Monday, September 30, 2013

Remember Me When You Eat

Wooden bowl and two spoons from Zondo, Liberia

"What if you gave your friends a bowl and spoon to take home with them whenever they left your house?" 

This question was asked to a curious group of children last week during a presentation on Liberia. They laughed and giggled. They were curious about the bowl and two spoons I had received from the people of Zondo in Liberia.

"Why would you do that? Why would you give someone a bowl and spoon when you say 'goodbye'?" That was their question. It is a good question. They had good answers:

"Maybe your friends will get hungry on the way home."
"They may not have bowls and spoons so you want them to have some to eat with."
"So they can remember eating with you."

The presentation of the bowl and spoons in Zondo. 2011

Symbols have this ability to make us rethink common things like eating food and they provide us with new and powerful perspectives that can change how we view the world, ourselves, and others. For example, these symbols from Zondo caused me to ask things I wouldn't normally ask myself like, "How do I eat nice with others?", "What does it mean to hang out with friends?", "Is it OK to share a spoon with someone even though my mom said I shouldn't?", and even "How do I say goodbye?"

"Bowl and Spoon" Means What?

To us a bowl and spoon are usually just tools. They aid us in ingesting our Count Chocula or clam chowder. They can be styrofoam or plastic and thrown away. However, upon further investigation we find that we also practice a symbolism of bowl giving in our culture. For example, bowls of china or crystal are often given as gifts at weddings. Why? Because we hope in some small way that the newlyweds will remember us when they use them or look at them. We hope that as they set the table for Thanksgiving perhaps they will remember us and even mention us in a brief prayer like: "God, I hope those guys are doing alright. What nice people."

Perhaps something similar was meant with this Liberia goodbye-gift of Bowl and Spoon. Perhaps it would be best though to hear why they did this in their own words. Fortunately, we videotaped the Bowl and Spoon ceremony at Zondo and had translators who explained to us the meaning of the Bassa words. Here is what giving a Bowl and Spoon mean to the Bassa.

Explaining the meaning of the spoon

Bowl and Spoon in Bassa Tradition

A Bowl and Spoon Presentation

There were two sets of "Bowl and Spoon" handed out to us by the wonderful people of Zondo. Each presentation included a speech. First, the translation of the speech giving in the presentation of the bowl and spoon to my mom and dad:

"Our own Liberian way of telling people goodbye. This is a eating bowl. This is what our fathers used before people began using rubber bowls or manufactured bowls. In our culture we show that we are of one accord, that we have fellowship with one another when we eat together from the same bowl. Your visit to us shows us that you love us and so on your way back we are giving you this bowl. We want you and us to be one family eating from the same bowl.

The spoon also symbolizes something in our own culture. You have your family, your children. You feed your children to grow up to become man and woman tomorrow. As you dish out your food to your children, or to your family, or to your friends, we want you to remember us as you do so when you use this spoon."

My parents receiving their own bowl and spoon set from Zondo

Bowl and Spoon Bassa Speech #2

A second presentation was made from the people of Zondo. To help the following make more sense I was in Zondo by invitation of my childhood friend Floyd Morgan. With that in mind, the following is a translation by my friend Arthur Crusoe:

Arthur Crusoe handing off the bowl and spoons
"Significance of the bowl. We eat together so we will be closely united. Since you came here we are very happy. We don’t have words to express our feelings. Now you are going home. You will want to say, “I have been to Floyd’s home.” So you should have some artifact, some symbol to take with you from Floyd’s home. Our forefathers ate in something like this. Bowl and spoon made of these materials. We are happy. We are happy! Since you are going to your family and when you go and are seated, when you take this spoon and you eat with it, remember us from Floyd’s home. Praise God!"

Remember Me When You Eat

I was a bit confused and nervous when I was asked to respond to the community after receiving these amazing gifts. For one, I don't deserve this royal treatment, and for two, I wasn't quite sure what it meant. I mustered a few words in reply and realized it didn't matter how eloquent I was in response. The people were happy to clap and say 'amen' to just about anything that came from my mouth. They were simply happy I was there. I was happy to be there too and have remembered them often.

Stumbling through some words in a short response speech.

After two years of reflection I realize I have not yet plunged the depths of this Bowl and Spoon symbolism. Perhaps I never will. However, as a Christian this whole concept seems rather at home to my worldview. I mean, who else has said, 'goodbye' through the use of symbols relating to food? For me the words of Christ, 'eat this bread in remembrance of me' and 'drink this cup in remembrance of me', have taken on new meaning because of my Bassa friends. As also His promise that one day we will share in the same cup when He returns. And so remembering is a part of fellowship.  
Sharing bowl and spoons with Zondo brothers

The Power of African Theology

I say all of this to re-emphasize what I hope is being communicating through out all of this blog: we need to hear from Africa. In fact, the whole world suffers when African voices are silenced. Whether they be silenced through wars, disease, poverty, neo-colonial corporatization, or even aid organizations who aren't interested in listening; the fact of the matter is that their silence hurts us all. Their oppression oppresses us all. We all suffer when their voices do not inform us. We need more African theology informing our walk with God. 

Every tongue and tribe?

As Christians we know our holy text tells us that the body of Christ is diverse and made of every tongue and tribe and is therefore not defined by Western traditions, songs, or theological perspectives alone. In practice however we tend to want to use our current positions of power to usurp other traditions, stories, and perspectives. We silence them to our own poverty. 

Who is really oppressed?

In fact, I would say that the church in the States is experiencing a deep poverty of fellowship with Christ as a result of our blindness to other cultures even within our own borders. Like the proverbial Laodicean; we think we are rich, but we are poor. We think we see, but we are blind. We tend to think we know best for Africa and other 'third world' cultures. Yet it may very well be the voice of those that our culture has historically oppressed that can teach us how to finally break free from our own chains. 

I don't desire that we degrade our own perspectives, nor that we adopt everything African, but rather that we include the perspective of our African brethren like they have included us. They have invited us to share the same bowl with them. 

From the mouth of babes

Consider again the children who asked such good questions about the Liberian bowl and spoon. What did they see in these African symbols? I think they can teach us a few things about remembering Christ, considering one another, and true fellowship. Why would anyone do something so strange as give someone a bowl and spoon when they say goodbye? Listen again to the children (and the African wisdom behind it):
"Maybe your friends will get hungry on the way home."
"They may not have bowls and spoons so you want them to have some to eat with."
"So they can remember eating with you."

No comments:

Post a Comment