It is the morning we start our second home stay in the lively port city off the Mozambique channel. The Baobabs in Morondava attract thousands of people from around the world, but while the city hums with excitement for this attraction very few get to experience the liveliness inside the tin homes; something us Dragons were fortunate enough to discover.
All ten of us venture into the street to a local restaurant where we will soon be paired with our new families. In an effort to try not to fall over or knock into anyone with my obnoxiously large pack I keep my eyes glued to the well used road sprinkled with fine sand, until Micah abruptly stops in front of me. On my right is a stall of intricate wood carvings for sale. I’m intrigued but think it nothing more than just another souvenir stand that our instructors happened to know the owners of, but just as we passed by Micah whispered to me that the owners are among some of the nicest people he has ever met. Little did I know that the vibrant tapestry to the left of one of the lemur statues I was so quick to disregard at first glance was actually the door of the family that would treat me like one of their own.
After a quick goodbye to the group, I am lead by my little brother, Prosseli, across the bustling street to the familiar woodwork stall. My eyes are drawn to the charcoal covered stove in the center of their home where I would soon spend many hours chopping fresh produce and stirring delicious seafood dishes. Quickly, I settle into my role for the week; the source of entertainment with my attempts at speaking Malagasy and helping whenever I can in the kitchen. We lay out a blue, satin cloth underneath the ladder to the twin bunk bed for our first meal together. The stub of a candle precisely placed in between two abalone shells provides just the right amount of light for each of our faces to recognize the others’s nervous excitement. Just as we begin to distribute the vary (rice), a lively man with a bountiful set of dreads greets everyone, instantly brightening the already pleasant mood. I quickly learn that he is the artist who carefully carves the wood displayed out front. Later, I find out that his devotion to wood carving from sunrise well after sunset is the reason he has been able to send all six of his kids to continue their education all the way to university, a large feat even for the more comfortable families in Madagascar. Though I’m fascinated by his art, I cannot help but be drawn in by his overwhelmingly open and warm heart. During our dinner together I manage to understand that he doesn’t eat meat, drink, or even smoke despite the overpowering stereotype placed on members in the Rasta community.
Day two and I already feel like I’ve become part of the family, but they want to make it official by braiding my hair. They took one look at my fine hair and immediately ruled out dreads as option. The whole hour of enduring painful tugs at my scalp, I was focused on what I now realize was the completely wrong idea. Instead of being honored to be given an opportunity to experience and celebrate my family’s culture, I wracked my brain for responses to the comments I worried would soon come from the group after some intense conversations about cultural appropriation that started with the sighting of a group of French tourists sporting braids at our previous hotel. I was so worried that this would be considered cultural appropriation, but in reality we all were viewing the concept with the wrong lens. At first look I see why many would assume that I had just paid a lady on the beach for some braids I could show off on Instagram, but what people fail to see is how my braids represent the most sincere act of a welcome.
As humans we are so quick to judge others and situations without taking time to see the bigger picture and find the deeper meaning. We frequently take the easy route and file any act of celebrating another culture as cultural appropriation. My braids – though they did result in some odd looking scalp sunburns – encouraged me to think for myself and assess situations that may be easily misconstrued. I’ve come to know cultural appropriation as an act of disregarding the value and meaning that certain objects or practices bare for particular cultures. Hair braids are a unique and meaningful part of my family’s lives. Now, when I see someone wearing something that seems confusing, or like cultural appropriation, I want to have conversations instead of judgments. Because you never know if the American girl walking down the street in a new hairstyle has been adopted into a wonderfully loving family like I have.