“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!”