Friday, August 21, 2009

Grunna Children

*‘Grunna’ is a Liberian English term that means ‘grown up.’

Children are called 'grunna' when they are alone due to poverty or being orphaned. 'Grunna' children are kids who are raising themselves. While I was in Liberia I thought children raising themselves was a phenomenon in developing countries however, as I look around my city and see what drugs and the violence that grips our urban communities from gangs, I realize that I am surrounded by grunna children even in the US.

My washboy's name was David. He was about 18 with skin the color of unsweetened dark chocolate. He had sparkling white teeth and skin stretched tautly across a tight muscular frame. He was majestic. Although African Americans have become quite proud of the kink of our hair, Liberian men typically keep their heads either shaved or cropped.

David was introduced to me by Andrew, my janitor at the Liberian Red Cross Day Care Center. I was struggling to keep up with my washing and Andrew brought David to see me. He had no place to sleep and was "stopping" with Andrew, and needed to find work so he could afford his own room.

Three of my youngest children were nightly bed wetters. Binah, my eldest daughter, and I had been washing their sheets, bedclothes and their school uniforms daily. But now Binah had a baby girl of her own and so now I did most of the washing for the bed wetters.

In addition to working as a director at the Red Cross, I grew and packaged mung, lentil and sometimes azuki bean sprouts for sale in the Lebanese grocery stores and local Chinese restaurants. I needed help. David agreed to wash, hang the clothes in the sun and press them for me as they dried for $25.00 a month and of course we would provide a bowl of rice and soup for him on his washday. You typically couldn't’t get your clothes washed and ironed at that price so I figured he was angling to eventually get a permanent job with the Red Cross or wanted my help in getting him ‘ducofley’ (old clothes) from the Red Cross warehouse to sell. There was always a hidden agenda but at the time I thought I had stuck a good deal! I wish I had remembered the adage “whenever something appears too good to be true it is.”

Early Saturday mornings,just after sunrise, I‘d hear David out back drawing water from the outdoor spigot and pouring it into the three zinc tubs I'd left outside for him along with the wooden washboard, scrub brush and cakes of wash soap. The sound of running water punishing the zinc tubs was my cue to bring my laundry outside.

David would greet me at the back door wearing only a broad grin, really short-shorts and flip flops. He washed silently, hung the clothes on the line to dry before ironing and by the time he finished his work, we had finished prepared the meal of the day. By 2:00 he had eaten his bowl of food, played soccer with the boys and left as quietly as he had come.

This contract went on for three Saturdays and although my pay check from the Red Cross was going to be delayed at the end of the month I fully intended to pay David from profits I made from my bean sprout sales. As we neared the end of the first month of our contract the agency decided to show the their appreciation by allowing me to choose clothing for all my children from the gently used clothing bales that had just arrived from several of the European Red Cross Societies. Our national society was allowed to sell a portion of each shipment to help fund the organization’s activities. The clothing was in excellent condition, almost new and mainly 100% cotton. I virtually got each of my children and my granddaughter a completely new wardrobe! They attended private schools that required uniforms so between this new clothing and their school uniforms they were now well-dressed.

It took an entire afternoon in the storage area of the Liberian Red Cross to agonize over the clothing needs of my children, when I finally brought the clothes home I had so many 'new' outfits stuffed into the trunk of the taxi that I had to pay extra for the driver to deliver me to our door! My children, especially the older ones, were elated to have name brand clothes, many like the ones they had seen in magazines.

I planned to spend more time socializing with other African Americans living in Liberia and the 'new' clothes provided them with the wardrobe they needed to fit in with the children of other Americans living in Liberia. Many of those parents were employed by the Embassy or held jobs that paid in foreign currency, not the local wages I earned at the Red Cross.

When Saturday rolled around I brought out the newly acquired clothing and asked David to wash them for extra money. He was adamant that I must not pay him anything extra and he stayed on late into the evening to wash and iron the new clothes.

On Monday, when my eldest daughter began to look for specific items that I had gotten for my her daughter, we couldn't find any of the pastel tee shirts from Carter and the Oshkosh coveralls. She looked and looked and could not find them. Gradually the other children began looking through the stacks of carefully ironed items and realized that we could barely account for half of what had been washed.
We came to the realization that the clothes had been stolen, but how?

The next morning at work I shared the mystery of the missing clothes to one of my employees and she seemed to be stifling laughter.

“Ole ma, the wash boy but his finger in your eye.”

"How?, He comes and goes naked, how could he have stolen the clothes."
Then she said,
“Don’t you think that man knows how to throw clothes in the bushes and come back for them at night?" And then she just walked away leaving me feeling very stupid.

It seemed that David, as he washed, tossed some of our clothes into the bushes with the dirty wash water. The area was marshy so no one had reason to go there. Then probably at night, while we were slept, he came back for the wet clothes, washed them, pressed them and sold them. No wonder he didn’t want me to give him any extra money!

I was so furious my head spun. I ordered Andrew to fetch David. He had thought I was so naive, probably thought we had so much, that we'd either not miss the clothes or never figure out what happened. He was wrong. My children and I were hanging on by a thread and those clothes had been important to us. Of course Andrew professed embarrassment at David’s theft. However, in Liberia, theft of items from a household is extremely common and mainly people overlook it. But these clothes had been treasured by my children.

David stood his ground, "ole Ma, I never stole nothin from you 'O'!, swearing he had not stolen the clothes. I refused to pay him the $25 I owed him unless he brought the clothes back. Of course he had sold the clothes so he began to 'beg' me, which means to throw himself on my mercy. I didn’t relent and so that was the end of that. He lost his $25 but he probably sold the clothes for much more. I was a fool but I wasn’t a damn fool. A subtle but important difference.