This I Believe

The Power of Non-Verbal Communication

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I believe in the power of non-verbal communication.

As a writer, I put my full faith in poetry. When I was younger and far more temperamental, I used to spend my “time-outs” whispering my favorite words to myself, over and over until I’d forgotten what I was angry about. Even now as a senior in college, when my nighttime mind stalls out in memories, fears, or other preoccupations, I ease myself to sleep by reciting verses inside my head.

I never took the time to imagine a scenario in which the power of words could fail me. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I came to understand a different type of power—a circumstance so poignant as to warrant complete and utter silence.

For the first few months of my study-abroad in Cameroon, I struggled to relate to my host family. My French would turn shy as it left my mouth, diving back behind my tongue before the end of a sentence. I craved connection. With my host mom in particular, my simple wish was for communication. A few months into the trip, I became very sick, and I soon discovered that in Cameroonian culture the protocol for dealing with illness is inwardness. One does not flaunt his or her symptoms, nor does he call attention to personal emotions. To state it mildly, things were bad: in a culture where the greatest sign of respect is to finish your plate, I couldn’t touch my food. I found the word for “concussion” in my French-English dictionary, but in a perfectly symbolic display of communicative failure, my host mom did not understand me. In fact, no Cameroonian did. My situation, quite literally, could not be translated.

One morning I found my mama in the kitchen, boiling leaves on the stove. I perched awkwardly on the edge of a stool, noticing how she shifted when I entered the room but did not turn. I had grown accustomed to her quietness— but even as I waded through minutes of silence, I still felt like both of us were waiting for something.

Later that evening I found a bottle of water next to my dinner with my mama’s leaves inside of it. Upon closer inspection, the leaves were oozing a clear, thick gel into the water.

“It will taste bitter,” my mama said. “It will not taste good.”

I stammered a confused response. “Drink it,” my mama said. “It is for you.”

I cannot begin to describe the relief I found in a half-glass of that gel-water. Within 24 hours, the ever-present sensation of needing to vomit was gone. I thought I had never in my life been more grateful for something.

For weeks after that first dinner I found a glass of those green, oozing leaves next to my breakfast baguette. I later learned how unique they are, how loved ones receive them only on special occasions. I went from feeling like an outsider in my home to a daughter who belonged there.

Maman never said another word about what she had done for me, but I know she saw how I transformed from that point forward. Her medicine enabled me to heal. When she saw my gratitude, I saw her smile. From a quiet woman full of love and intention, I learned the lesson of no words.