Harvesting “False Banana” with Joy!

(Written by team member, Debbie Wyne)

Part 2, Day 6 Sintaro Update, Feb 5, 2015

     After having such a wonderful visit with my sponsored child, Hailu, and his mom Hanna, Lori and I walk back to meet with the rest of the team. They have also been on hut visits and we’re looking forward to sharing our experiences, but our day isn’t over yet. There is a scheduled meeting with the village elders that will happen first. The rest of our team goes on to their next hut visit while Lori, Teri and I head towards the gigantic tree that the elders meet under. The men are sitting in the shade waiting for us. As they see us coming, someone runs to the church down the road and comes back with a bench for us to sit on, and a table to put in front of us. This feels very meeting-like! The village elders sit on the dirt in front of us. The dynamics of this can’t be missed.  In this culture, the men have the authority and the women seem to have no voice. I see that others have gathered to listen in and I observe how the young men place themselves behind the elders and any females present are the furthest away from the action. How powerful it must be for them to see us–three women–in a position of authority and respect!
     This is a meeting of three entities: Worede is representing Hope Enterprises, the elders are representing the village, and of course, we represent our church and the sponsorship of the projects here. Joseph interprets as Worede introduces us (although I am the only one new to them as they know Lori and Teri from other visits), and begins the meeting with updates on the progress of construction of the school and the well. He has good news to report that the meeting with the government the day before was fruitful and that he has the necessary papers to move forward with the well!
     Then it’s our turn. Lori, sits between Teri and I on the bench, and is our spokesperson. As Lori addresses the elders, I am praying over her words. Knowing Teri, I can imagine that she is doing the same thing. An image of Moses holding up his staff during battle flashes through my mind. If you’re familiar with the story, you know that the Israelites are successful in the battle as long as Moses’ arms are up, but after a time, he tires and can no longer hold them up in the air. Aaron and Hur, knowing the importance of what is happening, come alongside Moses and physically support his arms until they are victorious. At least that’s how I remember the story going. 🙂 Lori is the one doing the talking, but Teri and I are supporting her in prayer.
     Lori does an amazing job of reminding everyone of the original goals of the projects, and how far we have come. She reminds everyone of their part in accomplishing our goals and continues to affirm our partnerships with one another towards that end. We are really hoping that they are hearing the message that we want to give them the tools to become self-sustaining, but that they also need to be doing their part. It is a subtle, but firm message.
     Now it is the elders turn. Their faces have been firm, so I don’t know what to expect. The first elder to speak is the one who gave up his land (the government paid him for his lost crops) to build the school upon. He speaks in a loud, firm voice. I wait for Joseph to interpret. The elder has expressed, very eloquently, thanks to God for bringing us to their village and the work that we have done. Once again, I hear the expression that we are like Jesus among them. We all laugh as he explains that the children have great joy to see us, as do the men, the women, and even their animals are happy to see us! One by one, several elders speak and have much the same message. They reiterate over and over that we are the answer to their prayers. The last man to speak talks and says how happy they were to have us all visit their churches on Sunday and how much that meant to them to have us join with them in worship. He says when we didn’t return on Monday because we were all sick that they were very worried for us and joined together in prayer for our health. Knowing that so many people in America were also united in prayer at the same time is a beautiful image of the global church!
     The meeting is over and the elders rise.  I say my goodbye’s to each one of them.  It seems we look deep into one another’s eyes to convey what we have  no language for, shake hands, and lean in to touch our right shoulders to one another.  I’ve observed that this seems to be a custom here.
     Now it’s time to visit Lori’s sponsor child!  His family lives close to a “road”, and since it’s getting so late in the day we decide to ride up in the van rather than hike.  After our hike to Hailu’s house in the hot sun, I’m happy to hitch a ride.  It’s a bumpy uphill ride, but better than some of the other “roads” we’ve traversed.  When we get to hut we are in a beautiful area. Much of Sintaro is very wooded, hilly and green.  Unfortunately it seems the mother is not at home so we wait a minute to figure out what to do.  Do we wait? Do we look for her? Meanwhile, the neighbor women have come out of their huts and spied us.  They are keeping their distance and I smile at them and wave them over.  They laugh, about what, I don’t know, but they come closer. We greet one another and they begin to talk with our interpreter, who then tells us we are being invited to come over to see how they make “false banana”.  False banana is a staple of their diet.  It is made from the stalks and roots of the “false banana” tree–so called because it looks like a banana tree, but doesn’t produce fruit.  This is something we’ve been wanting to learn more about, so we anxiously accept her invitation.  Unfortunately, I never learn this woman’s name, but I’m going to call her Joy because that’s what she is full of.  She has an infectious smile and laughs the whole time we are together.
     So, we all head over to Joy’s hut and she walks us around the back.  There is a grove of false banana trees there and she shows us where she has already begun the work.  Basically, you shuck the pulp with the aid of a crude and flat metal instrument, and then you put the pulp in a lined hole in the ground and ferment it for a number of days.  It goes through several different fermentation processes before the next stage of preparation begins.  Joy sits down and begins to demonstrate how to shuck the pulp.  She has a long flat board propped up at about a 45 degree angle and she places what I believe is a frond from the tree, flat on the board.  Next, she throws her right leg up and holds the top of the frond in place with her right foot.  Using the tool, she works from the bottom of the frond towards the top, collecting a white, mealy consistency pulp.  She’s laughing the whole time she’s doing it.  I think she never thought she’d have such an audience doing her daily food preparation!
"Joy" is teaching us how to harvest the false banana

“Joy” is teaching us how to harvest the false banana

     Can you guess what happens next?  Have you learned anything about my adventurous spirit yet through my writings?  If so, you know that I want to try it too!  I relay my request through our interpreter and everyone bursts out into riotous laughter!  Joy is definitely game so she guides me over and gets me set into position.  I throw my leg up on the board and many non-flattering photos are taken, I’m quite sure.  I start using the tool to work at getting the pulp and they find my shortcomings hilarious.  After several valiant attempts at doing it myself, she places her hand on mine and guides me in the necessary rhythm to have better success.  There is definitely an art to harvesting the false banana!  We are all having fun together and bonding through the language of laughter.  The non-flattering photos are definitely worth it for this moment!
     Now we learn that Lori’s boy’s sister has returned to their hut, so we head back next door to do our hut visit.  This hut is much, much larger.  And darker too.  When I first walk into it my eyes have not adjusted and I literally can’t see anything.  I remember how much more light came through Hannah and Hailu’s hut earlier and I realize that this is a much nicer hut and is probably much more comfortable in poor weather too.  Just by comparing the two homes I can already see that my little Hailu and Hannah really are the poorest of the poor.
     After my eyes begin to adjust I realize that there are baby chicks flitting all about and I must watch my step carefully to avoid stepping on them. We are getting a tour of the hut and I turn on the flashlight feature of my phone so that we can see.  This hut has a partitioned area that is basically a bedroom.  There is a mat on the floor for sleeping.  There is also a kitchen area with the remnants of a fire.  It’s a large hut, but it is now full of people and I can’t move around to see much more than that.  Lori is speaking with her family, but I can’t hear much of their interaction.  I learn later that the two cows outside come in and sleep with them during the night.  They are someone else’s cows and they get paid to take care of them.  Lori prays over her family, we say our goodbye’s and turn to leave.
Lori praying with her sponsor child and his family

Lori praying with her sponsor child and his family

     As we start to walk back to the van, Joy calls us back over and wants to show us the next step in the process of making false banana?  It’s late and I know everyone is anxious to go, but can we?!  I’m told that yes, we can stay a few more minutes.  Joy welcomes us into her hut and she’s just inside the door and she has some of the fermented pulp in a woven basket.  She’s moving it around with one hand and shaking the basket with the other.  As she does so, she collects a fine white powder which falls through the basket and resembles flour.  Again, she is all smiles as she shows off her technique.  Meanwhile, she’s stoked a fire and she’s getting ready to cook it. I’m squatted down on the floor next to Joy so I don’t notice how thick the smoke has become.  Pretty soon the rest of our group can’t take it anymore and they step outside.  The rest of the group is anxious to go, and it breaks my heart to leave when we’ve made such a connection.  How I wish I could’ve spent the day walking through Joy’s day with her and learning the ins and outs of being a woman in Sintaro! She knows we really have to go this time and we hug goodbye.  She’s still smiling and laughing and I know I can’t go without one more hug.  We wave goodbye and I wonder if/when we’ll be able to pick this lesson back up.
     As we begin our drive out of the village, the sun is starting to go down and some clouds have come in, in the distance.  These are the first clouds I’ve seen and it creates a beautiful sky with the rays of the sun shining down over Sintaro.  We begin our drive away.  I don’t think most of the locals know that this is our last day in the village and we won’t be back tomorrow.  But I know it, and a sadness comes over me that this truly is goodbye.  Kids run next to the van, waving goodbye with big smiles on their faces.  I open the window wide and lean out waving, and saying “bye!” over and over again. I hold eye contact with each person as long as I can before they are out of sight.  It is a bittersweet goodbye. I have fallen in love with this place and these people and I will miss them.
     The ride back to the hotel seems longer tonight.  Most of the rest of the team is chatting about their day, but I sit quietly because I want to take in every last detail and capture every moment in my mind.
     It’s late when we finally get back to Awasa and we decide that Gelato sounds good, instead of dinner.  We stop for a scoop a block away from our hotel, say our goodnight’s and head off to our rooms.
     Tomorrow we begin the trek back to Addis, so I begin to organize my belongings to pack. Once I get that done, I head to another building in search of wifi for a few minutes and then finally collapse into bed.  They journey is not yet over…