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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