As a first post to the Beautiful Day Blog, I’d like to recount my interview with a current member of the granola staff, Gervais. I met him one day at the Amos House kitchen where the granola is made, with the hope of getting to know him a little better. In no time at all, I had his eldest son Jerome on the phone, and had set up a meeting at his family’s home in Providence two days hence. Yikes! With no clue about how to conduct such a sensitive interview about a refugee’s life history, I set out for his house with shaking hands and very little confidence.
I found myself staring at the blank walls of a stranger’s living room. Several children ran back and forth in front of me, a teenage girl lay across a couch chatting into a cell phone, and two women sat in the corner, chatting and glancing over at me every few minutes. A spy movie blared from the TV, but no one was paying it any mind. One of the kids colored in notebooks, another ran to show off a Batman comic scene to their mother, the youngest boy pushed around little toy cars on the floor and made engine revving noises (I remember those days), and at some point they all gathered together to roll a single die and predict the outcome to everyone in the room. It was a typical American household scene to me, with the only notable difference being the language that issued from the family’s mouth. As the Swahili wafted over me, I reflected on how welcoming Gervais’ family had been, having invited me into their home as soon as I mentioned that I knew Jerome.
Gervais himself arrived about fifteen minutes later, with Erneste (translator) in trail. We set up at their dining room table, but when I pulled out my notebook and phone with its recording app open, Gervais eyed me warily. I noted how uncomfortable he felt and decided not to push it; so, the following account is taken from memory.
My voice shook as I felt out the preliminary direction of our conversation. Though Gervais’s family had readily welcomed me into their house, I could tell that there was some confusion as to why I was there. He certainly appeared ill at ease in his chair, his shoulders tense and his hands held tight together. I tried to reassure him, through Erneste, that he could say as much or as little as he felt comfortable saying. We started with some basics – are you happy with your job? Are you learning a lot?
The details of my timid questions and Gervais’ wary answers will be laid out in my next post, as this one is focused on the act of interviewing a refugee for the first time. After a rollercoaster of a conversation, I was starting to feel relieved about the amount of information Gervais had offered of himself and his family. We had sat at his dining room table for an hour before I realized how much he had conveyed; and to think that I was at one time worried at not having enough to say. We traded a few more pleasantries and I stood up to leave. But I hadn’t gone very far before Gervais’ wife came in and offered me tea. I started to turn her down, but the look on her face at my refusal was disappointed at best and alarmed at worst. So, I managed to sit through a cuppa’ and, to break the uneasiness I felt and not being able to directly communicate, I asked Erneste to teach me how to say thank you in Swahili.
In this, it seems, I had finally achieved journalistic victory. Smiles broke out all around the house as I muttered my way through the pronunciation; but soon enough, I could satisfyingly say, “Asante sana” or: “Thank you very much.” My cup drained, my mind teeming with new knowledge, and my hands noticeably steadier than when I had first entered, I thanked them all once more and left. And now I thank you for reading, and I hope you continue to the real interesting part: Gervais’ twisting journey. Asante sana.