Wednesday, January 13, 2010

People Contact & The Ability to be Generous

I went home to the U.S. over the holidays for the first time since I arrived for my posting in May 2008. I had been to Thailand and England between then and now, but that was vacation and a totally different experience. It was quite amazing to be landing in New York on Dec. 16 and think to myself, "Wow, I'm in my home country." My first thoughts were of how organized everything looked--even from the air. The U.S. is patch-worked into these neat little boxes of industry and residential space and every square inch of land seems to be developed. In Africa, it's a hodge podge of development--if there is any development at all. Everything is disorganized and scattered and broken and dusty. The U.S. is gleaming and clean and sanitized. But that is not what this blog is about, really.

Over the holidays, I was surrounded by loving family and friends and I had a wonderful time. But I realized something. Apart from my family, I really didn't have much contact with any other people. I cannot tell you any funny stories about clerks in stores or random people on the street because I didn't have enough contact with them to remember them. It seems in the U.S. that people are pretty isolated from each other. Maybe it's because everyone has enough money to be self-supporting so people don't need each other. Maybe it's because Americans value their privacy and don't readily engage with people they don't know. Here in Africa it's totally different. I can tell you that even for a person like me who has only been here 18 months, I have lots and lots of people who know me and greet me every day. In the morning my housekeeper Mariama comes each day at 7:00. We discuss what will be prepared for dinner that evening and if I want to bring anything for lunch at the Embassy. Sometimes she even makes me breakfast (like crepes on the patio) before I go to work. I have human contact from a wonderfully warm person right at the start of my day. Today for instance, Mariama informed me that Adama--our good friend who had her first baby last Friday, was sad and hungry. Apparently the people she stays with have not been making meals and she does not have enough food to eat to make breast milk for the baby. I gave Mariama some money (about $8.00) and told her to take the day off and go to Adama's and cook for her. She later told me that she made food for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Quite a long way to stretch $8.00. I had the opportunity to be generous in a way that I never would have in the U.S. Adama called me later and thanked me over and over for my kindness.

On my drive to work, I know almost all the people who live on the roads I take. They all wave and give me a big good morning smile. Some of them even know my name. There is a group of ex-combatants (child soldiers from the recent civil war --who have grown into young men now) who live (probably more like hang out) on a stretch of road near a restaurant I frequent. Each time I drive by, they call out my name "Miss Becky" in excited tones and wave enthusiastically. I first met them through a Lebanese friend of mine who gives them a small bit of cash every now and again (about $2.50) and also gives them large bags of rice a couple of times a year. His father started the practice because the Muslim faith says you should help the poor. So now I help them too. I didn't really take much notice of their familiarity, but recently when I was driving by, I had a new Embassy employee in the car with me. When we drove past, they called out my name and waved wildly like they had just sighted a movie star and my new employee turned and said, "Does the whole town know you by name?" Not quite, but I'm working on it.

All this got me to thinking that it's going to be much different at my next post--Berlin. I'm going to be in the middle of a big city, I won't speak the language and I will be just another anonymous white person among a crowd of urban professionals. We will all look and act alike and no one will take much notice of each other. This is sort of the feeling I got when I was back in the U.S. I never thought of our culture as aloof before, but after being in warm, friendly, small-town Freetown, I can see the vast differences. I think I prefer it here. There is so much cultural diversity and people really go out of their way to be a part of your life--if you let them. I love it here and I'm really going to miss it.