Wednesday, December 26, 2007

happy merry christmas

It was Christmas and I had nothing to do. I was hoping to sleep in but the three gentlemen who came to fix my fence squelched that idea. It was 6:22 and I was roused awake by the sound of them pounding nails directly in front of my window. I grabbed my Zune, made some coffee and transitioned out to my hammock.

My divine hammock, gifted to me to from a staff member in Gbarnga, is presently hanging in the most perfect of spots on my patio. While swinging gently in its cozy comforts, I had a perfect view of a beautiful mango tree that has three tall palm trees hovering in the background. The sky was glowing orange and it seemed it too was in the process of waking up.

“Good morning gentleman, Merry Christmas!” I said settling into my hammock with my hot cup of coffee. The three of them, each holding a simple tool to get their contracted job done, smiled widely. Already sweating in the morning sun, they each giggled a bit and then energetically wished me a "happy merry Christmas." I asked for their names and heard Mohammed, Varlee and Mohammed in response. It seems one in four men in this predominantly Muslim town are called Mohammed. Each one I have interacted with in the last few days has wished me a very merry Christmas.

Because I was far away from my friends and family during the holiday season (sitting alone in sweltering heat) I tried to talk myself into accepting the fact that today was going to feel like any other day. After a few minutes I realized my attempt to deny the importance this holiday holds in my schema of the calendar year was not working and I felt myself desperately wanting something special to happen. Although I hadn’t gone as far as to look for gifts from Santa under my Mango tree, my leg shook impatiently in expectation.

Eight o’clock. Nothing. Nine o’clock. Nothing. Ten o’clock eleven o’clock: nothing, nothing. There was nothing at noon either. But then all of a sudden there was a knock at the gate and Kolii my very petite, very sweet security guard quickly got up to assess the situation. A stickler for rules, she rarely lets anyone in without my permission. Even people who have come to visit me on more than one occasion are under her fierce scrutiny and they frequently find themselves calling me on their cell phones from the gate seeking my support so they can get permission to come in. If she wasn’t briefed about a pending arrival, nobody was getting in. Today’s visitors were different. The minute she saw them she quickly opened the gate with a big smile on her face and allowed them to enter.

I looked up and saw Korpoo, my hard-working humble housekeeper dressed immaculately in a traditional Liberian outfit followed by her two children, Mohammed and Mawata. They were also dressed beautifully in a pressed suit and flowing blue lacy dress. On their heads sat small blue bowls.

They all smiled matching grins and the children’s resemblance to their mother was striking. Their father had apparently abandoned them when they were living in the refugee camps in Guinea a few years ago and it was evident that Korpoo was working hard at being both mother and father to these well-behaved, well-mannered children.

Dama worships Korpoo and therefore started running circles around this small family as they walked towards me. Korpoo quickly announced they had brought me food for Christmas. They gingerly sat their large bowls on the table and I took a quick peak. In one was sliced plantains, another was full of rice, the third had my most favorite okra soup and the forth had a fully cooked chicken covered in another delicious sauce. It was enough to feed 4 and so I quickly said what all Liberians say when food is around, “let’s eat.”

“Let’s eat” sounds basic but it’s a powerful expression here in Liberia. It took me a while to understand it fully but once I realized what happened after someone said it, I was moved. No matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with somebody, if you walk by them while they are eating, they will quickly wave you over and say “let’s eat.” You hear it everywhere and it’s amazing to sit in a local restaurant where the idea of individual orders means very little. This is especially powerful for a Western woman who is used to the process of a la carte orders and separate checks. Spoons are passed around and everyone simply eats.

Korpoo and her lovely children giggled and graciously declined my offer to eat, sating they were heading to church. Korpoo stressed the food was a gift to me for Christmas and I should enjoy it throughout the day. I was touched and given I’m not much of a cook I was a bit relieved to discover that I wouldn’t be eating Raman noodles for my Christmas dinner. I sent them off with handfuls of chocolate that my mother had been sweet enough to send to me from Wisconsin and I settled back into my hammock feeling much less apprehensive about the day. The holiday spirit was brisling in my heart.

A few minutes later there was another knock at the front gate and Kolii repeated what she had done minutes earlier, took one peek and then opened the gate energetically.
This time it was Loupoo, my head counselor for the Voinjama clinical team. A brilliant woman who endured a life of being told she couldn’t do the things she wanted to do because she was an orphaned girl. As a direct result of this experience she had grown into a fiercely independent feminist who refuses to take no for an answer. She too was surrounded by a troop of young children some of which were her biological children; others were step-children she had adopted from her husband’s previous relationship. Also, dressed beautifully, they all carried gifts of local food.

I blushed a little thinking they would be embarrassed to find out they were not the first to give me food and was slightly worried they wouldn’t know what to do once they saw my already packed kitchen table; but, they did not blink an eye at the spread and didn’t seem surprised to discover others have already brought gifts. Loupoo quietly stated, “Garmai you are loved here, you see.” They unloaded their bundles and humbly refused my request to eat. They too had a church service to attend to.

Throughout the day others came bearing small gifts and I probably received about 20 text messages wishing me a “happy merry Christmas,” “rich fortunes in the New Year” and “wondrous sprinkles of blessings over this holiday season.” Although I’m sure I stumbled throughout the day, ignorant to local culture and tradition, I was flattered by what happened and only hope I will be forgiven for any of my clueless missteps.

Friday, December 21, 2007

a message to those that whisper

During the Time of Confusion, everyone realized that some part of their essence was extremely fragile. For some it was their body, for others it was their faith and still others believed it was their culture. Their very sense of community was at risk of being destroyed. Although the Time of Confusion followed the Time of Possibility, where as the name suggests, anything seemed possible, the community elders and societal memory keepers recalled that before The Time of Possibility arrived, the Time of Oppression reigned.

The Time of Oppression occurred shortly after The Time of Slavery ended in a land far far away. The Time of Oppression was a direct result of a decision to return former slaves to their homeland. Where some of these fair skinned people in that far off land saw the return of these people as an opportunity, a chance to return home, others saw it as an opportunity to get rid of these recently freed people. To them, if these people (people they viewed as less than human) could not be kept as property, than they should not be kept at all.

The returned people returned home knowing only one thing – oppression. What else could they do but recreate what they knew best? This is when Mississippi surfaced in Africa. The Time of Oppression was filled with inhumane treatment of the indigenous people that were living here when the returned arrived. Brothers kept as property, children kept as slaves; the torment was so reminiscent it was ire.

This period of time lasted a relatively short time in history – about a decade – but the people who returned with this new knowledge about how to rule absolutely still hold much of the power. Even today their decendants have the money, the opportunities and the authority. In this way, The Time of Oppression never truly ended.

Eventually the indigenous people learned what all ruled people eventually learn. They are not lesser or weaker than and if they stand up and speak out they can move towards a Time of Equality. After speaking out and standing proud, a time of peace covered the land like a soft blanket. During this time businesses thrived and tourism flourished. Visitors from neighboring African nations came to visit the beautiful beaches and foreign investors noticed this land was, in fact, a land of rich resources.

This transition marked the beginning of the Time of Possibility. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, the terrifying feelings of subjugation surface again, suggesting that the Time of Oppression, like the Time of Slavery in that far off land, never entirely ended. The Time of Confusion occurred shortly thereafter and was filled with 14 years of war, torture, displacement and terror. Today the land and its people are still healing from its occurrence.

Now even though a clear distinction has been made between the different times in the history of this nation, the separation is not as clear cut as one would think. The effect of each age is felt by the next and sometimes the quintessence of one age mixes with another in such a way that one can be confused about what age they are actually existing in. This puzzlement can result in many things. Sometimes terrible mistakes are made but other times unexpected breakthroughs occur. These infiltrations only occur because the people temporarily forget the established rules of their time.

Today this nation is in The Time of Mending. Although for some this time has fostered compassion and forgiveness, for others the wounds feel too deep and too raw, resulting in feelings of bitterness and animosity. This bitterness is unfortunate for many reasons, the worst of which being the effect it has had on the outsider impression of the current state of this nation.

In the halls of humanitarian buildings and corridors of ex-pat housing powerful whispers can be heard suggesting this country does not have a culture, a civilized way of life, a soul. These whispers are contagious and when a fellow outsider breathes it in they at risk of being infected by its message. After infection, there is little that can be done to change their minds. As a believer in the Time of Possibility and a participant in the Time of Mending I refuse to breathe in these toxic whispers and would like to try and discredit their message.

Take for example Mohammed & Nama. You wouldn’t notice them at first; they are not the sort of people one notices. Everything about their clothes and their demeanor makes them blend into the crowd. More often than not they would be overlooked. But just about everyone could learn something from them and their personal and collective stories.

Mohammed is a 44 year old father of three who speaks fluent Mandingo, French and English. Highly educated, blissfully content with life, exceptionally athletic - there are moments it appears as if his feet don’t actually hit the ground. He is an avid believer both in the natural as well as the supernatural. With ease and confidence of only those who truly believe, he shares stories about talking catfish and miniature men he visits in his father’s village. Local tradition suggests catfish are the ruler of the inland rivers and their wise eyes and long whiskers are proof that they live to be hundreds of thousands of years old. Their wisdom is infamous and their advise priceless. The miniature men are tricksters and if one is not careful and accommodating to their mysterious requests one is at risk of being cursed or cloaked with bad luck. Mohammed listens to them carefully and constantly observes their strange requests. He credits all his good luck to his connection to these supernatural forces.

Nama is an auntie to many, mother to none. The war took away everything and everyone she had and yet she was not broken. A few weeks ago during a session on grief and loss we examined the possibility of speaking to our lost loved ones. The group very quickly informed me that they have a traditional way of doing this. The process is called The Passage. In Liberia the distinction between the living and the dead is much less absolute and much more fluid than it is for us in the West. People will unresolved issues are frequently seen passing between worlds and anytime someone visits the interior farmlands on their own, they are prepared to be visited by a lost loved one with something to say.

For Nama her frequent visitors were her young children that were tragically taken away from her during the war. Young innocent babies taken as collateral damage during the Time of Confusion, she both looked forward to and dreaded their appearance in her day to day life.

A resident of Massabolahun, Nama was forced to flea to the interior during one of the most heinous attacks on a local village in Liberia. Acts of cannibalism, gang rapes, homes full of families set on fire and mass decapitations occurred in abundance over a 2 week period of time. Survivors were forced to flea deep into the interior to avoid the rebels brief reign of terror. Nama was fortunate enough to escape one hell only to experience another, the slow unjust death of her two children taken by starvation and sickness. She grieved hard and never fully recovered from this loss but she is strong and carries on in the way only an enlightened survivor can - with grace and grit and a profound understanding of humanity and all its faces.

Prior to this group session Nama was frequently visited by her young children. Sometimes she heard their giggles of laugher, other times she heard their cries of slow painful suffering. She constantly tired to find them but they were elusive. During group she decided she would be the first to attempt to contact her loved ones. Collectively the group decided they would need to first have the bread and the kool-aid that we typically shared at the end of each group. When anyone is having a burial or funeral service the first thing the community does is bring dishes of food to feed the grieving family as a token of tenderness. By eating the bread first we would be acting in accordance with this tradition.

After finishing the bread Nama rose and slowly moved to the corner of the room. From there she explained that Passages between the living and the dead are most powerful at points of contrast. She took a minute to gather her thoughts and then she quickly started to talk to her little ones as if she had no doubt they would eventually talk back. She described the circumstances of their departure from the village, the events in the forest, how she buried their bodies under a tree she has never been able to find again and how she eventually forced herself to treck back to the village for help. She explained the tremendous amount of guilt she felt (both then and now) and described how desperately she missed them. Then she emotionally asked for forgiveness for her actions and inability to protect them. Then she paused. A few minutes later she started speaking as if she was her own children. “Mommie, it’s ok, we know, we were there and we understand, it is not your fault. You did everything you could do and you loved us deeply but you must move on. We let you pass.”

That was how I learned about the process of moving through the passage. With every difficult loss locals find the space and time to ask for the ability to pass. If granted they will stop being haunted by the lost loved one and live more frequently and freely in the land of the living.

Message to the outside whisperers: If this isn’t culture than I don’t know what is. So please, I beg you whisperers from the outside world, please be patient and curious about this mending nation and you too may one day be given the opportunity to experience the culture of Liberia. Not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there and if you’re only given the chance to be here for a very short period of time please don’t hold it against them if they decide not to share. They are in the Time of Mending, have justified difficulties with trust and need to focus on survival. The darning process is not an easy one and although at times it looks messy and disorganized, deep down, in this nations heart of hearts, there is a people with a sense of culture that we young nations of the West can only dream of.

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