From a Congo Palm Tree to a Grand Rapids Picnic
You grew up in a small village without running water or electricity. Your father raised almost all the family’s food needs, and earned a small amount of cash from a privately-owned grove of very tall trees producing palm oil nuts that were squeezed and boiled, annually producing ten to fifteen gallons of marketable palm oil. Your father taught you how to shimmy up the trees to cut down the heavy oil filled clusters. It was dangerous, especially when using homespun rope, but at an early age you practiced and watched your father and brothers do it. Your father also taught you to barter with the merchants that came two to three times a year to buy the rich, creamy, deep red palm oil. The merchants believed they were smarter than you and took every opportunity to cheat you.
Your family also owned a number of coffee trees. You didn’t need to climb them to pick the harvest, but you had to learn when the beans were ready to be plucked. It was a finely tuned skill to know exactly when they would be at the height of their flavor, a skill your grandfather and uncles helped you master.
You also learned how to use locally made hoes to prepare the ground for the planting of rice, maize, millet, cassava, and peanuts. You were taught how to sow, cultivate, and apply fertilizer at the right time, that is if there was enough money to purchase this government owned and controlled commodity. You helped with the harvest and you were taught how to make storage places to keep rodents, chickens, goats, birds, and insects from consuming the food your family needed to survive until the next harvest.
You and your two brothers slept together on one narrow bed. You walked to the village well for water and you ate basically the same food twice each day cooked by your mother or sisters over an open fire. Because the palm oil and coffee beans provided some income, your family was able to build several rectangular buildings using cement bricks and zinc instead of old-fashioned dried mud blocks and woven grass.
You lived in what is often called Savannah, or Grassland. There were trees, but it wasn’t thick rain-forest. There was some wildlife such as zebras and hippos that needed to be chased away from time to time to keep them from grazing in the family farm.
You lived in a country called The Congo. Outsiders identified you as Congolese, but your real identity was your small tribe. You spoke your own language, but also Swahili and the language of the largest ethnic group.
There always seemed to be a war going on over tribal boundaries or between the nomadic cow herders and settled farmers. There just didn’t seem to be enough land for everyone. At times local politicians and warlords fueled these land disputes causing more death and family displacement.
Major fighting had erupted three years earlier with many random killings. You heard about slaughters in nearby villages and you feared your family would be next forcing you and your family to flee your home, your village, the palm trees and the precious coffee beans. You walked for days until you arrived at a United Nations refugee camp where there was some food and temporary shelters.
The fighting raged on without any end in sight. Each day more war victims from various tribes arrived with nothing more than what they could carry. It didn’t take long before the camp was overwhelmed with humanity, all wanting to protect their wives and children and to just stay alive.
A year later your family was offered a chance to move to another country called America. You heard about this place, but had no idea where it was, how far one needed to travel to get there and what the means of transportation would be. One thing was sure, no one in the family knew anyone who lived in America.
It was a very frightening and extremely difficult decision. You had no idea when the fighting would stop. You didn’t know if the palm and coffee trees would again produce their crops since no one had taken care of them. You were resigned to the fact that the food you helped grow, harvest and store was now either gone or spoiled. Would the family starve if it returned to the home village?
Staying in this refugee camp gave little hope. There was no work, no land to farm, no palm trees to climb. You just lived off what you were given. It was like being a beggar. If you agreed to travel to this new country would you ever be able to return? The family elders gathered to talk, discuss, debate, and pray since most were Christians who gave up worshiping their ancestors a generation or two ago.
You and your family, after agonizing for weeks, decided to go to America and the workers at the camp helped all of you apply for refugee status. Two years later it was granted. You traveled a long distance to a large airport where you soon figured out that the strange contraption with wings was the same as the ones you had seen flying above your village. Before you knew it, you were inside and high above the ground. You didn’t dare to look outside through the small windows, instead you closed your eyes and prayed for safety.
Two days and three airplanes later you arrived in a huge city called Grand Rapids. You assumed that you were now in America. A welcoming group met you and your family when you entered the main lobby of the airport, a massive room filled with strange people, mostly with white skin, dressed in heavy clothes, closed shoes and long coats. Because it was November you were given winter clothes and shown how to wear gloves. You were also told to take off your sandals to then squeeze into ill-fitting calf-high boots.
No one spoke your language. You attempted to communicate using Swahili, but those who were trying to help just smiled. They used sign language that instructed your father and family to follow them. They drove you through many streets until you came to a huge building, the largest and most beautiful home you had ever seen. There was strange food on the table and in the cupboards and in a special cabinet that later you learned was called a fridge.
The next day a fellow African came to visit who spoke Swahili. He taught everyone how to use the bathroom, how to bathe, launder clothes and so much more. But he was very busy and could not stay long. Over the next several weeks more strangers stopped in to help with the purchase of food, to assist with finding jobs and after extensive medical tests to place you and your siblings in local public schools. It wasn’t just one person or one organization that helped but several. Only a few spoke your language or Swahili.
You were enrolled in a local high school set up to help refugee children. There were many others at the school from East Africa including The Congo and it had an extensive ESL program that helped you learn some English. Even though you hardly spoke a word of English, you were placed in general college preparatory classes. They were too difficult and therefore you learned little and it didn’t take long to figure out that school was a waste of time except for the fact that at least you could hang out with fellow African students.
Some of these students began to misbehave. Adjusting to routines, to supervised learning, and to the many school rules was difficult for you and your fellow refuge friends because you were accustomed to unregulated village and camp life. The school didn’t know how to deal with this African contingent, but was willing to reach out to agencies that might be able to help.
One day you met Rev. Bernard Ayoola, a Nigerian immigrant, who desperately wanted to help African refugees transition to living positive and healthy lives here in West Michigan. He was the director of the African Resource Center and he met many times with you and your fellow students. He often took with him another African pastor, Sepa Nashale, who spoke your language. Both were very helpful advising you regarding proper and acceptable school behavior. They also met with your parents and urged them to focus on learning how to live in this new country.
Bernard and Sepa understood the importance of interaction with fellow Africans. They knew how isolated immigrants felt. They realized that establishing new friendships, being able to speak in one’s own language, identifying with those who had a common background, was perhaps more important than living arrangements and jobs. Bernard and Sepa spent much of their energy getting people together through meetings at the resource center, through introducing African immigrants to each other, through Bible Studies and through creating special social events such as Christmas parties and summer picnics.
Since many refugees did not yet own vehicles, Bernard requested me to drive a fifteen-passenger van to a late summer picnic. I was given the addresses of six families scattered throughout the inner city. It took more than an hour to find all their homes, often waiting for the picnickers to get ready. No one was home at one place only to find out that the family had moved to an apartment in Kentwood. You were one of the picnickers I picked up that day.
As the van filled, I could hear you talk and laugh. I could not understand a single sentence, but it quickly became obvious that there was a pent-up need to use a familiar language.
There were close to 150 Africans at the picnic representing many countries from both East and West Africa. The food was roasted chicken, rice and fried plantains. It was simple fare, but you and everyone else enjoyed it. There wasn’t a hot dog or hamburger to be found.
Several of you were dressed in your traditional tribal clothes. No one laughed at the strange costumes. They really weren’t strange, just normal, comfortable and familiar. There weren’t any games because there was no time. Talking, communicating, comparing your lives, giving advice, laughing at these strange Americans, was much more important. It was like a family reunion and for once you felt somewhat at home.
Did the picnic solve you and your family’s problems? Not really. Learning to live in this country will be a difficult and a long road especially for your parents. So many new skills will need to be learned. Being able to climb a tall palm tree or pick a ripe coffee bean will not help you in America. The knowledge that there are many others like you in the Grand Rapids area will help. I hope you will continue to take advantage of this African resource, gathering and learning from each other as much as possible.