Loofa to You, Nenwa to Me

Back to the Old Ways

Hello Friend,

I picked up a loofa sponge today. It was in the all-natural, organic category of spa-like bath supplies in the store. It also had an all-natural, organic, spa-like bath supplies price tag.

The label said loofa, but in my mind, I had picked up a nenwa scrubber. It was smaller than the ones I used when I was growing up in Guyana, South America, the ones that I would have traded in a snap for one of the brightly colored artificial sponges from the local pharmacy. Those had to be better because they were sold in a store and must have come from abroad. My nenwa scrubber was harvested from a vine that grew along the fence in our yard, nothing special. The scientific name of the variety we grew is Luffa acutangular, the ridged luffa. After the nenwa gourd was left on the vine to get brown, it was picked, peeled, the seeds shaken out, and the fibrous skeleton was washed and ready for use. So plain, so simple, so unexciting.

I wish I knew then what I realized later; that many of our everyday practices were based upon ancient wisdom, perfected, and handed down over centuries. What the west discovered many years later we were already practicing, but many of us did not recognize the value of the knowledge we had. We craved modern things, the things used by the English, and later, the Americans.

In the same aisle was coconut oil. Another of those things we took for granted. This was used as hair oil and as a moisturizer, but oh, what so many of us girls would not have given for some scented body lotion, Bath and Body Works style? The men had Brylcreem or Brillantine, a green pomade, for their hair, but coconut oil was the standard product for females.

Our family descended from immigrants from India. Most of the Indian culture was preserved, but since Guyana was then a colony of Britain, many tended to look upon western practices as superior.

The craving for things foreign extended to our food as well. The freshly caught, never frozen, organic fish netted that day was banal fare. Many a time we would have gladly swapped the fresh cuts of snapper or basha or smooth, succulent butterfish, for a can of Marshall’s sardines in tomato sauce or Alaskan salmon or Globe corned mutton that came all the way from Australia. Vienna sausage, which we considered a delicacy (much to the surprise of many Americans), fried up with tomatoes and onions and served with store-bought bread, was a much-anticipated Sunday breakfast. The cooked-from-scratch roti and vegetables did not generate the same excitement, or any excitement at all for that matter.

Similarly, we valued highly processed white sugar over the less refined sugars we typically used, and canned milk with pictures of contented cows, trumped the fresh milk delivered at our doorstep by the milk lady every day.

Our traditional home remedies such as ginger and turmeric have been gaining popularity in Western culture, but I will admit that I would take a cup of hot ginger tea for my cold any day over Buckley’s Cough Mixture, even if it is imported. As my brother would say, that stuff could put hair on your chest.

Mangoes, guava, sapodilla, and countless other fruit were available year-round, some of them in one’s own yard, but the fruit that were most prized were the imported apples and grapes that the stores stocked only in December. Many of the older folk still refer to apples as Christmas apples. That slice of apple and four or five grapes tasted like heaven.

My views have made a 180-degree flip. Over the years I have come to treasure those things I took for granted or scoffed at so many years ago. I realize the value of the things we had then, and regret that it was only after they were popularized by the west that I began to truly understand and appreciate the experience and knowledge that lay behind our practices and helped shape our lives.