It’s so nice to know my habit of meeting interesting people is still alive and well here in Lenox. Last week I was having lunch in one of my favorite cafe’s when the chef came out and sat at the table next to mine and had his lunch. We started chatting, as you know I do, and he told me about how he has dinner parties and cooks authentic West African food from his home country of Cote d’Ivoire, and how he plans to make enough money to build an orphanage there. I ran out of time to hear the whole story so I gave him my card and we texted and made plans to meet for tea later.
While sipping tea, Ali, was full of enthusiasm for his plans of helping children in Africa. In the midst of our conversation he pulled a bracelet and necklace out of his pocket and laid them on the table. He brought them back from Cote d’Ivoire and he explained the detailed meaning of the medallion attached to the beaded necklace, how it represents his country, friendship, and is stamped with symbols of the coastline. Then he explained how the bracelet was made from shells and symbolizes strong women because it was made in Abidjan where in 1949 all the male leaders were imprisoned and 500 women marched 30 miles to the prison singing and dancing to free the men. They were attacked, injured, killed and arrested, but their brave march was a pivotal event in gaining African independence from France.
Ali left the adornments on the table and mentioned “in my culture we give gifts to all our friends.” And it wasn’t until near the end of our time that I realized he meant the necklace and bracelet were for me! Now you probably think this was obvious but I was sick with a chest infection and not at the top of my game, and English is not Ali’s first language so our communication is not always clear. I was appropriately touched and a bit shy about accepting gifts from someone I just met. But he insisted this is what they do “in my culture” and I have enjoyed the gesture ever since. When I wear them I am reminded of friendship, generosity and strong women.
Ali wanted to cook African dishes for me so I soon received an invitation to dinner at his house. He loves to cook and even after cooking in a very busy kitchen all day he still likes to make food at home. “Cooking is my passion” he kept saying. He made four large steaming pots of food, two kinds of rice, and two chicken dishes, one with spinach. Everything was delicious and reminded me of Indian food. I wish I had taken photos of it all, but sadly I didn’t even think of it, my growling stomach ruled my thoughts.
We sat out on his deck, it was a perfectly beautiful evening, and talked of Africa, dreams, his work with kids, my work with teens, cooking and how important family is. He showed me pictures of his family, some living here in the USA, some in France and some in Africa. He has a lot of relatives! “In my culture” he would say, “we feed everyone who comes. If someone comes over, you must feed them and it is an insult if you do not eat. I only go to one house each day during meal time when I am back for a visit or they would have me eating all day! We love to eat!”
According to Ali, Cote d’Ivoire is beautiful, right on the water, so you get the ocean breezes and it is not too hot. Elephants roam around and there are lots of monkeys. The illiteracy rate is at 30% and he wants to start an after school program to give kids more opportunities to learn. Now they just go home after school and work, helping in the kitchen or playing soccer, but they need more programs to encourage learning languages, the arts, math. I couldn’t help but think about spreading Shakespeare into Africa. How amazing would that be?
His eyes light up when he talks of home. Though the people are poor, they are happy, “oh so happy” he says. They dance all the time and sing, go to the beach and swim and cook and eat! As we took empty dishes into the kitchen he put African music on his laptop and we listened and then he showed me how they dance. He made me try it and I was pretty bad at it. Something about the rhythm and my hips not going in the right direction and we laughed. He said I was doing good, but I could tell with the twinkle in his eye that there was a “but” behind that good! “No, you’re getting it, REALLY!”
I don’t know how much of the rhythm I got, but I did get that he loves his country, loves to cook, loves to dance and longs to help people. He is going to France in November and then to Africa in December and he invited me along. He says I should see Ivory Coast for myself, “you will LOVE it! It is so happy there, you, oh you, you should see it.”
So who knows, maybe I will just take him up on it! Maybe my road trip needs to travel overseas to another culture to dance and sing, see elephants and have monkeys look for fleas in my hair and bring clothes and gifts to children that really need it. It’s a big world and I’ve only seen one small, rich corner of it. Maybe it’s time to branch out. My poor mother thought driving around the USA alone was bad. Wait until she reads this post. Those in California be ready to feel the resulting earthquake! I will let her borrow my bracelet, or bring one back just for her, from the town where women are strong, even stronger than the men. Sounds like my kind of place.