Saturday, April 23, 2016

Shelling: The Key to Cultural Integration

There are certain things you will always remember about people. Sometimes it's their scent, the texture of their favorite shirt, their voice on the other end of the telephone or even their favorite hobbies. For me, my grandfather conjures up all of these memories. He stands there smelling of grilled kielbasa or dish soap, the residual odor of a morning spent elbow deep at the kitchen sink. There's his soft, yet staticky, green fleece and no-name baseball cap with the insignia of a glove. It's the way he said “Cah-lee” in a heavy Bah-ston accent. And, it's the many hours I watched him sit at the kitchen table with a crossword puzzle.

Crosswords, sudokus, and card games are something I will always associate with my grandpa. He was a master. I admired his ability to dive into a puzzle with a pen, rarely hesitating with what letters to put in each box. He competed with my mother on the Sunday Times Puzzle, and I would always sneak a look at her answers before we had our evening chats. I wish I had the patience or endurance to tackle The puzzle, but alas, I'll resign myself to Boggle and the choice puzzles, which my mother still sends my via WhatsApp every week.

One thing that attracted me to puzzle time was the snacks. The activity was never complete without a bag of pretzels (extra dark specials, always), fresh fruit (no one picked a cantaloupe quite like GPA), Captain Crunch (growing up, we never ate sugary cereals, so this was a real treat!) or shelled nuts. No matter what it was, it was always delicious, and “extra special.”

I always knew that my grandparents were coming to visit when my mom bought unshelled peanuts. This struck me as strange: why buy something you need to put work into to eat? I mean, we all love lobster, but it's a once a year messy hassle! But, whether it was peanuts or pistachios, they always came in the shell. During card games or puzzle time, we would un-shell and chat, carefully pulling away the hard casing to reveal whatever was inside. Just like that, peanuts and puzzles became a tradition.

There have been many instances during my Peace Corps service where I've thought about my grandfather; in fact, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't daily. He never knew I'd move to West Africa, live in a small rural community and find a family in this tiny sliver of the world, but I know he'd be proud.

Integration is one of the largest challenges as a Peace Corps volunteer. We don't speak the language, understand the rituals or know how to prepare the cuisine. For the first few months at post, I just observed. I relished in my own silence, as I tried to pick up certain words, mannerisms and cooking techniques. I spent hours with women, sitting under the large shade tree, which we jokingly call l'arbre palabre (tree of words), braiding hair, painting nails, singing to babies, or shelling peanuts.

Shelling a peanut is a mindless task. The casing pops open under a little pressure and out rolls two, three, sometimes four nuts. Women buy peanuts (or in our village grow them) by the bag, several kilos at a time. Hours go by before you even make a dent in the supply. But, none the less, it has become one of my favorite village activities.

Becoming a true member of my community is like removing the protective casing from the little nut inside. I arrived in Benin excited at the potential for adventure and hungry for a challenge. But, I kept my guard up, worried about falling victim to loneliness or boredom. I stayed inside that shell. When I moved to Adourekoman, I met the people who would make this place feel like home. I loosened up. I danced with my neighbors, cooked with my friends and started to keep house like a true Beninese. I found myself in this new place and opened my heart to these people.

Now, ten months into my service, I have found a routine and a purpose. I am busy with work, but know when to pull back and enjoy quiet time under the tree. Once someone who shied away from monotony, I look forward to my afternoons shelling peanuts. It brings me closer to the people I have found, and even closer to those that I have lost.