“I have seven siblings. My mother does not talk to me so much.”
Ten years ago, I looked into the big brown eyes of a seven-year old girl, as she slipped her small hand into mine. The eyes of a child, still full of innocence and the blissful unawareness of the hardships that await her in the near future. She told me about each one of her siblings that day. She told me which colours she likes, and who her best friends are. Her eyes sparkled and her smile was radiant as she talked, oblivious to her torn clothing, the sand in her hair and the dirt under her fingernails, which told me as much about her life as did her soft voice.
Mary’s life is a small variation on the lives of her friends in Kenya. They all originate from massive families (often single-parent families) and live in one bedroom shacks, with dirty running water, as little as one meal of basic food a day, and no medical care. However, she is amongst the fortunate ones that get to attend primary school in her village. I met her through a school community service program, where my school set up a deworming program for the children from a nearby village and also arranged for the children to come to our school, once a week, where we set up various workshops for them to attend. We taught them to use computers, exposed them to drawing and painting, played sports with them, and finished the sessions with a meal.
One day, while walking from the playground to the cafeteria with Mary alongside me, I struck up a conversation, and watched the shy timid girl transform into a vivacious, bubbly child. Nobody had ever shown interest her story. No one had ever given her a tiny morsel of attention. Being treated as though she was negligible all her life, she craved the care that cost me nothing.
For the rest of the semester, she followed me every time she visited our school. Her eyes would light up as she spotted me, and she would insist on doing any activity I was leading (usually the art workshop). She wanted to talk to me and learn from me, as did her friends. Yet I can say with absolute certainty that I learnt more from her company than she ever could learn from me. I could teach her to draw and type, but from her, I learnt about life; about reality, humanity and kindness.
In so many situations, we see the selfishness of human nature amongst those who are privileged. We do not even realize when we are being selfish or wasteful. However, when a child asks you to take care of her two shilling coin (which is equivalent to about one and a half pence) while she plays, it makes you realize how much we have and how much we throw away. Watching a hungry child wrapping up half his meal in a napkin and placing it carefully in his pocket to give his siblings when he gets home, even though it is the only meal he has eaten all day, you realize how little we share even though we have so much.
How is it that the people who have so little in this world remember the core values of our being – compassion and sharing – while we, who have so much, continue to crave more and forget about the concepts of love and care through our material desires? How are we so arrogantly blinded by objects that we consider the loss of them paramount to our very existence?
I will always remember those big brown eyes of the girl that taught me so much, especially when I find myself at selfish points in my life. Mary will never get to read my words; nevertheless, I want my words to do her justice. We do not always recognize turning points in our lives when they are upon us, but I knew that meeting her was one the moment I saw her transform into a more confident girl. All it took was a bit of kindness and attention. I understood, then, the difference each person can make on someone else’s life and how dependent we are on human beings for our happiness.
If I believed in a God that could change the world, each day I would pray for her and those like her who have shown me that despite their torn clothes and dirty fingernails, they are so much richer than most of the people I have encountered in the things that truly matter – love, compassion, humility and humanity.