I BELIEVE IN SMALL ENCOUNTERS
(Of the Human Kind)
I have just celebrated my 55th Birthday and I celebrated it in Kenya where for the past year I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer. What I have learned by being here is that I believe in small encounters of the human kind. In America we no longer walk, we no longer use our front porches; we no longer take public transportation, so we have less chance for those small encounters that connect one person to another in very serendipitous ways.
Here in Kenya I have been able to encounter and connect with new people every day. Just like the little Rose that I found when walking along Ngong Road in Nairobi.
I remember for just a second, that when I first caught sight of The Girl on Ngong Road, that seeing this young (probably about 7) school girl walking alone on the crowded streets and sidewalks of this busy Nairobi street, that it seemed out of place. She was walking slowly but determinedly about half a block ahead of me, her back pulled straight by a heavy book bag, head focused straight ahead, her hands swishing rhythmically over her navy blue school uniform skirt. If I found this an odd site, it seemed that none of the hundreds of Kenyan pedestrians thought it was odd for a single, small, school girl to be walking alone. They passed her by, her head at their thigh height, hardly noticing that they were doing a round-about around her.
As I came up behind her, and began my own round-about, we both, keeping out heads straight ahead, angled our eyes to take in this person passing by. In that instant we both cracked a small smile. Being a mzungu (white person) I was used to seeing this slight smile when a Kenyan child made eye contact with a white person because they then could try out their high pitched English “how are you?”, but she moved her eyes to their ever-forward position and went about her determined walk. The curb was coming up and people were stopped – so I could not finish my round-about around her – so we slowed down but kept in step with each other and occasionally angled our eyes to get another peek at each other. As the crowd started to cross the street, we moved forward, as we got to the curb, I stopped and noticed a car rounding the corner – but the little girl started to step off the curb right into the path of the car. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said “simama” (stop). She looked up, smiled and suddenly she took my hand. I can still feel those fingers, soft and small, trusting this stranger. We waited until the coast was clear and than crossed the street.
As we continued on our journey, she continued to hold my hand. In Kiswahili, I asked her name and she told me it was “Rose”. I told her that was a beautiful name and that my mother’s name is Rosemary and my sister’s name is Roseanne. She gave me a very big smile when I told her this—small connections to others seemed to bring her pure joy. She tried out her English asking my name and we continued our small encounter with small conversation. A man walked by, did a double take and said hi to Rose. She introduced me to her Uncle as “rafiki yangu” my friend.
When we reached the huge intersection that connected Ngong Rd with 3 other large streets, it was time for us to part. I had to cross this 6 lane road without the help of stop lights and Rose had to continue on her current path. I asked if she would be OK and that it was nice to meet her. She smiled and squeezed my hand one more time and went back to her singular determined walk. I played dodge-car across this thoroughfare holding my breath all the way. Once I was on the other side, I exhaled and than took a glancing look across the street to see if I could see Rose. I had looked were I thought she would have been by now and did not see her, but than pulled my eyes back to the spot where we had parted and there she was, big smile and small hand waving as hard as she could. I had helped her not to walk in front of an oncoming car and she had willed me safely across a treacherous intersection. One good deed……. For the next 5 minutes, we kept walking together, just on parallel streets, and kept looking across, smiling and waving until we were too far apart to see each other.
I don’t know for how long that Rose will remember me, but I know I will never forget her and I will never forget the feel of those small hands nestled in mine. That’s why I believe in the small encounters and small connections between one person and another.
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