“You know how your mother always said “Don’t talk to strangers”? Well, strangers talk to me. They do it all the time. Lost children, lost adults, little old ladies, nutters on the bus, each and every person selling their own particular brand of salvation. They always talk to me.
A happy-faced woman will stop me in the street and say, “I just had to tell someone, my son took his first step today.” A young man will sit beside me on a bench and tell me the story of how he moved to town to be with his girlfriend, and how she dumped him, hours after he arrived…I doubt if I will ever understand it, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve stopped seeing it as a pain and I have realised that I’m almost uniquely privileged. People want to share their lives with me. That makes me feel so good.” ~ Dementer
This Dementer could easily be talking about me. Just this week, a guy I went to primary school with and with whom I am not friends anywhere other than on facebook, sent me a facebook inbox to tell me that he just needed to tell someone that his girlfriend broke up with him out of the blue and he is shattered. Not only that, he had been planning to propose in December and when he went to try and talk to her about the breakup the next day, she had a new man already. These encounters are how I came to write this series.
I remember this particular encounter clearly not because of its intensity. There was none. If anything, it was mundane. Perhaps that is exactly what is needed after last week’s intense encounter. I remember it because it was an encounter that reminded that I am privileged to have received an education and to have access to information. The thing with everyday privileges is that after some time, we stop seeing them as such and we begin to take them for granted.
On this particular night-into-morning, I was doing something that I did very regularly at the time: riding a minibus taxi/matato/kombi to Zimbabwe from South Africa. You might wonder why I didn’t take safer options like a bus or a plane. It was because flights cost more than I could afford at the time and buses only went to the main urban centres in Zimbabwe. A taxi would take me straight to the remote little town of Chiredzi that I called home. Man, kwandabva kure! (translation: I have walked a long path to get to where I am today). But I digress… At that time, a weird mix of passengers who exceeded the taxi’s maximum capacity and luggage that looked like it outweighed and could possibly topple the taxi itself were my life.
I found myself sitting next to two women dressed in their church’s very long white church garb. Where I come from people generally refer to this church as “Masowe.”
It’s a 16 hour journey from Johannesburg to Chiredzi and in that time you have to be both blind and deaf not to pick up a few things about your fellow passengers. One of those things was the fact that one of the church ladies got out to pee at every stop. Every. Single. One. Not only that, she walked like she was absolutely pressed each time.
At about 5am, as we were about to leave the border, she flew out of the taxi and went to the bathroom yet again. When she came back, she heaved a huge sigh and threw herself in her seat next to me. She looked exhausted. Of course, after being a taxi for 10 hours who wouldn’t? I am a little ashamed to admit that sometimes I actively try to avoid talking to people. Encounters can be exhausting and dare I admit that sometimes I don’t feel up to it. More so, when I travel. For most of the trip I wore earphones and avoided eye contact. I t was time to stop avoiding the inevitable so I took off my earphones, turned to her and smiled. It’s amazing how little it takes to put a stranger at ease.
We started conversing in Shona. “Such a deep sigh,” I said. “Are you alright?” “I am fine. I am just tired of running to the toilet all the time. Especially since hardly anything comes out when I get there. It just feels like I am so pressed all the time.” She went on and on but the answer was immediately obvious to me. Anyone who has ever experienced a bladder infection or knows someone who has experienced it or has just read about it, will identify the symptoms easily and in one sentence, she had listed almost all of them. She also seemed to labouring under the misconception that it was normal and that this was what her life was destined to be. Imagine!?! So I decided to tackle it head on and told her that peeing a lot was not normal like she thought. To prove my point, I described what I thought she felt when she went to pee including that throwback pain just after the stream ended. When I stopped talking both of them were looking at me in awe.
“Yes,” she said, “that is exactly it.”
So I explained to her that she needed to go to the clinic and explain what she felt when she peed and that she needed to ask for antibiotics and it would go away when she took them. In the meantime, instead of avoiding water like she was doing, she needed to drink lots of it. It would help with the burning sensation.
“Are you a doctor?” she asked. She was visibly amazed and I resisted the urge to chuckle. “Not at all. I just read about it somewhere.” In her mind that was impossible so she completely disregarded my answer and followed up with a question that made my day, “Are you a prophet?” I could not resist the chuckle this time. “No I insisted. I have read about bladder infections on the internet.” Both of them looked at me for a long moment and then turned to each other and said knowingly “Definitely, a prophet” while they both nodded.
I put my earphones back on…
Knowledge that I thought was commonplace made me a “prophet” in the eyes of this woman. I suppose it was the universe tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me not only of the difference between a privilege and none but also that our gifts are in us to serve others. It was entirely selfish of me to sit on my knowledge for 10hours while this poor woman suffered needlessly simply because I was not in the mood for an encounter.