Saturday, September 22, 2007
My hair is soft and difficult to platt. African’s platt their hair against their foreheads in rows. For soft-haired people like myself, they often use a different style, lovingly referred to as “American platts”. In this style the hair is divided and braided in small braids that follow the natural falling of the hair. It is not tight against the forehead.
Elisa is a bit of a perferectionist. She would see an error midway through a row of braid and start the entire row over. Several times she remarked, “Your hair is soft. It’s hard to platt.“ Halfway through the platting process she told me when these plats were out, I should save the rubber bands and come back for American style platts.
“They are easy.”
As Elisa platted my hair, the other five members of the girls club hovered around Elisa’s bed and watched with wide eyes as their white friend got her hair platted. Someone found a mirror they had brought to the hospital and handed it to me so I could view Elisa’s fine work. There was a lot of “you look nice” and “your hair is platted fine” accompanied by wide smiles and big eyes. It was sort of like being at a sleepover.
The girls love to laugh. They are always joking with each other and being sassy. Just like American teenagers. Sometimes when I work I feel like I am both a youth group leader as well as a nurse.
It took an hour and a half for my hair to be completely platted. We started and 10:30 pm and didn’t finish until midnight. I had a very busy shift that evening and was tired. I really didn’t feel like getting my hair platted but the girls were so adamant about it that I could not say no.
Sitting in a circle, on the ground, while my hair was being poked and pulled provided and very good time of talking with the ladies. I have been here long enough that I am finally starting to develop real relationships with the patients. Several of the patients have been here for a few weeks and we have gotten to know each other. They call me “megee”. It’s my official Liberian nickname.
I have been trying to learn more about Liberia. I have bought Liberian textbooks and read through them. I always talk to the taxi drivers and find out their stories. It’s one thing to learn about a culture from an outsiders perspective via the news or print and it’s quite another to learn from the people who are the culture.
I started to ask the girls questions. They told me about living in the bush. They have small farms and carry their own water. Mardemor lives with her three brothers, two sisters, and her mother. Her father died when she was small. Justinas‘ mother told me that her mother -in- law has 16 children and all of hem are alive. I cannot even imagine. She had four children, two were living and two were dead. It is normal here to explain how many of your children are dead and alive because most mothers have lost at least one child.
I asked Justina‘s mom if she gave birth by herself. She looked at me rather strangely as if I had asked her an obvious and somewhat stupid question. Of coarse she gave birth by herself. I explained to her how people give birth in America. They go to the hospital and are surrounded by doctors and nurses. They put monitors on you and place your legs in the air. She was amused by my words and laughed when I told her women had to put their legs up.
Liberia‘s president is Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf, and she is Africa‘s first elected female leader. She has a huge job to do. I asked the girls what they thought of the president.
Musu, a vibrant 21 year old, gave me some answers that were very insightful to the culture.
“Things are so expensive. She (the president) said things would be less expensive and they are not.” Musu picked up a small plastic cup from her bedside and waved it in the air indigently proclaiming that a cup of rice of this size was 15 LD (25 cents). Mardemor joined the rant and started listing all the things that were expensive in Liberia.
Musu has voted for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf twice. She doesn’t think she will vote for her again. When Ellen was campaigning she promised to make things less expensive and they aren’t. Musu said she thought Liberia would be stronger when things were less expensive.
If only it was that simple.
I interjected that making Liberia string is a hard job and will take time but the girls insisted that if things were less expensive then Liberia would be stronger. I asked the girls how they were going to make Liberia stronger when they went home. What were they going to do for their country?
Diverting the question, they asked me how many children my mother had. Three.
“Women in Liberia have plenty, plenty children. Many have ten children. It’s expensive to feed ten children and send them to school and we have no money. How can we make Liberia strong when we have no money and things are expensive?”
While Liberia has many physical needs it’s emotional and physiological needs are just as overwhelming. Poverty is often cyclic, which is why it can be so hard to alter. There is no NGO or government regimen that can heal Liberia’s wounds and make it’s country strong. The people of Liberia are the only ones who can do that.
With my hair still being pulled, I told the girls the story of my country. That people came to the land with nothing. They had only a belief in God and a hard work ethic. Hey farmed the land, trusted God, and worked very hard, and became a strong nation. The same can happen in Liberia. And I told them that.
“When you leave the ship, you must work hard to make Liberia strong. You are the only people who can make Liberia string.”
All of the girls are sweet. They are smart. They like to laugh. They have had hard lives and they have hard futures ahead of them. Their childhoods have been stolen by war. They know what it feels like to be hungry. They have never been educated. But in the end they are just girls who like sleepovers.
I left are conversation saddened. Sad that poverty is cyclic. Sad that 15 LD is “expensive”. Sad that the girls have so little. Sad that women in Liberia have been oppressed.
But I enjoyed their company and my hair looks so fine now. Our humanity is the same. They are not people in a fictional story. They are people. They are daughters, and sisters and friends, the same way I am a sister and daughter and friend. If I had been born in Liberia and they in America I’d probably be platting their hair.