I think that spunky little old ladies are a universal constant. Even here, where women wake up early to cook for their families, carry over a hundred of liters of water each day, labor all day in the gardens, help their husbands work in the fields, and work past dark preparing nshima for dinner, old women still manage to be spunky.
One of my favorite people in my village is my host grandmother, or “banene” in Tonga. She is agelessly ancient– she looks old and delicate, but I’ve seen her carrying 20 Liters of water and hoeing in the fields like it is the easiest thing in the world. And she will probably look the same, and be doing the same, physically demanding chores for years to come.
Banene speaks no English, so we never actually communicate with words, but she’s still one of my best friends. Whenever she comes by, we hug and greet each other profusely. She spends the next 5 minutes jabbering away at me in deep Lenje, with me nodding and trying desperately to follow the conversation, then we say goodbye. She follows the old customs of clapping and kneeling to greet people, and I find myself doing the same. The Lenje she speaks is different, probably less corrupted, than what I hear normally– she is a sort of glimpse for me into what my area used to be like, and it is fascinating.
Like most people here, banene does little side projects to help generate a little income. I remember when I first met her she was going through my trash pit, looking for discarded chip bags or other wrappers that are colorful on one side and silver on the other. I didn’t know what she wanted them for, but I helped her to sort through my trash. A few weeks later, she showed up to my door with the finished product: a decorative wall-hanging. People make rugs here by weaving 4-inch long strips of chitenge through an old mealie meal sack: down, up, and then knotted, leaving the two loose ends up. It makes a fluffy, colorful, functional rug. Well, banene does the same, but uses strips of chip bags, and the finished result is a “colorful and sparkly accent to any candlelit room.” At least it would be if she was advertising on Etsy.
Recently, PLAN international, an NGO working in my area, held a meeting for the entire community about building preschools. There were at least 60 community members there, and the discussions went on for hours. We had to talk about why preschools are important. Where we could put them. What children should learn. How they could fit in to the school curriculum. It was a long meeting. The upside of PLAN meetings, though, is that afterwards we all get fed. They arrange for boxes of biscuits and sodas, and for local ladies to cook chicken, nshima, and cabbage for the horde. So, after the meeting, banene and I were sitting, getting our biscuits and soda, and waiting for food. Feeling pretty smart, I saved my biscuit wrapper to use as a plate, ready for the forthcoming meal. Then I looked over and banene, grinning, reached into her bag and pulled out a plate, fork, and cup. Someday I hope that I can be as cool, and as prepared, as this little African lady…