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Bananas Ripe With Lessons

THERE was nothing threatening about Akradio, a quiet little village in the Ivory Coast about an hour by rutted roads from the capital of Abidjan, and yet I was afraid. To some extent, my fear was understandable: It was only the second day of my first trip to the third world, and the intensity of the experience was overwhelming. Although I had grown up in northern New York State on the Canadian border and prided myself with my ability to ``rough it,'' nothing in my past had prepared me for this land of tiny huts with thatched roofs and cement block two-room houses. In Akradio, where my friend Andre and I were spending the weekend as guests of a man neither of us knew (he was the friend of a friend from Belgium), I was disturbed by signs of poverty that I seemed powerless to do anything about.

But as I walked through the dusty paths, which early summer rains months before had carved into small chasms, I was affected by more than the apparent lack of creature comforts. I was afraid, and it wasn't until I looked straight into the eyes of a seven-year-old boy that I began to comprehend my feelings of despair for what I thought these people lacked and guilt over what I thought I should give.

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Most of my first day in Akradio in the early fall of 1988, I pitied the people of Akradio who lived daily in a world that was always breaking down, short of food and money, and whose citizens never dreamed of inside plumbing. The truth, however, was that I, in fact, was intimidated by these people who had abilities I clearly lacked: to shrug off problems that cannot be changed today and to find delight in the tiniest things. But I can be stubborn, and sometimes I learn my lessons the hard way.

Through the day, I had resisted the charm of Akradio. I was too busy coughing at the dust, shooing the flies, and eyeing everything with suspicion. Andre ate a mango, plucked from the tree a minute before, but it had a small brown spot on it so I feigned a lack of hunger.

Yet later in the afternoon, when my head was swimming from a lack of food, Andre and I were forced to set out on an expedition to find something to eat, something that I wasn't too finicky to try. We settled on bananas.

Andre stopped a young boy and asked him in French if he knew where we could get some bananas. ``Bananes douces,'' Andre said, and not the plantains that needed to be roasted or fried.

The boy nodded his head vigorously, and we began to follow him through the village, down one hill and up the other side to a cluster of huts that were even smaller and poorer than the ones we had seen before. He stopped in front of a one-room hut and called to a young girl inside through a square hole that served as a window. I glanced inside over his head; a woman, perhaps his mother or an older sister, was lying on her side, resting in the midafternoon heat beside a large basket of chopped manioc root that swarmed with flies.

The young girl emerged from the hut with a dented and rusted metal tray of tiny green bananas. She was taller than the boy; I guessed her to be about 10, and he about seven.

``Are they ripe?'' Andre asked. ``They look very green.''

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The children nodded, unsmiling, their eyes darting between Andre and me. For two tiny coins, worth about one penny, we bought three bananas. I sat down on a footstool, peeled the thick green skin of the banana and took a bite of the creamy yellow fruit inside. Andre leaned against the wall of the hut and took a bite that polished off half his tiny banana.

I looked up and smiled at the relief for my empty stomach. The boy grinned back and watched with fascination as I ate the rest of the banana. I heard a noise beside me, and as I turned I spied two more children who ventured out of a neighboring hut. A moment later, another boy and a young girl, carrying her baby brother on her hip, appeared. Then an older boy, part of a group of about 10 children that surrounded us, gave an order to a younger companion who raced off in the opposite direction. He appeared a minute later, carrying a straight-backed wooden chair for me to sit on.

I surrendered my footstool to Andre, and sat on my wooden throne. At first I was very uneasy with the nearly reverential treatment I received from these children. Then I realized that the appearance of strangers - let alone a white-skinned woman and a blond-haired man - at the door of their hut was a rare occurrence, and that I should do nothing to spoil their wonderment. Instead, I took my time eating my banana - the sweetest I have ever tasted - my face visibly softening as the hunger subsided.

I rolled my eyes and made a funny face to express how good the banana tasted. The children laughed and made comments to each other in a dialect that I didn't understand.

Then my eyes rested on the young boy who led us to that hut. He didn't giggle and squirm like the other children. Rather he looked me straight in the eye and smiled, obviously pleased with himself for the success of the banana mission.

This child, born in a village thousands of miles from my home and about 20 years my junior, taught me a lesson in coping. Without him, it seemed to me that moment, I probably would have gone hungry.

When I finished my half of the third banana which Andre and I shared, the boy's sister handed us each another banana. Andre reached in his pocket for another coin. No, she said. Cadeau. A gift.

In this land of poverty where there was often not enough to go around, these children had made a gift to us Westerners who spend more on a cup of coffee than some of their fathers earned in a day in the fields. The social equation is desperately out of balance. And I could not, by simply wishing, make the inequality of our worlds disappear.

But as I watched these smiling, unassuming children enjoying the mere wonder of our being there, I realized that they were handling their world quite well, and that I was the one who was having problems coping. They asked nothing of me except the wonder of this moment, sitting on the chair and eating a banana.

I peeled the banana and took a big bite. The boy who brought us there burst out laughing, the peals of his joy filling the air.

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