Straight to Work
I wasn’t expected to do anything other than rest my first day. Instead, I joined a boy named Julius on the well-worn wooden porch bench. Julius was busy with a thin stick applying strong smelling rubber cement from a coffee can to a printed and die cut piece of cardboard. He said he was making bags for tea.
I asked, “Can you teach me how to make these boxes?”
Looking up from his work with a smile and a nod, he appreciated the gentle hint, and agreed to show me. Applying the glue to the cardboard, he taught me to wait until it dried to the right consistency before folding in the edges and forming the box. We then pressed doubly on the glued portion to ensure a good seal. Before stacking the the finished product, I rubbed away the external dried glue to keep one box from sticking to the next. It didn’t take long before we had our rhythm down while working in tandem.
I wondered, as I dealt with the blank sides of the box, did they sell these to an outside tea company? Turning the product over to read the print, I then realized that production of this tea, a type called Moringa, is part of the EDYM Village program where I was to volunteer. What wasn’t clear was whether this household was part of the farm operation or if it had been subcontracted. These answers, I knew, would come with time.
We were joined by Jimmy and Salomey soon after my first stack of ten was complete. Salomey watched me work through the corner of her eye as she methodically prepared her own box. “Goood! You are tryyying,” she said with a voice as thick and smooth as sweet molasses.
Sitting on a short stool with elbows braced on knees and her skirt draped up over her lap, every one of her motions was slow, careful and deliberate. With a slight tilt of her head she’d inspect her own work with the scrutiny of a skilled artist. I suddenly sensed myself mimicking her style, trying to achieve the same kind of patience, precision, confidence and grace.
This being their livelihood, I was concerned that my edges weren’t exactly straight. Sometimes, if I didn’t wait long enough for the glue to firm up, the folds would spring free and I would have to reset the ends. “Are these okay?” I asked.
“Yes, verrry nice.” The slightly upturned corners of her mouth and eyes offered confirmation.
It grew quiet after we exhausted our small talk about me living in New York (but not New York City) and that my tea boxes were made well. I couldn’t immediately think how to adjust.
Finally, I asked Jimmy how old he was. When he told me he was 16, I thought he was joking. This boy looks no older than 13. Julius said he was 20 but he could pass for 16. Playing fair, I revealed my age of 37. Emmanuel offered up a proud 57 and then asked how old I thought Salomey was. I knew to be careful. I tried for an accurate guess but, in the dark shadows of the porch, her sweet manner made her look very young.
“You must be 17.” I said placing great emphasis on the word must.
It seems I played this one right. Jimmy nearly fell from his bench in a heap of laughter. Emmanuel too. Salomey, I learned when she recovered from her modest giggling, is 42. I suspect adults look so young because their honey brown pigment keeps the sun from aging their skin as quickly as mine. Sadly, I suspect Jimmy looks so young thanks to a different and less desirable cause: poor nutrition.