I nearly thought this would be the year that shook me. You know one of those birthdays where I would fall into a funk or a much deeper state of depression simple because avoiding the existential impact of it all feels much too daunting. This day, embedded in a sea of much less meaningful days, can be the reminder that every minute, every second we are getting older….moving closer to death….but fortunately, for me, it wasn’t. I have to thank this new group of friends in Voinjama for this.
On Saturday night, the eve of my birthday, Jen an exceptionally gracious and thoughtful community developer with ARC offered to host a dinner. In honor of my Wisconsin roots, she announced we would dine of chili, beer, banana chips, guacamole and salsa. Remarkable don’t you think? Who thinks to do that? Some of the ingredients were creative replacements due to the lack of supplies available up here in Lofa County but all in all it was dead on and I felt as if I was doing a little night time tailgating in preparation for a much awaited Hawkeye/Badger game.
The ARC compound is basic but it has this stellar palava hut (a round clay structure with a palm leave rooftop). Jen had covered all the tables with African cloth and placed candles, plenty of candles in every nook and cranny. The wine and beer were copiously available and the audience was ready to party. Michael, a quirky Canadian who directs a very interesting organizing called Right To Play brought a HUGE sound system that had a microphone in case we wanted to karaoke. A number of other guests brought their I-Pods as a contribution to the ambiance. The music was eclectic, classic, funky, jazzy, contemporary worldly and booty shaking. All the sounds were played in the right order and fully appreciated by all.
I was having a delightful time. Great food, great conversation, amazing music, perfect weather and all along the way everyone kept checking their watches waiting for the moment they could officially send me proper well wishes for my big day.
At the stroke of midnight Jen brought out a key lime pie and everyone sang me happy birthday. Given the frequency this song is utilized, you’d think someone could think up a better birthday jingle – but this familiar jingle is indeed the song that is utilized world wide and in that moment I was moved and soothed by the familiarity of the message. After that Istavan, a UN Human Rights Observer, and Right To Play Michael got on the microphone and announced that everyone should come forward and send me a birthday message in their native language. At that moment the diversity of the crowd was salient and flooded our consciousness like a wave in the ocean. 21 in attendance, 17 rose and stood in a straight line by the sound system to share their message. Ghana, Egypt, France, Morocco, Peru, Pakistan, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Liberia (Mandingo, Kissi, Bande and Loma), Nigeria, Turkey, Gambia, Ethiopia, Holland, Switzerland & America: it was a true melting pot of cultures, a linguistic pot of chili if you will and it felt like I was given spoon full after spoon full of well wishes from across the globe.
To put it simply or perhaps simplistically, it was perfect. I felt youthful and loved by all.
My recent move and interpersonal experiences have caused me to think about the ambiguity in human relationships. The thoughtful gestures done by recent strangers felt exceptionally genuine and I’m not sure I deserved any of it. I hadn’t yet earned their attention or their respect.
I say this because I had only just arrived in Lofa a few short weeks ago and aside from being utterly willing to engage in any sort of sporty activity, I hadn’t really done much to get to know anyone. I wasn’t attending many social functions and I wasn’t really trying to mingle at the clubhouse or PakBat (the only two dinner time options). Now that I reflect back I think I was protecting myself.
International work can be trying when we think about relationships because at the end of the day everyone is constantly coming and going and if you take the time to let someone in you are destined to grieve their departure in due time. In recent months I have had to deal with the loss of Sharon, my dear sweet sista in addition to a number of other meaningful actors in Dukkor and I wasn’t sure I could handle the grieving process again. The ironic thing about loss and relationships is that it is only those important meaningful ones that burn when you lose them. If you don’t care enough to let anyone in you will be saved from the pain of loss but you also fail to benefit from the connection. For the last few weeks I had been avoiding connection.
Prior to this party I found myself struggling once again with the dilemma of feeling extremely. It was if I had been forced to choose between the ones was I readily able to tolerate and the ones I would have to deal with if I showed up and allowed myself to be seen again. Due to the fact I hadn’t quite decided, I don’t think I had really put any genuine effort into getting to know anyone. Maybe they all knew what I was going through and could relate. Some managed to notice certain things about me nonetheless. Michael even commented on the fact that he appreciated how my laughter became silent and shaking if he managed to say something that truly cracked me up.
This party and the survival of yet another birthday highlighted many things for me. Life and relationships are linguistic and energetic ambiguities. And, more importantly connection seems to be about the ambiguities of human relationships. A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations. We can have similar views or different views but we are both a part of it and both definers of our shared reality. If two people have differing views about their relationship -I don’t mean just about its state, I meant about its very nature – then that difference can affect their entire course of their lives.