The poor always believe there is room enough for all of us; the very rich never seem to have heard of this.
In us there is wisdom of how to share loaves and fishes however few; we do this everyday.
I thought Gohar had been hasty. She had looked at the list of poems for her form, and had quickly settled on the first.
“Why this one?” I said
“I like it”. She shrugged.
“What do you think it means?” I asked, pretty certain that she had taken in only a few of the easier words. I thought the poem, and its provenance, would be difficult for even the most accomplished of 11th form English-language students in Armenia to understand…
“It is about poor people who are really rich because they have pride and love” she said.
I gulped and nodded. “Good choice”.
Gohar is 16 and lives in a small village in a deep gorge in the south of Armenia. At first sight, she does not seem to have a lot in common with Alice Walker, (Yes, Color Purple Alice Walker. THAT Alice Walker) but Gohar has chosen to recite Alice Walker’s poem To Change the World Enough in the Goris English-language poetry contest next Saturday.
Our conversation about the poem took place a week or so ago. Since then Walker’s words, given meaning through Gohar, have sounded in my head.
Winter is nearly over here and so there is not much food left in my family’s store room. The jars of tomato sauce and pickled beets and peach preserves are largely gone. The wood pile is depleted and so this week, the coldest of the year, Haykush has been taking the axe to the remaining logs and splitting them in half in the hope they will go twice as far.
I was invited upstairs today, because Aleta’s mom and sister were visiting from their village, and one of Haykush’s daughters was also stopping by. We would be ladies who lunched.
Together we ate Kjackhash– a homemade soup of buckwheat, yellow lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas. The family sprinkled several large spoonfuls of sugar on each bowl before they tucked in–the proper way to eat it, I am told. I stuck to salt. The soup, which didn’t appear to have any onion, garlic, herbs or stock was as filling as you might imagine, and much more delicious than seems likely. As always the company was warm and welcoming, the talk was lively, and we had a few good laughs.
More sugar — cubed this time– appeared on the table as coffee was served. No self- respecting Armenian would drink coffee without a little something sweet. At this time of year, there are no mini Twix and Grand Candy bon-bons. It is time to fall back on any dry goods in the back of the cupboard.
One of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers lives with a herdsman’s family in a village not far from here. One of the family’s cows was sick a week or so ago and there was no money for medicine. My friend, recognizing the need, fronted his rent money by a week. The medicine was bought and administered, and the cow recovered. The family call it Clay’s cow now—it wouldn’t have lived without his help.
In addition to the theme picked up by Gohar, Walker’s poem also talks about how the rich are afraid of the poor: We experience your fear as the least pardonable of
humiliations; in the past it has sent us scurrying off daunted and ashamed into the shadows. Walker then informs the rich: we seek the same fresh light you do:
the same high place and ample table. At the end of the poem there is a call to action: Learn from us, we ask you. We enter now the dreaded location of Earth’s reckoning; no longer far off or hidden in books that claim to disclose revelations;
it is here. We must walk together without fear. There is no path without us.
I may have read Walker’s poem before–I don’t remember. Now, thanks to Gohar and my family upstairs, the soup, and Clay and his cow I will never forget. This is the kind of lesson you join Peace Corps to learn.
Someday soon, I will post a video of Gohar reading To Change The World Enough. For now, listen to my friend Valerie reading it. She donated this recording because she knows it is so helpful for our learners to hear native English speakers. I thank her for walking together with Gohar.