The Kindness of Strangers

Things will go wrong when you leave your comfort zone and move, let’s say, to Africa. Events will not play out as they do in your favorite documentaries and nonfiction books about strife, development, and inequality. It isn’t always (or even often) smiling mothers with babies, community workshops “in the field”, and picturesque landscapes. There will be confusion, cold showers, spreadsheets, hours spent in dimly-lit offices, waiting forever for at a restaurant only to receive something you didn’t order, arguing with taxi drivers about fares and directions even though neither of you speaks the same language, and fretting about the price of shampoo. There will be crowds and chaos. There will be homesickness. The accumulation of all these various disappointments can wear you down as you adjust for the first time to a radically different environment. The result can be paralyzing frustration. So it is important take stock of moments that help balance that equation.

I was waving down a moto outside the GHC house in Kigali on a bright Tuesday morning, feeling well-slept and ready to negotiate fares like a local. A group of kids was standing a little ways to my right – three boys about nine and a taller girl maybe twelve or thirteen years old. They looked my way every so often, but one gets used to being stared at as an expat in Rwanda.

Finally, a moto stopped. After agreeing on a satisfactory fare to my office in Kiyovu, I swung my leg around the back of the vehicle to climb on. Just then, the girl bumped me hard as she and the rest of the group walked past my moto, causing me to almost lose my balance and fall to the group. I responded quickly on instinct and grabbed her arm to catch my balance. I righted myself on the moto and, still holding her arm, told her it was not nice to push people and that there’s plenty of room on the sidewalk. She only stared at me blankly.

After releasing her, I noticed my driver yelling at someone behind me. I didn’t look right away, because moto drivers are often yelling – for directions, to change money, to say hello to someone. Suddenly, the driver moved to get off the moto. I finally looked behind me and watched in confusion as the scene played out. I had not yet registered that I had been the reason the driver was yelling: One of the three boys walked back to our moto with his arm extended, head bent low, eyes turned away, in his hand my fancy smartphone that I had carelessly kept in the outer pocket of my laptop bag. And inside the smartphone, hundreds of photographs I might never have seen again.

I couldn’t believe it. My phone was gone…should have been gone!  And yet it was not gone. It was in my hand. Why? Why did the moto driver go to the trouble of getting my phone? How did he notice the setup and theft? Why was he prepared to chase the kids down the street to return my property to me? Who was I to him? How did he know my phone was being taken, while all I saw was a girl bumping into me? What moved the boy to listen to the moto driver and return my phone? These questions raced through my mind as I muttered thank you, merci, and murakoze in rapid and mumbling succession.

When we arrived at my destination, I doubled the fare I paid to the driver and walked into the office still high on adrenaline. And something else, too:  this feeling of gratefulness. It was a small thing, really. An unnecessary kindness paid to me by a stranger who was watching out for me for no other reason than to do what’s right. After all, it was just a phone. A material object that is utterly replaceable. Losing a shiny new gadget, even one that is filled with pictures and memories, is inconsequential in light of the challenges of the career I had chosen. And yet, this gesture of kindness – about as small as the little frustrations that had been piling up – was powerful enough to dispel feelings of doubt about my place here. It was what I needed that day: a reminder that bad days here are no worse than bad days at home, and good days are just as satisfying. It was a reminder also that the simple joy of experiencing the kindness of strangers is why I came here in the first place. Because people everywhere, friends and strangers alike, deserve good things, and that we all have phenomenal capacity – to do good for each other, to make someone’s day, to change someone’s outlook, and to improve someone’s life. Perhaps this moto driver was my lollipop moment.