Sunday, April 20, 2008

a trek across the globe.....calabash in tow

For those of you who thought I would disappear after my year in Africa – beware.
For those of you still interested in what I have to say - please know I am still here.
For those of who were unaware of all of the above – welcome.

This is the story of a girl who was once there but is now here.
She still has a story to tell………………so here goes…………………….

I departed Liberia on April 4, 2008.
I arrived in Washington DC to the smiling faces of my dear friends and glowing newlyweds, Sharon & Abi. Sharon had just arrived from DRC a few hours prior. We needed to prepare for a conference in New Haven so we gave each other a quick hug and got to it.

The presentation went well aside from the fact that the proctor apparently had no idea what the job of proctor actually entailed. By that I mean he not only started late and spent way too much time on the introductions, he ultimately failed to keep any sort of schedule, leaving Sharon and I with only 11 minutes to present what was scheduled to be a 20 minute presentation of our research findings followed by a short question and answer session.

The most amazing part was that, when asked by the first presenter how he was "doing on time", the young man quickly shook his head positively and said "oh fine." This young proctor was, might I add, not wearing a watch. It bothered me slightly that, out of pure ignorance, he was lying; it bothered me more that he was not doing his job.

Given Sharon and I had practiced non stop for three days to get our presentations to fall within the allotted 20 minutes, we were not exactly happy when our turn surfaced and the proctor only shrugged his shoulders and said "opps sorry." We had practiced and tweaked and practiced and erased power point slides to make our presentation exactly 20 minutes in length. Now this little Princeton punk was checking his text messages and picking lint off his new suit rather than doing the one job he had been asked to do.

We tried to push it (i.e. talk very fast) but we were unsuccessful. After everyone moved on to the next panel sessions, we packed our things slightly shocked and feeling as if we had disrespected our subjects. We had decided to use narratives as a mean to research our hypothesis. To us each quote was not only a poignant example, it was also very personal. The push to rush was insulting not only to us as professionals, but to our subjects as the human beings who chose to share their trauma stories. The only reparative experience I had out of the whole experience was being approached by supportive friends and a number of people from the audience praising our research and inquiring about our work. That, in addition to the fact that Sharon and Abi and Karen and I immediately went across the street to an adorable little Italian restaurant and shared a bottle of wine over a delicious conversation, skipping the rest of the conference.

But I digress….

The conference was only a beginning to my long trip home. After two weeks with friends on the east coast I find my self mid-air in route to Chicago. NYC was everything I needed it to be - an emersion into a city with an intense pulse where I could be anonymous, yet confronted by my own tribe. I shopped, I people watched and I sat in central park sipping coffee. One friend commented that it was a bit extreme to go from the bush of Africa to the Big Apple. But, to me the big apple is a former home and it is the best form of re-emersion one can ask for. No questions, no tears, no glazed over looks – just the hustle and bustle of big city life. The living was far from simple but it was living full speed no doubt.

As mentioned in a previous post I left Liberia carrying some calabash. These versatile bowls are made from large fruit that hang from trees. When split and dried out they make the perfect cooking bowls. They withstand heat as well as cold and as one of my drivers mentioned the perfect instrument in which to prepare rice. Dirt is easily captured by the graining interior of the bowl and you are able to extract clean rice for cooking. At the end of the day these bowls are exceptionally versatile, very useful and, to me personally, simply beautiful.

What I came to find out during my long journey home is that I am clearly not alone in my respect for the calabash. It was amazing to see how many people along the way ended up engaging with me simply because of the bowls I carried at my hip. From Africans to South Americans to Asians, people constantly stopped me and asked me what became a predictable series of questions. First, where did I get them. Second, did I know how to use them and third, why did I keep them. After explaining my humble attempt at an answer to each of their questions, they all told me a detailed story about how they used to use a calabash in their home country. I’ve never in all my travels held such a universal instrument that managed to provoke so many fond memories but I was very glad I was holding them when they started their tales.
If food is a staple of life, then the instrument we use to make food is the key to survival and having in my possession one of the few universal keys to living made me feel connected to all of humanity the exact same moment I felt so tragically disconnected form a few specials ones that I had recently left behind.

Thank you dear calabashes - I look forward to showing you your new home.


LauraMae said...

I am so glad you are going to continue to write. I thought I was going to have to endure "Tuesday" withdrawals...Yippee! Oh, and welcome back! I'm glad you made it to the states safely.

Anonymous said...

Good bye makes me feel old and bad but welcoming Garmai makes me feels good and comfortable.

Garmai, you are most welcome to your land. I believe that this is your country of birth and I hope you are coming to stay for 12 years.

The basket court is still here…….. Only a good guess that will determine the writer…. Garmai

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