My Mother and the Grace of an African

If you’ve got a bar of soap, good manners and you walk with grace, you’re set for life.
— Hope's Mother

When I was growing up my mother always said, “Hope, if you’ve got a bar of soap, good manners and you walk with grace, you’re set for life.” She said a lot of things about what it means to live one’s life in grace and with dignity. I think I exercised both of these important tenets of life most the day she died. She was an exemplary model of this state of being. She didn’t have much, but by God, the woman was graceful.

Grace, when exercised, allows us to see the elegance of the human spirit. It allows us to “give freely, without condition.” When spoken of in a religious context it is the unmerited favor and love of God—being in a “state of grace.”

I am called to be especially graceful these days as I fumble and trip about making various life decisions. I want to be elegant and graceful in how I interact with others, and how I approach really big challenges. And I am humbled by the degree of grace I witness in the Africans I have met recently. Since my mother is not here with me, I need to take note of the examples of grace shown to me in this foreign land, behaviors and mindful acts that will guide me to make the right decisions.

Ugandans greet everyone by saying, “You are most welcome.” The first time I heard this I stammered a bit wondering what I had just thanked them for. The greeting stops you in your tracks because it creates a degree of comfort and hospitality that “Hi” just doesn’t cut. You wonder what you’ve done to deserve such favor for having done nothing but show up. It is humbling to receive such so much for nothing, and I feel the need to stand taller, make sure my rat’s nest of a hair do is not as wild as usual, and that I demonstrate patience: look a minute longer at a person, go slower for those who can not keep up with my “Tazmania Devil” pace, and graciously accept their offerings of kindness.

Another common expression among Ugandans (and other cultures , too) is, “You look Smart!”  Every morning I wake to those words from Sara, Charles, Joyce, and Daniel. I blush. I make a funny face and silly comment to make them laugh and divert their attentions. I must admit I do not feel I am looking my best these days, but it makes my day to hear such compliments. Those cold morning showers, the ritual of killing a few bugs before I even had the chance to pee, and the extensive prep needed to just brush my teeth b/c I can’t use the tap water, makes me feel as if I’d already been digging and hoeing in the bush for hours by the time I hit the dining room to eat breakfast.  But I am no worse for the wear. I gracefully enter the room with a proper salutation for each of them, and my own version of affection, and we are all grateful for reciprocated kindness.  Grace.

When traveling into the bush to teach, I have seen lithe, strong, beautiful, women with a half a tree of matooke (bananas) and a 25 lb. sack of rice on her head,  a baby strapped to her back, and walkingwith the grace ofEliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady. And it’s 95 degrees to boot. Oh, and she’s “dressed.” Reminds me of a time when my mother, pressed to the limit with life stuff, said, “A woman can be 8 months pregnant, wearingpantyhose in 95 degree weather, cooking dinner and washing dishes for an army, and never miss a beat!” She had more in common with these Africans women than they imagined. Grace.

Traveling on the most remote roads or the busiest streets, it is not uncommon to see Ugandan men wearing a suit jacket, pleated trousers, and advancing toward their destination with the gait of a true gentleman. One of my first excursions out into the bush, I saw a man on the side of the road.  Must have been 6 ft. 5 ” tall, if he was a foot high. He was around 60years old. As he walked his over-sized, navy blue, overcoat hung on him as if he himself were a wardrobe hanger. I could see his shoulder blades protruding through that coat, poking out so sharply, left then the right, like ax heads. His hands hung by his sides as if they were atrophied, and he carried himself as if the top half of him was unattached to the bottom half of him. He was a living, breathing, marionette. He walked with such grace in that scorching heat. He seemed proud and he walked like a man. Grace.

I attended a school in the bush the first week I was here in Uganda, and I happend to walk in on a group of students rehearsing for an upcoming dance and music competition. I walked in and sat down. No one spoke English. I spoke with my body and gestured to ask their permission to watch. They gestured with their eyes only that it was okay for me to stay. The students never moved out of position and never lost focus.

The teachers were amazing—giving instruction like the German theatre folk I worked with eons ago. They were tough. There were direct. They demanded attention and perfection.  It was clear why. These kids could deliver the goods. I was oohing and aahing away and not one child, (except the 12 year old drummer who shamelessly flirted with me) cracked a smile, or lost their focus.  In fact, these children were performing with the grace and formality of Kabuki Dancers. They were not showing off. They were ego-less. It was a privilege for them to be performing, and they were honored that I appreciated them so. They were treating their performance like a surgical team would attend to a heart operation. It was not silly. It was not a time to lay back and relax. This was a time to communicate spirit and African tradition. It was a moment to say thank you to their teachers, and exude pride and power of their traditional Lingala dance. I wrote in my journal that EVERY person who even thinks about studying to be a performer needs lessons from these kids.  Kids who live in the bush, have no shoes, dancing on a dirt floor. Best show I have ever seen in all my life! I applauded and wept. They bowed before me, and exited with grace and dignity, like all performers should. Grace.

While teaching the students at one of the schools in the bush, a young girl rose from her bench seat, looked at me, and then came forward to the front of the room. She knelt before me and asked if she could “take leave” for a moment. I knelt before her and said, “Yes, you may. But please come back, okay?” The students gasped. Some laughed and covered their mouths with the palms of their hands and bent over their desks, eyes looking to see what I would do for their outbursts. With great interest to hear their responses, I asked them the following question, “Why are you laughing? What is so funny?”

A young man stood up and said, “You are not supposed to kneel to us. We kneel to you. You are above us.”

I was quieted by that remark, even though I knew it to be their truth, but said, “I understand the reasons that you bow and kneel before me. I respect your need to do this, and won’t ask you NOT to do it, even though it makes me very uncomfortable. But we need to agree to the following: If you kneel before me, I will kneel before you. I am NOT “above” you. It is such a privilege and honor for me to be invited to teach you and learn from you. We are equal.”

At the close of class, each student handed in their assignment to me on bent knee. I bent and knelt 35 times. They laughed every time. They stared at me with wide eyes and gaping mouths, and whispered to each other. When I collected my belongings and slung my 5 bags over my shoulders and on my back like the pack mule I am, they rushed me, hugged me, and thanked me. As I exited, I blew them a kiss. They caught the kiss in their hand, like I taught them, and put it in their pocket. Grace.

I could write endlessly about Africans and grace, but I won’t bore you. I will close by saying that in the last years of my mother’s life she was confined to a wheel chair. I called her at least once a day during my busy days in New York, and when I did she used to ask me, “Where are you taking me today?” On a good day, I was patient and easy about the question, telling her we were in mid-town or Chinatown, or uptown or downtown; at the grocery store, or the hairdresser or in a market buying fruit, or a cool little bookstore. On a bad day, I was irritable and snappy, sighing and rolling my eyes, wishing she’d just get on with the main issue of our conversation.

While in East Africa, I can hear her calling to me and asking, “Where are we going today?”  I answer her with great care and excitement, filling her in on all the details. My heart swells. I feel her smiling at me. I see her blue eyes, the eyes I inherited, looking at me with great admiration and pride.  I tell her I’m sorry for the times I was not so pleasant with her. And I think about how I’ll conduct myself today, in each and every moment, she being my litmus test of grace and truth.  I prepare for my day, kill a bug or two, scream aloud at the geckos in the bathroom, and the ants I find hustling and bustling about on the food I need to prepare for breakfast. I’m irritated. I’m impatient. I slow down, greet my housemates warmly, and begin my day.  Grace.