(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
In my last blog post, I made a brief reference to the power of human interactions, no matter how short or long-lasting, in having an often inconceivable impact on somebody’s life. An encounter as brief as the few minutes it takes for the pedestrian lights to turn from red to green can suffice in opening your eyes or changing your perspective in one way or the other. Yet, while I am likely to remember the instances that had an emotional impact on me, I will never know if there were times where something I did had a long-lasting impact on someone else. One of the reasons we won’t ever be aware of how we change other people’s lives is because, most of the times, the person whose life we touch is unaware of it, too.
Knowing that we all possess that potent force to change people’s lives by the way we behave, talk, or react towards them gives everyone a reason to treat people with kindness and respect. Sometimes when I walk across campus at Duke, it can be as much as a smile from a stranger that can completely change my mood and make my day. Here in Cape Town, I can recall numerous instances in which someone changed my day for the better, most likely unaware of doing so.
Two examples. The Women’s Legal Center office is situated on the 7th floor of the Constitutional House in downtown Cape Town. In order to enter the building, you have to pass two security guards and sign an entry form. After one or two weeks, the security guards realized we’d be coming in and out every day, and started greeting us less as strangers and more as friends. One day, I left the building for lunch break, walked past the security guard and gave him the usual big smile, when he said “See you soon, Sisi.” Sisi, derived from both isiZulu and isiXhosa words, means ‘sister,’ as I found out through a simple google search soon after. I couldn’t help but smile when I walked back to the office that afternoon; even if he used the word in an almost routine-like manner, he nevertheless used it, and made me feel very appreciated and welcomed. And I was wondering what I could respond to show I appreciated what he said and valued our daily interaction. My professor, close mentor, and friend, Prof. Admay, who is from South Africa, would often end her emails to me with “Yebo!” which in itself merely means “yes” but carries with it a subtle expression of joy and excitement. Now, every time the security guard greats me or says “Goodbye, Sisi,” I say “Yebo! See you tomorrow” to show some form of cultural and personal appreciation.
Another person who made my experience here just a bit more special by making me feel appreciated, welcomed, less like a stranger, and more like a friend, is a guy named Tich who works at a coffee shop downtown. After I had ordered a latte with soymilk several times, he asked me “Do you like nicknames?” to which I responded with an excited nod. He then looked at me and asked, smilingly: “Can I call you Soya?” I couldn’t help but laugh and responded with an even more excited nod. Since that day, every time I enter the coffee shop, I get greeted with a big smile and a kind South African “Howzit, Soya?”
Both the security guard and Tich exemplify the notion that it’s the small things that matter; both strengthen in me a commitment to treating people with kindness and being aware of the power bestowed in all of us to influence our immediate environment. It can be a few words you utter, a hug you give, a simple question you ask about someone’s well-being when you notice they are down, that can have a powerful impact and really make a difference in someone’s life. It can be as much as a smile to a passerby – it shows that you acknowledge that person’s existence; it is a non-verbal way of expressing: “I see you. I value you. You matter.” In fact, a simple smile directed towards someone can literally go a long way in the sense that it travels with the person you give it to. We naturally respond to a smile directed towards us by mimicking it, and by carrying that feeling of appreciation and respect on to the next person, we can create a wave of happiness that keeps rolling until someone stops it.
So, these were just two of the instances that mattered to me personally, where it is quite likely that the other person was unaware of the impact his words or actions had on me. And as already mentioned above, I think this applies to most of our interactions; we are fairly unaware of how we affect people’s lives, self-perception, and understanding of the world. Today, however, I experienced the feeling of knowing to have affected someone’s life in what was probably the most moving and profoundly emotional moment of the entire trip.
Today is Monday, the 18th of July, more commonly known here in South Africa as Nelson Mandela Day, a day where people recognize Mandela’s contribution to a culture of peace and freedom by following his formidable footsteps, trying to restore dignity and empowerment through small contributions. As we were walking to work in the morning, we realized a good amount of people seemingly lined up in a cue to wait for something. As we approached the corner, we realized that an organization had put up plastic walls with numerous hangers each carrying one piece of clothing. On top of each hanger was a sign that read: “Hang up and help out” – the organization was distributing clothes to homeless people as their contribution to Mandela Day. The way in which they gave out the items was special, too. The people were all lined up, and once they reached the front of the cue, one of the helpers stretched out her hand as an invitation to enter the ‘closet.’ The person could then walk around and pick one piece of clothing. Seeing members of the organization and the homeless people walking around, holding hands, trying on pieces of clothing and deciding on the perfect fit was extremely touching. While some services provided during Mandela Day can be considered patronizing in one way or the other, this one appeared to be truly empowering. We were standing at the side observing this act of kindness and dignity as I let my eyes wonder through the line of people awaiting their special moment, when suddenly I recognized a familiar face. Suddenly his eyes turned towards me and we stared into each other’s eyes… and gave each other the biggest smile. It was Winston!
Who is Winston? Before I continue my story, let me briefly explain who Winston is and how I got to know him. This past week at the Women’s Legal Center has been a very hands-on learning experience for me. One of the many projects the WLC is the so-called Sex Worker Project. Here, the WLC seeks to document human rights abuses, educate sex workers of their legal rights, provide legal advice, and advocate for the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. Sadly, with sex work being illegal in this country, sex workers often suffer from human rights abuses by government officials and police officers and are not granted the same constitutional and human rights as others simply because of the nature of their profession. Many sex workers report being harassed by police officers, but have nowhere to turn for recourse.
Report harassment by a police officer to the police? Likely unsuccessful. Report harassment by a police officer to the police as a sex worker? You can imagine what I am trying to get at.
So, currently the WLC is trying to bring a case against a specific officer who is well known in the sex worker community for repeatedly harassing and arresting their members for no apparent reason. In order to make the case, we are conducting interviews to gather enough evidence to make a substantive claim. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in and transcribe a couple of these interviews; I heard the most heart-breaking experiences of people being beaten on the street, having marijuana planted in their clothes by one police officer and being arrested shortly after by another, and being verbally abused in ways that make your heart ache. One of the people I interviewed was Winston. He is clearly undernourished, nervously moving his legs underneath the table, and keeps reiterating “We must bring him to justice.” The lack of front teeth and his ripped shirt serve as indicators of the desperate conditions he’s currently in. The tears in his eyes speak volumes about the additional hardships he’s being put through by that officer. He’s just one of so many sex workers already living on the edge of society because of the exorbitant amount of stigma surrounding their profession. Listening to his story and talking to him brought to life the numbers and statistics I had read about, and it filled me with both immense anger and profound sadness. When we finished the interview, Winston thanked us repeatedly for listening to and documenting his story and for sharing in his hardships by simply being with him. Whether or not the case will be successful is subject to many forces completely outside our realm of control, but we promised we’d do everything we could to help him and all others. On my way back home, his voice kept echoing in my head… We must bring him to justice. I want justice. Not just for me, for others also.
Fast forward a couple of days.
Winston and I both recognized each other and recalled our recent interaction as soon as our eyes found each other. As we gave each other a heartfelt smile, he stepped out of the line and walked my way while I started walking his way. We both stretched out our arms as in invitation to hug, and embraced each other in a genuine hug that lasted a few seconds. His eyes were full of excitement and so were mine. His smile was bright and so was mine. As I’m writing this, I find myself unable to articulate any of the emotions I had when this happened. Some people surrounding us couldn’t hide their confusion when Winston and I hugged and laughed with each other. The differences in our outward appearance were innumerable, as you can imagine. He thanked me again for listening to him. He was so grateful for a simple act of empathy, for the willingness to listen, and for an eagerness to help. As we slowly left the street corner and he got back in line, I looked over my shoulder one more time, and once again, we looked each other straight into the eyes, smiled, and waved. The sunshine was filtering through the leaves of the surrounding tree. It was truly magical. My heart was pounding and I felt tears of joy in my eyes.
An open heart can go a long way, I thought to myself.