20 liberties that was expected for the service. 20 liberties we couldn’t really spare.
3) The fact that the hairdresser refused the brides style requests for a day and a half prior to the ceremony claiming he knows best when it comes to weddings. Not only did he want to charge 300 dollars to come out to the beach to do our hair he simply wouldn’t do what she wanted. Living on 50 dollars between us for a week prior to the groom’s arrival, we couldn’t afford it so we needed to make frequent trips to Terreck salon for negotiations and hit the salon before leaving town to cut costs.
4) The fact that the dress designer, Sista Wonders, who lovingly labels her designs “JOA” (Jesus Our Advisor), had difficulty getting the adjustments completed because she had been awake for 2 full nights having a Revival. She was simply too tired to replace the zipper and exhausted at the idea of straightening a crooked seam.
5) The fact that we had to make frequent stops by the store to see our 15 year old baker, Ali, and remind him that - no we did not want a large plastic figurine of a bride and groom on our simple fruit cake and yes we were having the wedding on Saturday not Sunday.
6) The fact that we needed to stop by the Nigerian ECOWAS soldiers headquarters because they were immensely “worried about us” and calling chronically because they “just wanted to say hi” and make sure we weren’t still upset about the death threats we had received two weeks prior by ex-combatants distraught about the possibility that they might not get their monthly stipends.
7) The fact that the groom’s luggage was lost (with the wedding rings in it) and we needed to find replacement rings. While walking down Broad Street after meticulously finding the perfect pair of silver flip-flops for me, the bride bent down and reached into the grungy gutter. I noticed that she was reaching for a thick platinum spring likely broken off a motobike and I knew instantly what she was thinking. I started laughing at the insanity of it all and this gentleman passing us looked over and said “look at you ladies having a good time and laughing when your friend is picking trash off the ground.” She tried it on and it was perfect. Later on the groom took it to a mechanic and had him cut it in half and smooth off the rough parts. It should be noted, he was forced to do this with the car running in the street at moderately high risk of being car jacked because the bride and I were busy getting our hair done and he had no human hydraulics to get the car going if the car was turned off.
8) The fact that we spent an incredible amount of time hunting the markets for pineapples and side streets for flowers. It was hot and we had already had our hair done and nothing seemed easy.
the amazing parts:
1) The fact that the brides other friends were amazing. For example, Rosa, an absurdly busy Mozambican pal, who is heading a huge department within UNICEF and was dealing with auditors the week of the wedding, volunteered to make a dinner of crab cakes, seafood salad served in a crab shell, lobster dipped in butter, green salad, feta stuffed peppers, and seafood paella. She pulled it off with style and grace top chefs in NYC would covet.
2) The way every single one of the guests of the wedding showed up, dressed sharply and eloquently in white and instantly started helping out in the kitchen or in the dressing rooms. Like a ballroom dance the synergistic support that surrounded the couple was remarkable.
3) The fact that we were able to find pineapples after searching the streets for two days. At one point we endured a tragic miss because I spotted a pair of girls with some fruit balanced on their heads, but due to the fact I was on the phone and didn’t want to be rude, I didn’t say anything and instead started tapping my head furiously. Before the couple was able to understand what I was trying to tell them the girls had turned a corner and were lost. Now and forever, the new sign for pineapple will be two simple pats on the head.
4) The fact that it is rainy season but it didn’t rain. That however is putting it mildly – for 42 hours before and 29 hours after, it rained furiously. On the day and night of the wedding however, the weather was perfect. Circumstantially, it also happened to be Liberia’s Independence Day and for the first time in 17 years they had a fireworks display. So, standing on the beach, following the completion of an amazing dinner in small quaint palava huts with tea lights delicately set in sand, we all sipped a glass of wine and watched a display reminiscent of Independence celebrations in the West. (Note to the reader: these fireworks were made part by a 250,000 dollar donation by the Chinese Government. If anyone is thinking…but couldn’t that kind of money be better spent in a county living in abject poverty I would have to whisper a small silent amen).
5) The fact that 99.9% of the tragic parts mentioned above were someone miraculously resolved. The friend rallied and showed up for the ceremony. She was exhausted and wounded and fragile but she came and it said so much. The car held strong and even though it needed a little TLC every time it was started, it worked and carried the things it was asked to carry. Terrek, the hairdresser, relented and allowed the bride to decide and she looked amazing. A ravenous beauty her haired flowed eloquently throughout the night. I too was delighted with my doo and enjoyed the pampering by a stylist who informed me he had never been formally trained and had “been born” with the talent to style hair. Sista Wonders recovered and finished the dresses. They were lovely and even though a few safety pins were necessary to help with the busted zippers, no one was the wiser except the thoughtful friend who happened to carry a few safety pins with her to the beach. The cake was simple and delicious. The Nigerian soldiers were gentleman. The rings were shiny and perfect.
I returned to the bush full of joy. I was exhausted and slept.