It's the kind of thing you'd expect to see around a high school -- grab, bump, grab, snap -- but it's grown men and respected women on the community who are doing it. Even children are practicing to get the perfect audible snap.
Whever we arrived somewhere, there would be a line of people waiting to shake our hands. The same line would re-form whenever it was time to leave. The fingers on my right hand started to hurt after not very long at all.
The handshake is so important to the people of Liberia. I've been doing a lot of reading, but all I can find is theories about its history. One of the best is that it comes from the days of the slave trade: traders would break the middle fingers of the men and women they had taken as a symbol of their power and the new slave's submission. The Liberian handshake requires an intact finger; it is a celebration of freedom (as is much of Liberian culture).
Let me tell you a little secret -- even after 2 weeks of practicing, I am completely incapable of making the snap happen. It is much harder than it looks! My dear husband, however, perfected it early on in the trip and won the respect of the local men as a result. He would shake their hands, get the snap to work, and the whole group of men would cheer and slap him on the back. It was funny to watch -- I think my husband may actually be more Liberian than American!
The handshake is just one way that we felt truly honored the whole time we were in the country. At one point, the women I would shake hands with started touching their hearts after we had (tried to) snapped. When I asked one of my Liberian friends what it meant, she said, "They're accepting you into their heart as a friend." My eyes teared up because these people who had never met me before treated me so lovingly. They demonstrated a kind of openness we don't often find in America. Everyone called each other "brother" or "sister." The children called all the women in our group "mama," especially once we started taking them under our wings to sponsor their school fees. In Liberia, there is a feeling of community fellowship that even extends to crazy white people like me.
Handshake carving we brought home
Being treated as a sister and a mama to the Liberians has impacted my heart. It fills me with a passion to do something for them, even with our limited resources. It seems like such a small thing to part with $80 to pay an entire year's worth of education for a child, but those little steps will change the face of the nation. I'm not sure yet why God showed me this nation, but I know beyond a doubt it won't be the last time I make the long trek to Liberia.