the perfect stranger

the perfect stranger

 highway to Karim Lamido - Mark Fransdal photo

highway to Karim Lamido - Mark Fransdal photo

Two days in Nigeria and we had finally broken free of airports, cities and pavement.  We passed through an area of extensive plains where sugarcane appeared to be the cash crop, but clearly the cash didn’t trickle down to the masses.  Every dwelling had a garden close by for food.  Goats and chickens were everywhere.  Entire villages were made of raw branch huts and lean-tos, as if constructed by boy scouts on a merit badge weekend.  Women worked, men snoozed, the sun burned.  We passed one village during their prayer time - they were all on the ground facing the same direction.

For six hours, seven of us and a ton of luggage had been crammed into a well-worn Peugot mini-mini van almost sitting on each other’s laps.  The road from Numan was a slalom course of craters and turning toward Karim the asphalt hadn’t seen maintenance for long enough that mature trees were growing out of the potholes.  Bridges had crumbled and culverts collapsed, so all of the traffic which included cars, enormous trucks, motorbikes, kids walking to school, and women carrying chickens moved on the sandy shoulders of the road.  Creeks were forded by driving down the embankments and directly through the water.  In one of those crossings, the van quit entirely.  Our driver got out, picked up a rock, and gave a couple of good whacks to something under the hood.  It started right up again and we were on our way.  My friend Mark and I looked at each other and laughed at the absurdity.  

Karim is a Muslim-majority town and the seat of the local government.  It is rickety, dilapidated, and in about as good a shape as the road.  We pulled through a gate into a walled Christian compound.  It was hot and dusty in this neighborhood of round huts and cement block structures - a United Methodist Church among them.  The pastor invited us to use the restroom in his home which was one of the few we’d see that had an actual toilet.  It wasn’t plumbed, of course, so after peeing you washed it down with water from a bucket. The pastor's wife gave each of us a fresh bottle of water and we enjoyed the shade of the house for a few minutes before heading back outside.  

Our purpose in Karim, other than a stop to tinkle, was to trade vehicles: we’d need four wheel drive to continue to Bambur.  Our new driver, Yakaiyi, arrived in a 1980's vintage Toyota pickup.  We stood in the sun with sweat running down our backs and watched as it was loaded with our luggage, groceries, LP tanks, and other miscellaneous stuff that was going the same direction we were.  While this was going on, a crowd gathered.  They seemed curious, but shy - they don’t see many white people in Karim.  Children peeked out from behind tree trunks or their mother’s skirts. Men and women lifted their hands in tentative waves.  We did the same.  

This was the most foreign place I’d ever been.  I didn’t know how to communicate.  I didn’t know how to tell if someone was friendly or not.  Nobody looked like me, but everyone was looking at me.  I didn’t even know which way was north, which, for an American midwesterner, is about the scariest thing imaginable.  If something were to happen, I had no plan, no escape route, nobody to call for assistance.  It was both unnerving and exciting.  

Loading the truck required a bit of skill with all of the gear and passengers we had to haul, and as the process went on, a skinny woman came forward out of the crowd and grabbed my hand.  In this place where living is hard, it is sometimes difficult to guess someone’s age: she could have been anywhere from 40 to 80.  Her smile revealed a few teeth, and two squinty eyes.  Friendly?  I think so.  She bowed slightly forward and began repeating the same word or phrase over and over in her local language.  “Sunnogo”, or something like that.  In my cynical way, I wondered what she wanted - money, food, marriage?

She and I could hardly have been more different.  I’m white, she’s black.  I’m male, she’s female.   I’m certainly not rich by American standards, but I had the means to get myself halfway around the world, while she spends her days shelling groundnuts by hand, hoping to get enough to trade for fruit, or vegetables or rice.  Neither of us spoke the other’s language, but she held my hand the way they do when they’re saying something important and they want you to get it.  “Sunnogo, sunnogo”, she kept repeating rather earnestly.  Finally I said it back to her, and that made her smile again.    

I asked for a translation.  The pastor’s wife told me, “we are one person”.  

We are one person.

Every day our western news is full of stories of people hating each other - to the point that you begin to believe that's our default attitude.  Nations and races and religions can't stand each other.  Neighbors don't know each others names.  Even in safe cities like my hometown, parents teach their children "stranger danger".  And then 8,000 miles from home a perfect stranger - the perfect stranger - comes out of the crowd, grabs my hand and shares a simple message of human brotherhood and sisterhood.  It was a monumental moment for me that I'm still trying to fully understand.  

chris congdon

this anecdote also appears in hungry, please

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