In The Beginning
We started our day with schoolwork, which was normal for the past few weeks, which had been different. Two of my children were in the kitchen discussing the ages of Dragonball Z characters while one loaded the dishwasher and the other prepared to bake a cake. My oldest child was sitting beside me wearing air pods, looking at her phone. I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see what she was looking at until she laughed and showed me a funny meme. I had just finished talking to my mom, who was celebrating her 70th birthday. All of this was very normal. The fact that my mom was celebrating her birthday all by herself was a reminder that that day, like much of this year, was not normal.
My mom is pretty social. She’s always going out, meeting friends for a meal, visiting elders in the community, watching movies, taking weekend trips, and most of all, shopping. If circumstances were different she would have been having brunch with friends, and our family would be taking her out to a big, celebratory dinner. On Sunday she would most likely have gone to an early church service, then to breakfast with aunt Lula and other friends from her church. Instead, she was at home practicing social isolation. That’s about as far from normal as it gets for my mom.
I spent a lot of time with my children. That was normal. I enjoy being with friends and attending events but I like being at home more than any place else. I still miss working with elders every day, but I’m honestly feeling very content – even relieved – about no longer being responsible for everyone living and working in a nursing home right now. Since that freedom had been forced on me I took the opportunity to home school two children during the 2019-2020 school year. In March, adding the third to our routine was a relief, not a hardship, because I didn’t have to bring her across town through rush hour traffic twice a day. My husband’s job was considered essential, so he was still working and we still had his normal income. We cooked most of the time so preparing meals wasn’t an issue either. We were fine spending more time at home but it was not normal.
By the end of May my children had lost count of how long they’d been “stuck at home.” By June their repeated excursions and entertainment included walking and biking in our neighborhood, painting, fishing, sewing, playing board games, playing video games, watching anime, baking, sometimes cooking, and of course, using their phones. My son picked up a new hobby – making bread. My husband and I kept trying to figure out what would happen next.
If someone had suggested in March that we would still be practicing social isolation, wearing masks in public, and children would be distance learning in September, I would not have believed them. In hindsight that disbelief would have been silly of me – evidence of my normally perpetual, currently dissolving optimism. I should have known that in this country, the birthplace of rugged individualism, individuals would exercise their right to refuse to do what benefits others. This is the place that has far more vacant homes than homeless people – yet people remain homeless. This is where many elderly people are trying to figure out how to pay for medicine and groceries while many elected officials are trying to figure out how to take funds from social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Pardon me, my naivete’ was showing. Still, I know things could be done differently. We could all do much better.
The Maasai people of East Africa commonly greet each other in a way that encourages me. They are known to say, “kasserian ingera,” which is generally interpreted as, “and how are the children?” You have to look a little deeper to appreciate what’s really being asked. In the U.S. it’s pretty common to ask an acquaintance, “How are you?,” or “How are your kids/family?” Anyone who has lived in New Orleans (and actually interacted with people who are from New Orleans, which is an entirely different conversation) is familiar with a similar question, “How’s ya mama ‘nem?” I feel like that question perfectly represents the pervasiveness of African culture in this American city.
As I understand it, the Maasai believe that if the children are well, all is well. Asking about the children infers that if the the adults must be well enough to properly educate, feed, shelter, and love the children. Therefore the entire community is doing well. I get the same impression from the New Orleans greeting. “How’s ya mama ‘nem?” could also be stated, “and how are the elders?” A positive response would indicate that one’s mama, daddy, mawmaw, pawpaw, nanny, pahrain, teedy, aunty, big unc, and the other members of the extended family, often including neighbors, church members, and good friends, are well. If the elders are well, they must be able to take care of themselves or they have family members with the means, ability, and desire to help them. If the elders are well, they are most likely helping to properly educate, feed, shelter, and love the children. All is well.
What is the News?
So what happens if some of the children and some of the elders are not well? What if many are not well? What does that mean for the rest of the community? Are the younger adults unwell too? If that’s the case – and it’s definitely the case in the U.S. – what can be done? How should we respond? In March I wanted to travel to Pennsylvania to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday. Assuming that life would be more normal by the end of the summer, I had also planned to travel to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday in August. Her Matriarch Celebration, planned by my sister and cousins for nearly a year, was cancelled. I haven’t hugged my 80-year-old mother-in-law in over 6 months. The few times I’ve visited her, I’ve been sure to stay about ten feet away, just in case. My Godmother, also 80, told me that she’s about to have her pool filled in because it requires more and more of her effort. If I lived near her I’d help her with it, but I’m in New Orleans, speaking to her on the phone, telling her that I understand. My dad, 69, and Godfather, 75, experienced acute illnesses within the past year. Like most of my family, they’re in or near Philadelphia. Like most of my interaction with family, I spoke to them by phone and prayed from New Orleans. That’s the best I could do from here. I’m thankful that I have a huge and supportive family. My elders are in good hands. Most of the younger adults are well enough to make sure that the elders and the children are well.
Right now one of my children is working a twelve hour shift as a certified nursing assistant. One is attending a remote AP World History class in our breakfast nook and the other is at our dining room table in a remote seventh grade science class. They have everything they need, not because we provided all of it, but because we have a community that always makes sure that the children are well. I haven’t worked full time since February of 2019 but our household has suffered very little. My mom gave my son a new phone. My cousin gave my daughter (her Godchild) a new laptop. My sister-in-law gave my son bread making lessons and his school provided him (and each student) with a new laptop.
Meanwhile, we do what we can to help our elders be well. My husband and I have a business centered on providing fresh, local produce to our community. We often have extra vegetables, which we distribute to our older church members and neighbors. (One of them called the police on us for placing a box of vegetables at her door, but again, that’s another conversation.) Without my former income we have less cash than normal, but we always have fresh food and we’re determined to share it whenever we can.
“Habari gani” is a Swahili term meaning “what is the news?” It’s another example of a greeting that isn’t limited to an individual. Similar to “what’s happening” or “what’s going on,” the question leaves room for answers about the family and the community. Should we ask ourselves, and each other, especially in the midst of these tumultuous times, what is the news? Instead of the general “hello,” should we begin to ask about the children and the elders? Would asking those questions help us to adjust our focus? Could African greetings help all Americans, North, Central, and South, to make necessary course corrections in our thoughts and actions toward each other?
The Americas are full of African descendants who already speak this way, though in the learned languages of Europe and not the forgotten phrases of African ancestors. In Brazil it’s “Tudo bem?,” meaning “is everything well?” In many Spanish-speaking countries it’s “Que pasa?,” meaning “what’s happening?” In Haiti it’s “Sak Pase’?,” also meaning “what’s happening?” So Americans, what’s happening? What is the news? Is it good?
Make It Good
The news will only be good if we make it so. Not think it so or hope it so – MAKE IT SO. *If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? That’s a nice wish but the person is still cold and hungry unless someone gives a blanket or a sweater and some food. You could be that someone, the one that jump-starts a better life for someone else. If your sick neighbor needs his grass cut, cut it. If your grandmother is bored at home because she’s not used to staying there all day, bring your kids to visit her, even if you all stay outside on the porch while she stands in the doorway. Help your father-in-law manage his bills.
Tip your server as if her children depend on it because they probably do. Bring some groceries to your neighbor who lost his job. Wash your uncle’s car. Advocate for people who do not have your privileges. Behave as if what’s happening to others could happen to you. It really could happen to you! If more people did these things consistently, we could honestly say that all the children, all the elders, and all the people in between are well.
*James 2:15-16 (NKJV)