As I get settled into my new apartment in Liberia, Africa, I’m acutely aware of the difference between moving today and the last time I moved in the States. That time, I had left some of my things behind when I moved from Oregon to Texas, and it was easy to replace what I needed; or more specifically, what I wanted. You know – the little things that make life easier, cleaner, more organized. Things like welcome mats, dish and bath towels, a new comforter set to give my bedroom a new feel, candles to make the house smell good, feel homey, and look beautiful. Beautiful surroundings have always been important to me.
I have moved into a furnished apartment in an area of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, called Sinkor. I’m up on the third floor in a safe building, what’s called a compound, with twenty-four-hour locked gates and guards. The back balcony offers a wonderful view of the Atlantic Ocean. The apartment is clean, and most everything is provided – furniture, pots and pans, dishes, new sheets and comforters still in their packaging sitting on the bed. But there were still a few things I needed, so I went to the local store and bought two bath towels, two bath mats, two welcome mats, and a dish towel, all for $60 USD – definitely not Bed Bath and Beyond pricing, nor was there anywhere near the selection found at BB&B. The choice of bathroom rugs was between blue, orange, and taupe, and they came in just one style.
As I looked around the store and at the many gadgets and goodies I would normally have chosen to buy to fill in the empty spaces in my home, I instantly realized they were just not needed. And I felt happy with that thought, and with a new reality – less is indeed more.
As I unpacked my three suitcases and began finding a place for my things, a memory of my last trip to Kenya surfaced. I had been invited into the home of a woman living in one of the slums we were visiting. Her name was Alice. She took me by the hand and excitedly led me to her ten-by-ten-foot shack with a metal roof full of holes and an entryway covered by only a thin piece of tattered pink fabric. She pulled back the fabric and invited me inside, into the dark hole lit only by the light streaming in through the doorway.
During my humanitarian trips to developing countries over the past several years, I have visited many slum shacks and I’ve learned to not expect the worst. Alice’s hard dirt floor was swept clean. Dainty lace hanging from wooden shelves covered her small space of belongings: clothing, books, cleaning supplies, and dishes. The two twin beds were made into couches and were covered with mixed fabrics with colorful patterns; pillows were propped up against the wall. She shared this small space with her aging mother and her four children. And she was proud of her home. I’ve seen many homes in both wealthy and poor neighborhoods in the US choked full of so much stuff, and so filthy, and I realize how our perception of those living in slums can be tainted by our western experience. On the contrary, the homes I’ve had the pleasure of visiting in the slums in Africa are sparse but usually clean. The things these people do have are often treasured and taken care of to last for many years and often for generations.
As I finished putting my things away and sat on the couch to relax, I recalled how Alice motioned for me to sit down on her “sofa” bed as she stepped into the cramped living space and gave me a “tour,” barely ever moving from her spot. She lifted back the draped pieces of tattered fabric to show me a couple of books, her folded clothing, some soap and a sponge, and some pieces of jewelry, all of which were housed in her “bedroom”; she pulled back another piece of fabric to show me her kitchen area, which consisted of buckets, some dishes, and a few pots and utensils.
Alice was as proud of her home as I have always been of mine. We instantly had that in common – a love for beauty and cleanliness. And she had done the best she could with what she had available to her to create beauty. Her first priority was finding a way to feed her children, her mother, and herself each day, usually by begging; occasionally by negotiating to purchase items to buy and sell on the street; and sometimes resorting to selling herself. And yet she managed to keep a beautiful and clean home as a priority, as well.
I am blessed and grateful for the rather extravagant way I get to reside in this struggling, rebuilding, post-war nation, knowing that I have more than I need at any given time.