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.

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