Sunbeams filter through the leaves of an old avocado tree to dance on her old grey head. She can always be found here, seated on a low handmade stool or on a mat of reeds, chickens scratching the dirt around her. A cooking fire slumbers nearby. She is known as
Coco Germain to the neighbourhood; my sisters and I simply call her “Coco” (Grandma). Under this avocado tree she is gatekeeper of a well-trodden path running through her property. Passing neighbours, friends, and acquaintances pause to greet the crippled old lady.
The Congolese people live in the heart of Africa. As old as the rainforest they inhabit is their cultural value of respect for the elderly. Since most adults die before they reach 50, an aged woman with greying hair, like Coco, is rare.
So people stop to talk with her. They laugh good-naturedly at her antiquated ideas and unpredictable, volcanic temper. Coco still counts wealth by chickens while the culture around her has adopted money. Regardless, she is sharp as the forest thorns when it comes to bargaining. If she suspects anything amiss, her wrath blazes red-hot. Everyone knows to step carefully with Coco.
Coco was my neighbour. For four years I would daily step out of our broken gates with the dawn and see her crooked figure hobbling through her gardens, wrapped in the liputa she always wore and shrouded with morning mist, like a fairy godmother. Once, my sisters and I enlisted our young friends to weed and plant that garden under the scorching sun. Coco couldn’t believe we were working for her for free.
She liked to see some of her own snap and pizazz in young people. When I sat with Coco and young Congolese men stopped to propose to me or tease, I would order them off with all the Lingala slang of a city-girl while Coco laughed till she cried.
Once I ran across the dirt road that separated our homes at twilight, holding the small hand of one of her granddaughters.
“Coco, I’m sorry I didn’t come today. It was raining.” Congolese people don’t leave their homes in the rain.
She looked up at me with those dark, wise eyes, “It wasn’t raining….it was blessing.”
Coco epitomized to me the beauty and dignity but also the suffering, mystery and hopelessness of the Congo I grew to know.
For four years I would visit her and she would offer me the best chair. The sun lazily danced through leaves to kiss me, too. Because she was crippled, Coco couldn’t go to church. Although she never admitted it, I knew that she was illiterate. Every week I read the Lingala Bible for her. Like a charcoal slowly catching fire, Coco’s face would slowly re-mould into a smile. Her eyes relaxed. During those moments Coco became a child. The stories of Jesus never seemed so original and wonderful to me as when I heard them through her ears. “But this Jesus,” she would say, shaking her head in bewildered admiration, “but this Jesus! He has words.”
But something bothered me: Coco could not grasp the concept of grace. Shadows darkened her past – the bitterness of having her child poisoned, of her soldier-husband loving another wife more than her, of rejection from her children. She was aware of the workings of the spirits and witchdoctors, yet there were elements of Roman Catholicism that haunted her religious life. Some days Coco would shudder at the sin Jesus’ words exposed in her heart. But grace always seemed to slip through her fingers.
The day came when Coco could not leave her house. Her arm was taut and swollen from an infection. My Mom arranged immediately for Coco to be transported to the hospital. Without surgery, Coco would have died. We read Esther together that week in her hospital room, far away from the chickens and the avocado tree.
Coco healed. For years afterwards, she would lift the ragged red sleeve of her blouse to show me again the scar on her arm, tears filling her eyes. She would never forget our family, she said. Why did we care about her anyways, an old lady most people didn’t even like? Why see her every week? Why be concerned to save her life?
For three years my many words and theological reasonings had filled our conversations and leaked out of her memory again like water escaping an old cooking pot. But now, my family’s actions were like grains of rice tossed in hot water. They slowly simmered into shape in her mind. She explains this by a scar. I have a word: grace.
I too am marked on my arm – with an abnormally large freckle. Coco asked about it once. I told her that I wanted so much to be brown like my Congolese family that God gave me a little bit of their colour. I will never forget you or your people, I promised Coco.
My Coco and I, we are both marked by grace.
*Some things about a traveling life never get easier. Like leaving people on the other side of an ocean. Today, I wanted you to meet my Coco. I’ve met no one who can compare to her. It’s been three long years since I’ve sat under her avocado tree and I miss her.
*Picture: road leading to our home, gate at the end, on the right. Coco lived across the street.