“Let’s Eat-Oooo”

“Let’s Eat-Oooo.” I’ve heard it said so many times since I’ve been here. I heard it from my neighbors as they ate breakfast out on the porch and they ripped some bread off for me to eat; I heard it from my friend Comfort as I passed by her stand and she was eating palm butter with her daughter Angel; I heard it as I walked by a woman in the market as she was eating with her friends (I had purchased a knife from her stand in the market about 5 months ago and she says hi every time I pass through and she told me her name once but I can’t remember and am too embarrassed to ask for it again); I heard it as I walked by the house of one of our FFA members and his little two-year old boy waves frantically at me as I walk away; and I heard it at night as I walked into our house and saw my Nigerian neighbors cooking their dinner meal downstairs in the shared kitchen. “Let’s Eat-Oooo.”

Here in West Africa, and many parts of the world for that matter, community is valued above all else and sharing meals together is a big part of experiencing and living within a community. Above money, above time, above schedules….if you are eating and you see one of your friends walk by, you invite them to eat with you “Let’s Eat-Oooo.” It doesn’t matter if perhaps that means you yourself eat a little less than expected, it doesn’t matter that perhaps you didn’t have money in your budget this week to be sharing your food, it doesn’t matter if inviting them to eat means that lunch will now take 30 minutes longer than you had expected. If you are eating, and you see a friend walk by, you cannot let them pass by without inviting them to share in your meal. It might even be seen as downright rude, actually.

“Let’s Eat-Oooo” is such a simple yet beautiful phrase. It’s not a question, it’s a statement, an invitation that is not often rejected.  Even though it is such a beautiful gesture and I admire this aspect of the Liberia culture so very very much, the phrase sometimes causes me and my American Type A self an internal battle, so much stress. Each time someone says “Let’s Eat-Oooo”, these are just a few of the thoughts that run through my mind…..

  • “If I stop and eat, will I have time to make it back to the house and do all the grading, lesson planning, cleaning, organizing that I had on my to-do list today? It will through off my perfectly outlined schedule for the day entirely!”
  • “What if I’m eating and the food hasn’t been prepared safely and I end up getting sick?”
  • “What if the people I’m eating with are sick and we are all dipping our spoons into the same bowl? I don’t want to get sick!” (BTW yes, I am a germophobe)
  • “I’m not really particularly hungry…I shouldn’t eat if I’m not hungry…isn’t that what they tell you? I will ruin my appetite for the delicious thing I had planned for dinner later”
  • “I don’t deserve this, I have done nothing for you but smile and say hi everyday….and for goodness sakes I can’t even remember your name! I definitely don’t deserve this generosity”
  • “Will they think I’m being rude if I decline their offer? Will they stop offering if I say no too many times? What is the limit? I don’t want them to stop offering…”
  • “I want them to stop offering…it makes me feel pressured to stop what I’m doing…mess up my schedule…I wish they wouldn’t ask”
  • “Do they actually want me to come and join them or are they just being friendly? What if I sit down and they don’t actually want me there? Won’t it be awkward?”
  • “I can’t take their food, they are too “poor” to be sharing their food with me…it would be wrong for me to accept”
  • Is this person only giving because they are hoping to receive something later from me? What’s the catch?

And lastly the thoughts “I owe this person, I owe this person, I owe this person” run frantically through my mind. Each time I lift the spoon of rice filled with oily and spicy goodness to my mouth a tally is made in my mind, keeping track of who I owe what…a weight is dropped on my shoulders, burdening me with the feeling that I need to repay this favor back as soon as possible… to even out the scales. Naturally the first thing I would think of is to cook meals for everybody that has offered me meals but the trouble is 1) the number of people who had fed me is too high and some live just too far away to make it feasible and 2) well, I’ve found that they aren’t quite as in love with American dishes as I am.  Agggggg so much, stress! “How can I let this happen, that my friends, people who have much less material wealth than me, are the ones to whom I am indebted? I need to fix this right away!” I thought. After all, wouldn’t we all much rather be the one to whom things are owed rather than the one who owes? One is a position of power and control and confidence and the other is a position of weakness, of dependence….

Last week I was reading a book called “Assimilate or Go Home: Stories from a Failed Missionary” by D.L. Mayfield who describes her experiences working with Somalian Bantu refugees in the United States and she talks about the exact same feeling that I was experiencing as it relates to all the free meals and the inability to pay them back and the guilt that it was causing her. But then she writes that it was only when she was able to step back and embrace the inequality of the situation [herself being the one that was indebted to her friends in such a way that she could never pay back] and allow herself to be served was she finally able to find peace. Why is it that so many of us from the developed world, especially those in the line of missions or international development, have such a difficult time with this? We are so used to giving, giving, giving and thinking that we are the only ones “rich enough” to give (rich being associated only with money of course), subconsciously putting ourselves on pedestals to which the rest of the world must look up to for support, money, and “wisdom” and feeling the weight “to save” everyone, thinking that we alone are the only ones with anything worth giving, we alone are the only ones with ideas worth sharing. This complex or way of thinking is often referred to as the “savior complex” and it is something I currently battle within my own mind, something that we should all be on the lookout for in our own lives. Because this way of thinking is dangerous, leading to patriarchal oppression disguised as seemingly innocent acts of charity, and destroying the honest and pure nature of giving which in its truest form promotes unity, equality, and a shared humanity.

“Let’s Eat-Oooo.” It’s not about giving something and hoping for something in return. It’s not about guilt, wasted time, money, germophobic thoughts, or messed-up schedules….those things are so tiny in comparison to what it’s really about. It’s about sharing food, the thing that sustains and unites all life. It’s about giving freely, for it is in giving that we truly receive. It’s about giving and trusting that the god that you believe in will care for your needs if you care for the needs of others. It’s about relationships, taking time to spend with loved ones. It’s about being thankful for what you have and wanting to share it with others, no strings attached. It’s about a tradition of giving, a tradition that runs deep and permeates every aspect of life here in Liberia. It’s about sharing one’s staple food, a giant steaming pot of rice fresh off the coal pot and an oily, spicy soup to be served on top; the food and recipes that you and your ancestors have eaten for hundreds and hundreds of years, the food that has sustained your people through times of war, disease, poverty, and death and also fed your babies as they grew up big and strong. It’s, as D.L. Mayfield realized, about wanting to share this part of who you are, this part of your history with a foreign friend and hoping that he/she too loves it and appreciates the food for its taste, rich culture, beautiful history, and tradition, as much as you do, knowing that they probably will not but hoping to show them a bit of who you and your people are in the process nonetheless. It’s also about wanting to be known and understood, not just for the things that you don’t have but for the things that you do have. It’s about wanting to be the person who gives for once, rather than the person who is always expected to receive. It’s about mutual respect for one another, and our ideas, culture, and way of life. It’s about restoring balance and equality. It’s about dignity. It’s about community. It’s about so much more than my narrow-minded, young, schedule-oriented, guilt-driven, and often-times-stressed-out American mind can comprehend. But I want sooooo badly to try and understand.

So, I say “Let’s Eat-Oooo!”

Rice with palm butter soup on top

 

 

 

 

GlennsGoGlobal Youtube Channel

Hello friends,

Just wanted to update everyone that Nathan and I now have a YouTube channel called GlennsGoGlobal! If you want to subscribe to get email updates each time we upload new videos you can do so by 1) clicking on this link which will take you to our homepage and then 2) clicking on the red “subscribe” button in the top right-hand corner.

We will post videos of FFA activities, soccer games, walks around campus, trips to the beach, agricultural practicals with our students, church services, and much more!  I will also try and include links to specific videos in future blog posts so stay tuned.

Here is one of our videos that’s on the site now. We had an FFA officer training a few months ago and did a team building activity where the students had to move a marker from one end of the room to the basket at the other end of the room. Each of them could only use 1 finger at a time and they could not walk while touching the marker so they had to work as a team and hold onto it together and pass it carefully down the line. This is their last attempt out of three attempts and it was finally a success!

Miss you all and good luck with that big snow storm coming in today! Meanwhile it’s sunny and 95 here 😉

Nathan and Anna

The Trouble With Tradition

People had been talking about this day for months. Since, the first week of school I had been hearing about this day. People said it was going to be “super” and other people said it would be “great.” I heard it would be a celebration and a day of joy and fun….a day of tradition. And yet I also heard snippets of others joking and saying “it won’t be easy” or “they will give them hard time” or “they will get no rest” or “they will be sure to cry-oooo.” And so we waited and waited, not really knowing what to expect.

The week leading up to it we saw the campus preparing for their arrival. The dorms were cleaned, the streets were swept bare, and the clothes were washed and hung out to dry. Excitement was brewing all around us, but underneath all of the excitement there was also a growing yet unseen fear among some of the students. The day came on March 3, 2017. It started out just like any other day. Everyone woke up, bathed, got dressed, went to classes, and then ate lunch. After lunch though, classes were cancelled and everyone- students, faculty, and even neighborhood children- went to go stand out on the side of the road by the school gate to wait……the seniors were coming.

As we waited for the seniors to arrive on their buses coming from Monrovia, the Juniors took charge and “got everything ready.” They lined the freshmen up in lines…boys in one and girls in the other. Then, they wrote signs on blank pieces of paper for each freshman to tape to the front of their shirts. Other sophomore and junior students had signs saying “welcome seniors” or “to God be the glory” and so I had just assumed that’s what the freshman signs said as well. And then I took a closer look and saw that they said things like “stupid and lazy dog” or “sexy dog” or “bad dog.” That’s when I found out that the freshmen weren’t wearing welcome signs, they were wearing name tags, dog tags to be specific. Then I noticed their belts and the odd way that they were wearing them. Rather than being looped through each hole of their pants they were tied to just the back loop and hanging/dragging down behind them. They were their “tails.” The freshmen were no longer freshmen, they were no longer boys or girls, they were no longer seen as human… they were dogs. And pretty soon, I was about to be reminded of how dogs are treated in this country.

When the buses finally made it to Kakata and drove past the gates of the school the crowds went wild, absolutely wild. The students cheered, the drums banged, and the cymbals clashed. The noise was deafening. The senior students, all dressed up in their new bright red shirts and caps, leaned out the windows of the buses waving as younger students chased after them down the street. The excitement was contagious and I caught myself smiling and thinking about what a nice tradition this was, forgetting temporarily about the dogs and not realizing what might await them when the seniors actually got off the bus and on campus.

As the buses drove on into the city of Kakata for what I will call a “victory lap,” everyone moved back onto campus and assembled on the football field. Then, 10 minutes later the seniors arrived and the place erupted into chaos yet again. Seniors students got off the buses and some of the smarter freshmen students started running the opposite direction but they didn’t get very far. I thought it was a joke, part of a skit that was played out every year, but then I actually looked into the faces of some of them running and there was fear, a real fear in their eyes, and even tears. I looked back toward the crowd and saw some (not all) seniors pushing freshman to the ground and then sitting or standing on top of them for pictures. Often times one foot was placed on the head of the freshman and while they were posing for pictures they pretended to push their heads into the ground. They stood on top of the freshman and posed for pictures that made them look as though they had just conquered some sort of wild animal. Imagine the photos with a hunter standing proudly next to his kill….that’s how it was…except the “kill” was a freshman student being treated like an actual dog. Other seniors made gestures and movements that mimicked animals humping each other, just like animals do when they try to assert dominance over each other. Some of the freshman complied ever so obediently with everything and others ran, but no one really fought back….they were all too humiliated, demoralized, and dehumanized….and they knew there would be retributions later if they did. My stomach was in knots, my mind racing, my heart breaking, my anger boiling.

Thankfully though there were some teachers, administrators, and concerned community women there who were willing to fight back on the children’s behalf. When they saw freshman being taken advantage of they jumped right in and started trying to restore dignity to the freshman by pulling them up of the ground, throwing the seniors off of them, and yelling with a voice so serious, “run.” I don’t know why these women came to campus that day, if they were just passing through or they knew the horrors that awaited the children that day, but I thank God for brave women like them willing to stand up and fight for what is right. Meanwhile, other teachers stood back and did nothing, contributing to the injustice with their inaction.  Still, others though were laughing and discussing with each other about how “it was just tradition, the seniors were only giving back what was given to them three years ago.”

The word tradition stopped me in my tracks. TRADITION. Liberia is a country full of tradition. Most of them are absolutely beautiful and should be cherished and passed down from generation to generation. Like the way they celebrate new life and unions with elaborate naming ceremonies and weddings, or the clothes that they wear, the food that they cook, the songs that they sing, and the way that they hold the family/village/community unit above all else. But this, is this really a tradition? Is this really part of culture as some people have tried to explain to me? Or is this just another spin on the never ending cycle of oppression, of the thirst for power, the need to control, the need to feel respected, the desire to be vindicated. Another example of the brokenness of humanity existent in every culture, in every time period, in every country around the world…

It’s an interesting phenomenon when the slave becomes the master, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, or the abused becomes the abuser… but it’s a phenomenon that has seen itself manifested throughout history in all parts of the world. Liberia being one of the most remarkable examples. Did you know that Liberia was a country created by freed slaves from the United States? Did you know that many of those same people who came to Liberia in pursuit of freedom and an escape from their former oppressors then become the oppressors and even slave traders themselves? How is this even possible? Why is the cycle of oppression so strong? How can we break it? Who will break it?

In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Paulo Freire writes about this complicated cycle of oppression and talks about how unfortunately the oppressed, even though they may hate/fear/resent their oppressors, they eventually end up becoming oppressors because to them, based on their experiences, to be “a man” or ”human” or to be “someone who has made it” or “respected” is associated with oppression and so those are the actions they take as well to show others that they are serious, or powerful, or worthy…of love, respect, attention. Also, the idea of paying back what was given to them rings true in many situations of oppression. But how can they turn around and oppress the same exact people that they were oppressed with, don’t all the oppressed share some sort of special bond? One might think, but no. As Freire explains, the oppressed have only known a life of oppression and therefore their identity is more intrinsically linked to their oppressors as objects of oppression rather than as actual human beings…. people who have the capacity to build relationships and form bonds with their fellow oppressed people. This is how then the idea of any sympathy that the once oppressed may have had toward their fellow oppressed, is suppressed underneath the even stronger desire for retribution, desire for power, recognition, a chance to feel “human” themselves rather than an object of someone else’s oppression. But the truth is, it is not just the oppressed who have been robbed of their humanity (human identity, humanness) through the act of oppression; the oppressors themselves have also been robbed of their humanity. Neither to be oppressed nor to oppress others was in the plan when God created mankind. And yet, sin has tangled up the once beautiful masterpiece that God created in the beginning and now oppression is only evidence of our brokenness.

But thankfully, someone stepped in for us on our behalf just like those strong Liberian women stepped in on behalf the freshman students to break the cycle. It made no sense, Jesus himself was beaten, rejected, turned away, cast aside, taken advantage of and certainly oppressed. And yet, despite the power that He possessed and definite justification to be able to punish and pay back all the wrongs that were done to him, he did something to break the cycle. Something counter intuitive. He did not payback all the wrongs done to him or cling tight to the injustices, allowing them to shape Him or His choices; instead He forgave and wiped the slate clean and broke the cycle of oppression with a selfless act of sacrifice, of true leadership, of authentic love. And in doing so, He restored humanity to the world. He showed us by His example how to break the cycle. So instead of there being a cycle of oppression characterized by the tradition of paying back what was done to you or as the Old Testament preaches “an eye for an eye,” there was freedom. A tradition of freedom to truly embrace our humanity as children of God, which enabled us all to be able to love others in a new and radical way, unconditionally and completely without reservations, without worrying if everything was “fair” because it never will be in a broken world. Once we find our identify in God, it gives us the freedom to break the cycle of oppression ourselves because we no longer feel the need to become like our oppressors, we feel the need to become more like God and extend love and restore humanity back to our world.

In the moment of chaos, it felt that all hope was lost for this campus. But I know that there are more people out there like those brave women who were able to step in and turn the tables of what “should be” and bring in instead this radical idea of what “could be.” What could this campus look like if the seniors stopped “suffering” the freshmen (as they call it)? What could it look like to extend grace and pass down a tradition of love rather than oppression? What could it look like if new traditions were created, ones where we build others up rather than tear others down in our scramble to the top of the pyramid? What could it look like to break the cycle? To start a new tradition?

After witnessing the abuse, one of my extremely self-aware, compassionate, and intelligent junior students said that when he has a child he will not send him/her here because he fears for how he/she will be treated (especially if he has a daughter). That statement broke my heart but, I know that tradition can change…things can change and they can change with him…next year when he himself is a senior.