I gave a graduation speech once with one of my dearest friends and colleagues, Dr. Dawn Farreira-Williams. She imparted a message based on the wisdom of certain animals that move together for survival, never leaving a member behind to fend for itself. “Stick with your herd!” She implored our students so they would be safe in their travels through adulthood.
When I visited Vicente Guerrero community in Chiapas, I was reminded of Dawn’s words. In this community, the government had cut off their water. Their pharmacy consisted of some small donations of western medicine from the government, but mostly it was stocked with plants and herbs, picked by their hands. With no running water to rely on, they had to purchase it. In the mountains, far removed from any city hospital or western doctor, they relied on their traditional wisdom to gather the medicine for their pharmacy. It wasn’t fully stocked when we arrived, but my father saw the process a few months earlier when he visited. There were freshly harvested leaves, drying on the ground. Now, he could see what it looked like to have them packed up on the shelves for sale. In discussion about the effectiveness of the traditional medicine, one of our guides told us, “We had a pretty big emergency here the other day and we handled it pretty well.”
In addition to a pharmacy, they’d built a community room to solve conflicts. It resembled a club house in my opinion. In it, we shared a nutritious meal of beans, rice, corn and flour tortillas, and sweet coffee. As a member of a marginalized group myself, I have observed that being marginalized can have it’s benefits too. While there can be material and political disadvantages, the cultural advantages are invaluable. The cultural integrity of the group can be higher when there is less external interference and propaganda by the dominant group to lose your identity so that it can feel more comfortable. Language, customs and expressions of intelligence that would otherwise get lost with assimilation, are nurtured and honored amongst those who are left in the margins. Many africanisms are retained in the diaspora amongst those who are left in the margins, sometimes seeping out to influence the whole culture of a nation. We’ve seen that time and again in United States with black language and music. It happens throughout the diaspora.
At Vicente Guerrero, there was no government interference to “regulate” how they packaged and dispensed their medicine. And they were able to structure their community in a way that was most valuable to them. Thus, a community room to solve conflicts was built right next to a church of equal size and not far from the pharmacy. While there are hardships, there are also many hands to lighten the load.
When I returned home I immediately threw myself into the routine of my responsibilities. As a single mother of two young girls and high school teacher, I often feel overworked and unappreciated. My children love me and we have a beautiful relationship, but they do not think like adults, of course (although they are very mature.) They can’t pay for themselves or treat me to regular massages and pedicures. They don’t think to buy me flowers without being prompted. I bear the full financial responsibility of caring for them. Sometimes I will ask for help from family and if they have it, they give it. But mostly, the onus is on me for the continued day-to-day care of my girls. At work, my students also love me (mostly,) but teaching is work that receives delayed gratification. I couldn’t help but think that while I had certain material comforts that my friends in Vicente Guerrero didn’t have, they still had each other. They had more than a family. They had an entire community. So the water didn’t work? They still made a copious meal to feed their ten guests. So the government wouldn’t give them western medicine? They still built their pharmacy and healed each other. They birthed their babies and fed their children and wore beautiful clothes. They protect each other and love each other. They stick with their herd. I found myself longing to switch places with them. I was wishing for a herd.
After a month of mental anguish and sadness over returning to work, over feeling that I did not have a herd to help lighten my load, and many other things, I fell ill with typhoid fever.
Apparently I got it while in Mexico, but it can take up to a month to surface. On January 23, I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for a week. I had a temperature of 104 degrees. I was so weak that every time I stood up I fell down. My body ached. My nervous system had been compromised and I couldn’t coordinate my movements well. I slurred my words when I spoke. The bacteria had gotten in my blood so I was septic. I had a blood transfusion, and a breathing treatment. They wanted to do a spinal tap, but I argued against it. My head constantly ached. I sweated profusely. I only wanted water and fruit. I refused to eat. My eyes were dark and sunken. When I finally developed strength to go to the bathroom myself, I had to use a walker with a nurse in attendance to ensure I was safe. I had to practice walking again. I was tired for a month once I returned home.
I was amazed at the strong personalities that gathered around me to provide comfort, cushion, care and strength. The week-end after I was admitted to the hospital, I was supposed to host a sleep over for my nine-year old’s birthday party and go ice skating the next day. My mother and friends made sure the party went on. My mother kept my girls until I was better. Friends visited me in the hospital. My father took me home from the hospital and supplied me with my granny’s old walker and bathtub chair since I was too weak to stand in the shower. My cousin came over as soon as I was home, got the house together and put cooked food in the fridge. My colleague and dear friend visited everyday in the hospital, bringing me fruit and music. He and his wife visited me at home and made foods I craved. My spiritual brother moved in to cook for me. My parents continued to visit me at home, as did my girlfriends. I finally saw what I couldn’t see before… I have a herd!!!!
Enjoy the sounds of Manik B’s Zapanteras Negras with Brownie and my father, Emory Douglas.