Growing up in an African village is much different than growing up in an American neighborhood. Not only was I surrounded by a very different culture than my home culture, I also saw poverty, sickness, death and suffering on a daily basis. On the flip side, though, I built deep relationships with people of all ages...from girls who were my playmates, to moms with babies that I helped care for, to grandmas cooking over the fires in their courtyards or selling things in the market stalls. Here are a few things I learned from that experience which continue to impact how I live my life today. Some of these sound cliche' to our American ears, but the profound way I experienced them in my village, was not cliche' at all. It was life changing.
Life is hard work
Here in America I hear people say "hard work pays off". I think that sounds very nice, but, in Africa, I learned and accepted a very different reality. I watched people around me work very hard. Some women spent all day, sitting in dirt, using a heavy mallet hammer to break rocks into small stones which were then used to mix in cement. That is it. They broke rocks into stones, day after day. Most of the men of the village walked 5+ miles to fields outside of town, planting and harvesting year round, no pesticides, no fertilizers, nothing but hand tools. Drought, floods, pests... could all undo months of work, in a moment. But, they kept on planting the fields, season after season, accepting this risk, hoping for enough come harvest time, to feed their family. Even the moms at home with small children did not rest. They ground manioc into tapioca and flour with just a handmade metal grater; they cared for elderly and sick relatives; they made things to sell at market to earn money to buy what they could not grow in the fields; they cooked for the family. I was not shocked by any of this; it's what made my village tick; hard work. These activities created a happy ebb and flow to life that I accepted as normal. Today, I approach my own life the same way. I work hard because that is what life is. I don't expect anything except what I earn from doing so, and I am happy with that.
Every morning I walked out the gate of my yard, at the end of the village, with my wagon in tow and my monkey swinging on the hem of my dress. I usually had some water and treats in my wagon, a piece of cloth to nap on if I wanted and a book or some toys. Before I walked even 15 steps I stopped to greet "Papa" who owned the little drink shop (buvette) across the street. I asked if he "woke up well" and asked after every member of his family. I even asked if his house was well (even though I could plainly see it was) and then I went on my way. With every person I passed, I had this same exchange. In some cases, there were people I had a closer relationship with so I stopped to sit a minute to talk for a longer time. The donut lady who always gave me a free "yovo doko" (donut) was one of these people, as was the candy lady who gave me bright pink homemade candies (which eventually led to the demise of my baby teeth). The moms and grandmas of the girls I played with, Mama Vacencia and Mama Christine, were a few of the others. When I stopped there, I chatted with the older women and went through the expected greetings, and then stole away with my book or toys to share with my friends. This daily experience in Savalou influenced how I treat people in my community today. I make sure to let people around me know that I see them and I appreciate them...from my neighbor, to my co-worker, to the person at the deli counter. I try to interact regularly with many types of people of all ages. I call people by name; I ask about their lives and family; I look them in the eye; and I leave them with a smile. Relationships matter.
My parents never shielded me from the dark side of things in our village. Due to poor sanitation and lack of doctors, children fell deathly ill and even died with shocking regularity. I visited people who had been in terrible accidents trying to take a large load of goods to a market in a town far away, on treacherous roads. And, people around me often suffered from malaria and other tropical illnesses. Plus, of all the years I lived there, there was always something that happened to make the harvest of the crops, slim. One year it was a worm infestation that killed all the roots. Another year, it was drought so bad that the Catholic priests begged the voodoo covens and priests to hold a special ceremony to call out to their gods to send rain. Life in Savalou certainly could be tough. Yet, as I visited everyone on my morning walks, they were always sure to tell me something that they were thankful for that day. Some days, they merely said they were thankful for waking up. Other days, it was because of good news or because someone returned safely from a trip. Right around this time, my mom read me the book, Pollyanna. I fell in love with her "glad game" and I decided that my village, Savalou, had its own version of the glad game that they played each day. In my life today, I try very very hard to not only be thankful for the miracles or the "big" things. I try to find something to be thankful for in every situation... to play the "glad game".