This post is inspired by the work of Wanuri Kahiu (link to her TED talk above), a Kenyan storyteller and curator who promotes art that celebrates Africans as joyful, successful, spunky human beings.
Deolinda is happy. Her life isn't perfect, and she doesn't pretend that it is. But her children are healthy and well cared for, she has a steady job as a vice principal in her community's elementary school, and she makes time in the evenings to watch her favorite soap operas with friends.
She also has a pink bicycle that she loves very much. She rides it to and from work, a mile from her house, every day.
With her bicycle, Deolinda saves roughly one hour in her total daily commute. That's one more hour she has to collect mangos and roast them for an afternoon snack. That's one more hour she has to make the best coconut-marinated tilapia in town, to visit her friends and trade stories in their homes, to turn the soil and plant maize in her farm.
She says that even if she could live elsewhere - anywhere - in the world, she wouldn't want to. After all, she says, what would she do without the fertile land surrounding her home, the good nature of her neighbors, and the feeling that no matter what may come, she is not alone in her Mozambican community?
She is gifted. She is grateful. She is Deolinda, the tenth of The Great Danes.
We all have our haunted places. They’re the speakeasies dwelling inside us, built to house our twisted acts – the voodoo dolls, the Judas we loved, the body parts we’ve trashed; the birds we’ve caged, the dine-and-dash, the smoking ants under the magnifying glass. Some items we house there are broken, while some are still intact. Some memories shame us so bad that we hang them, deep inside the closets of our crooked little shacks.
But this woman knows her haunt. When she visits, she stays as long as she wants – unperturbed by the dusty photographs, the skeletons of her past. Hundreds of clocks lay out on the floors, all of them broken or smashed. She prefers the time of candles, watching the wick rise out of the wax. When the wax drips down and her reading light grows dim, that is when she knows she must go back.
Between her fingers the paper crinkles, as she flips to the next page. She hears whispering around her, and she looks up to respond, so they know she’s not afraid. She begins to tell them the stories of her day – of the fig jam she ate and the vinyl records she played. And the whispers hush because they realize she will let them stay, that she’s at peace – with the bones, the creaks, the ghosts – with all the memories, good and bad, that she’s made.
She will not be shamed.
She is Caitlin, the ninth of The Great Danes.
“During moments of weakness, The Great Danes remember that they have been fearless before, and they know they will be so again.”
What do we do when the torque of the ocean overpowers us, when it throws us, when we feel betrayed by something we loved and believed?
Ask the girl with the mustache on her finger – she'll lead you out of the water and help you mend before you leave. She’ll tell you stories that make you laugh, she’ll offer you her juice box, she’ll hold your hand until you tell her to release.
She is the one who camps in the ocean, who prefers the green of the water beneath the surface to the blue that is first seen. She’d make a home there if she could, where life is simpler, where fish slip through her fingers and the sand dollars are all purple with life.
She finds trust in that which she cannot control. She launches herself up the crest of a wave to drop back in, sinking down to the sand like something from another world. Perhaps the water parts for her, sending her further and deeper to a peace than we cannot see. And like the wind that whips around our ears, the slosh of the ocean is isolated around her – it is all she senses.
Perhaps she is not of this world. Perhaps the ocean sent her to us, to show us what it is to reach out to others, to play and to laugh, to control less and instead just believe.
She is Madeline, the mermaid, the eighth of The Great Danes.
She walks through town with her inverted umbrella, its spines flexed inwards and up in the shape the wind swept it one day.
She sees no problem with it.
A man passes by her and asks what she’s doing with that umbrella, why doesn’t she just throw it away? She tells him it’s her phonograph – her loud speaker. How will she be heard without it?
She loves bugs, mostly the ones that crawl or otherwise behave in peculiar and expressive ways, and least of all butterflies. It’s easy to love a butterfly, she says, because they’re beautiful. She appreciates the things that others find ugly, perhaps too much at times.
The next day is windy again, and her umbrella bows further into itself and she thinks that perhaps it was always meant to be this way, and was simply stuck trying to be like all the other umbrellas for too long. And she feels love for the umbrella. And then she wonders if this is the beginning of the end – if perhaps things are always meant to fold into themselves one day.
She’s the artist and the scientist, in one.
The man again asks why she bothers carrying that broken umbrella around. He does not understand, and she knows he will not come to understand. So she simply says, if I flip it back the other way, what will you watch in your boredom? Who will keep you entertained?
She is Judy, the golden one, the seventh of The Great Danes.
She doesn’t trust many people, but when she does they will know it.
They will learn, perhaps the hard way, that a simple “I’m sorry” is not a part of her vernacular. Sure, she’s sorry you’re upset. She's sorry you're hurt. But ultimately, your feelings are not her fault. The blame is not hers.
They will see something intense that draws most people further into her life and its many layers of multi-tasking. They’ll see her shimmy her shoulders in perfect time with the beat. They’ll see her care enough to compete. They’ll see her forgive, and truly forget, quite easily.
And then they’ll realize, after some time, that they wouldn’t want to hear her say she’s sorry, anyways. It would be like watching a bubbly child go quiet after being asked to kindly shut up. Or like seeing a very sad friend feign happiness, just to appease another. Something would need to be stamped out of her to hear her say, "I'm sorry." And they wouldn't want that.
Perhaps they’ll come to see that when we accept that our loved ones are not all alike (or not all like us), and that if they were, our lives would be boring, we begin to accept them for exactly who they are.
The ones who are pulled still further into her circle will see that as a result of, and not despite, her strength, she is a feeling creature.
She’ll show them sadness, and it’ll be quite unnerving to hear her voice tremble or see her lip quiver, when she talks about the ones she’s lost. But emotions run both ways – someone so intense could not feel such joy without knowing true heartache.
And so it will feel strangely right to see that sadness is in her nature. She will teach us that it need not make us weak. We can feel sorrow, and allow it to fill us, but not touch our strength.
She is one of the boldest, and certainly the proudest, of her kind.
She is Margaret, the sixth of The Great Danes.
She rarely wore lipstick, but when she did, it was lovely.
She often trivialized our lives and the chaos that kept them moving quickly. Her favorite reminder was, “Life is too short, honey.”
Yet we watched her beckon her own death closer, year after year. When we'd ask whether she was scared, she'd say she simply didn’t think about it. Then someone would change the subject.
We never saw anyone live so long in anticipation of the end.
The stroke had paralyzed her right side, bounding her to a wheelchair for her final 15 years. By the end, her right hand had curled into itself, balled up to a near-fist. She could hardly speak. But we knew she was thinking, and that she knew what she wanted to say. We would wait as she attempted to stammer out the words. It seemed it was her mouth that failed her in the end – it simply would not obey her pleas to move.
But we were told she was once very bright. When she was young, she read books quickly, and could recall exactly what she’d read on each page during a sitting. We later learned the correct phrasing for this – she had a photographic memory.
She was a schoolteacher. She taught her daughters how to cook. When they brought their drama home to her, she would advise them, “Don’t borrow trouble.” One of the daughters would pocket that saying and pass it down to us, her own children. Years later, that same daughter would lay beside her mother, squeezing her hand as she took her final breath.
So she grabs hold of my hand,
And I tuck my fingers between hers,
So she can sweep me,
Good and bad,
Into her mighty shade.
She was willing to love everything in us – unconditionally. Most of the time, and especially toward the end, she could make us feel better without saying anything at all.
They say her right hand, finally, relaxed with her last exhale.
She is the fifth of The Great Danes.
Flávia was 22 when we became friends. I was 24. She was married, had a two-year-old, and taught at the local elementary school. We didn't have much in common, but it didn't matter.
She didn't think herself beautiful, the fourth of The Great Danes. I disagreed. The first time we met, I thought, this is the most beautiful woman in my world.
Flávia spent most mornings at the river. Even on days when other chores were more pressing, or her laundry load was light, she'd toss the dirty clothes into a bucket, hoist it onto her head, and walk the mile-long trail down to the water with her friends.
They'd arrive together, chatting in the local language, and claim their washing spots along the riverbank. They'd each lug a craggy rock to the bank to use as a surface for scrubbing their clothes, splashing river water over each item and squeezing it out on the rock until the water ran clean into the stream.
Flávia made a show of washing jeans - her jeans, her daughter's jeans, her husband's jeans, my jeans, and on. She'd grab onto the waistband, hurl them into the air in a spiral over her head, and then slap them down onto the rock beneath her. She'd let out a war cry when the jeans made contact with the rock. It was never clear why the centripetal force was necessary. Again, it didn't matter.
Beauty evolves all around us, constantly. We see it change in our lives when we discover new wonders. We witness its transformation in our friends who are growing and learning. Perhaps there is a kind of law of conservation of beauty, because on most good days, it's not destroyed, it just changes form.
Flávia was very good at hiding the things that were not beautiful in her life. "Mana Katarina, você tem secreto?" It means - "Sister, can you keep a secret?" She said it only one time to me over the course of our two years together. Other secrets of hers were perhaps never spoken.
When she was 23, Flávia and her husband split up, and he moved to a city nearby. Flávia's daughter, Cesária, stayed with her in our small farming community of Lioma.
When something breaks in a person, they either adapt, or they die. We see people who adapt gracefully. We see people who struggle to change. But eventually, the outcome is the same - we've either adapted, or we're dead. It's very simple.
The divorce forced a gradual change in Flávia. She adapted. And in her new form she became unafraid - to talk back, to tell the truth, to tell lies.
Flávia and Cesária became inseparable. The love she sought in her marriage evolved into something different, and perhaps more worthwhile, in her daughter. Flávia ensured every decision would benefit Cesária.
And so she chose to devote her life to the one person who truly needed her.
And for that, she is the fourth in the story of The Great Danes.
A five-year-old once told all of my neighbors that I had a xixi podre – a rotten vagina. I tried confronting her – why would you say such a thing? She wouldn’t answer. She didn't even deign to look at me. Her name is Serena.
She used to take the mangos out of the tree in my backyard when they were still green. She especially liked to take them after I’d asked her not to. She liked to play tricks on people, but mostly me – she would tip the water bucket over once it was full of rain, sneak into my home when I asked her to stay outside, and scribble on my house with charcoal. It was infuriating.
She used to wait for me outside my door, asking me when we would read next. Is it Saturday yet? No, the day after tomorrow is Saturday – we will read then. How about tomorrow, she’d say. Can we read tomorrow too?
Then her sister, Lude, was born. When her mother was absent – working in the farm or busy with her chores – Serena would wrap Lude up into a capulana, strap her across her back, and carry her to the library for reading time.
Serena never tired of hearing the adventures of Handa, the only young, African female protagonist featured in the library’s books. She heard the story of Handa’s hen disappearing – one time, two times, three times, and on, until she’d memorized the characters' names and the plot twists that came at each turn of the page.
She shared Handa’s stories with Lude. She held Lude’s pencil steady in her hand to help her write. She became her teacher, friend, and protector.
Serena burrowed into people's hearts. She did not fear love. She expressed it exactly as she felt it – conflicted, often unexpected, and at times, camouflaged to look like something else.
And for that, she is the second of The Great Danes.
She said it like it was obvious – like it was foolish that no one else was doing it. I felt the force of a stubborn will that I knew well, that I’d seen in someone I knew, many times before.
I helped her collect more wood. We collected ten pieces, maybe 15. The Mass started. She looked much older when I leaned down to see her close –skin pulled taut by the sun but for the few wrinkles framing her mouth. She smiled with five visible teeth. We tied up the wood and tucked it into her capulana, and she hoisted the makeshift sack of sticks onto her head.
I watched her walk away from me, and sensed the presence of someone I knew and loved, departing. I couldn’t let her go – not once I’d realized who she reminded me of. Not once I’d realized what she could mean to me. So I followed her into the church. Maybe she knew I wanted to stay close to her, because she beckoned me to her pew.
Once the Mass ended, I showed her where I lived, and I gave her water when she asked for it. I showed her my stove and charcoal, and walked with her for a long while back to her house, inviting myself into her life. She meant a great deal to me, for someone I’d just met.
She showed me her farm a few days later. She told me she didn’t know how old she was, and that it was becoming more difficult to eat with so few teeth. The more I saw her and visited her – watching her prepare her own corn flour, cook and cart water, travel to and from her farm alone – the more I felt a comfort, a familiar strength from home.
It's a rare thing – to sense something so familiar in another that we feel we already know them. The pride in Paulina's voice made me feel – in a deep, profound way – the presence of my mother. She was like my mother.
And so I became one of her followers.
Her name is Paulina, and she is the first of the Great Danes.