Looking up from his laptop by the Cookbook section, Stranger#2 met my eyes, the smile on his dark chocolate face mischievous and inviting.
My heart beat so quickly I could barely hear myself ask in a tinny-can voice “Ummm, would you be willing to spare 5 minutes to help me out?”
“Yes, of course,” he offered, waving me to a seat somewhat magnanimously.
Holding the cheerfully wrapped package between us, I explained that I was there to offer him a gift I both valued and loved because I was an introvert and was trying to honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, you know, of pushing one’s comfort zone and such. The fear and thrill and tension of what I was doing was so great that my eyes began to well up as I trailed off with my speech and offered him the gift.
“This is so nice of you,” he said, leaning forward in his seat with raised eyebrows. “May I open it?” his voice was soft with an accent that was part British, part something else (Congalese, I thought?)
“This book,” I explained as he examined it quizzically, “I’ve read it 3 times and every time I get something else out of it. Something valuable. I hope it works for you or someone you love.”
We then talked, sharing stories and hopes for our futures.
He was working on his dissertation about children with H.I.V. in rural Zimbabwe, looking at how it affected their education.
Living among the families in the villages he studied, he had interviewed 92 children (ages 10-13) and their caregivers, as well as 26 village and school officials.
“The children,” he said, “they are very tired from being sick, yes? So they come to school and they fall asleep, not learning much. But they want to come more than anything else, because of the community. To be around other children, to belong, that is what they want.”
“But,” he continued, “it is very hard. Because the other children, they do not want to be with the sick ones, you see.”
“Because they are afraid they will catch it?” I asked.
“Well, yes, and the stigma. The stigma is very strong. To be seen associating with the sick ones makes it, you know, not desirable. But the children, the ones with H.I.V., they keep coming back because that is all they know – that is all the community they have – the other children.”
Moved by the sadness of his story, and by what I heard as the universal longing to belong, to be included and accepted – I asked more questions.
He shared that the children also experience other hardships, because their caregivers (who often work multiple jobs to pay for the H.I.V. treatments) tend to run out of resources, sending the kids to live with relatives in other villages until they can save more money and send for their return, creating much displacement and instability in the children’s already complicated lives.
“How do they get sick in the first place?” I asked.
“Through their mother’s placenta,” he said, his face both soft and grave. “Or, many have been raped. There is much trauma for them. Much trauma.”
I then told him a little about myself and the places where our lives overlapped – how I interviewed mothers and staff at a homeless family shelter for my dissertation and how my interests in dignity and human rights led me to the study of NonViolent Communication and restorative justice.
Seeming to delight in this, he asked what it was like to be here – the Ph.D., the steady University job, the reliable income.
When I told him that I was taking a semester off to pause, harvest, dream and write, he offered me a gift back in return.
“Who Moved My Cheese?” he said, his face beaming. “You will love it, I think. It is a one-day read. Perfect for where you are right now.”
We parted warmly, clasping hands for a long, deep moment of mutual appreciation.
My heart continued to beat fast all the way home, the rush of the encounter and the bittersweet message of his tale mixing into a potent cocktail.
Love, Acceptance, Belonging, Community – and Choice. What all children long for? What all of us need?
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.