Name: Jefferson K.
Country of Origin: Liberia
As I reflect upon what it was like growing up in an African home, the one aspect that jumps out at me was how it enabled my proximity to so many different generations and members of the family. Although I am my mother’s only child, I never quite felt “alone”; my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins have all been ever-present whether we were in back in the motherland or in the US. Of course, when there are so many family members around, an intricate system of rules existed to govern the behavior of each person on each level of the hierarchy to one another. These rules were not written and most of the time, they weren’t even spoken out loud but you knew them. If you were slapped or whipped for doing or not doing something, you immediately knew it was wrong; if you heard people speaking unusually fondly of you after something you did or didn’t do, you knew you were on the right side.
The overarching rule (Rule #1) that governed relations between family members was that if you were younger, you had to respect and serve anyone older than you in all manners possible. That meant you had to do whatever they ordered and act like you liked it. My older cousins and uncles took full advantage of this rule. Growing up in a not-so- wealthy environment, to say the least, this rule hit me the hardest in my belly. Whenever we younger kids had food, they would commandeer the whole bowl or sometimes just shove their hands in your food and grab your juiciest piece of meat. Not even my speech about how we younger kids still had to grow, which required food, could deter these guys from taking advantage of us. Of course, the rules didn’t stop there.
Rule #2 was the idea that the adults are always right about everything. For an inquisitive child, this was a particularly difficult concept for me to accept. I had the habit of trying to find out reasons for everything and sometimes trying to trap adults in their statements. Because of this, I was sometimes called “wiser than his father”, a reference to a humorous tale by famous Liberian author, Wilton Sankawulo. The last of the three big rules was not to ever tell an adult that he or she is lying. I guess that can be derived from the previous rule. Luckily, whoever made the rules knew that there was a possibility for a child to suspect an adult of fiddling with the truth. In such a case that you absolutely must let them know you don’t believe what they’re saying, the correct phrasing to use is to tell them they’re “telling story.”
At the risk of being accused of generalizing (which of course is the very thing I’m doing), I would say that every African child knows these big three rules by heart. However, it happens that there are other little rules, one of which I had failed to learn until too late. I swear, this one has to have been something that only existed among my people because I had never heard of it prior to the incidence. The event is now blurry in my usually sharp memory but I recall that one day my grandmother had been snooping around and seemed like she was in the mood to catch me doing something mischievous.
I don’t exactly remember what I was doing but I was very sure that whatever I was doing was right. Then Mamie came up to me and proceeded to tell me that I’m doing something wrong. I, being sure of myself, brazenly told her, “Mamie, ma bonzor,” meaning, “Mamie, I’m not stupid.” Oh No, That was it! I had insulted my grandmother that day and would never have my ears rest for the remaining part of the day. She reached for the speaker phone and started calling all her sons and daughters. She was talking in her loud voice (you know… the one they use when talking to folks back home), telling them about how their son had insulted her, how he had called her stupid. I was puzzled by this, as I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. At first I thought my old grandmother had not been listening keenly to me and had misheard. After all, elderly folks do tend to do that right? I tried explaining to her that I hadn’t said anything about her. As far as I was concerned, I only told her I wasn’t stupid and I knew what I was doing. Apparently, when you tell adults that you’re not stupid when confronted about something, that means that they’re the stupid one because someone has to be stupid if they have to warn you about something. I later had to refer to rule #2 that the adults were always right and apologized for my actions.
Back in those days these complex rules rules used to annoy me. Growing up in an African home required that we kids work extra hard. Even in America, when there was no farm or garden to work on, no water to draw, there was still dishes to wash, bathrooms to clean, floors to wash, and oh… remotes to fetch. And what made me even more annoyed was when my aunts and uncles wondered why we weren’t thrilled to be doing tons of stuff around the house. They would say, “When I was small, I used to LOVE working…”
Nowadays, however confusing those rules were and however ceaseless the chores were, I am very grateful for them, just as I am for being whipped when I did stupid things. These were all experiences helped to build my character and I feel like the reverence for older folks is a lesson that is indeed priceless. I look at my American raised cousins and I know they don’t have it anywhere like we did. They can tell someone older than them to shut up without the fear of a random slap in their ears that would produce a ringing sound. When I have my kids one day that’s very far away, I’ll definitely hope to give them a hard time, not only for my enjoyment (which I think there will be plenty of), but because of the strong character that I know growing up in an African home gives you. They’ll appreciate it later.