This week I was seated in a bus, the seat right next to the door, when I saw this old man who was holding a walking stick try get into the bus. A thought struck that I should give him my seat; but in the moment between wondering if someone else will do the same and where I would find another seat, the bus pulled off and I could see the old man struggling to maintain his balance as he headed for the back bench. At that moment I felt I had failed those who raised me. I was brought up better. But so were all the people in that 30-seater bus who did not give up a seat for an old frail man, or the bus conductor who did not request or demand that a person does the same. It was a “shame on me” moment.
I was reminded of another day when I had to ask a stranger to give his seat to a pregnant woman who was standing in a full bus. He gave me an odd look then gave up his seat. I hoped he learnt a little courtesy that day. We could fault the woman for getting into an already filled bus, but I won’t judge her as I do not know her story. May be she couldn’t stand at the bus stop any more, may be she was late for some occasion, may be she was just played be Kenyan kondas as we all have, being told there are seats available.
I have also been in her place. Once while pregnant, I almost passed out at the bus stop, but no one noticed. I thought of supporting myself on a stranger, then I thought of forgetting myself and crouching at that very public place as there was no bench or even stone to sit on. Thankfully the bus came soon after saving me the drama.
Another day, when I was seven months pregnant, I got onto the train and couldn’t find an empty seat. I stood. But barely 15 minutes into the journey the standing got to me. I started feeling dizzy. I leaned forward, then against the wall… I felt tears welling up in my eyes. A few people seemed to notice my discomfort but they too were standing. Mercifully, at one stop people got out of the car and I found a seat. Long after the train arrived at the station, I stayed inside the car and cried — frustrated, mostly, but also tired.
When did we become so unmoved by the fate of others? How did we become a society so wrapped up in itself and its cellphones , tablets and problems that we no longer notice the hungry man on the street, or the sick woman almost passing out at the bus stop?
Is it because we are afraid of being taken advantage of? Do we think it’s another act? Are we just about to be swindled and need to protect our resources and pride?
My greatest lesson the last few months when it comes to compassion and giving a helping hand is that I’d rather err on the side of helping than of caution.
Two months ago I had one of those emotionally draining moments when I am face to face with desperate human need (in my eyes) but everyone tells me to walk away lest I be conned.
I found this woman on the street on her knees, holding a bundle. I look closely and she seems to be in pain and is holding a baby, who has been wrapped in a shawl and a sweater. Thankfully he is asleep.
She tells me she’s not fine; her baby is four months old, and she has a distended tummy that makes her look another seven months pregnant. I can see a big scar. She had the baby by CS, but developed complications afterwards because of continuing to work — washing people’s clothes, she tells me.
Kenyatta National Hospital, which delivered her baby, need Sh1,500 to perform a scan to find out what’s wrong, she tells me. (Is that the cost of a scan by the way?)
She’s headed to Uhuru Park but can barely walk. So I offer to pay for her the bus to Uhuru Park, and I have to carry her big yellow paper bag and her baby to Kencom; she still takes nearly five minutes to cross the street.
I do not know how to help her. I am afraid of being taken advantage of, but it’s hard to turn away in the face of such human suffering. She wasn’t even asking for help, to start with.
I tell her she needs to go to hospital. I give her some money, though not enough for her scan. I wish I could conduct a mini harambee to take her to hospital, but I can’t. I’m late for work; and everyone is pessimistic here, save for one man who gives her Sh100.
The kondas at Kencom tell me to walk away; I have helped enough. Another gentleman tells me, “Madam wewe enda job. Atasaidiwa na wengine.”
Another yet says ” Hawa ni maconmen. Hiyo pesa unampatiea uneenda ukule lunch.”
Are we ignoring the needy among us for the fear of being conned? I walk away feeling heavy hearted and emotionally drained, a feeling that stays with me all day long.
After I posted that on Facebok, a few people told me yes, I was about to be conned but most others felt my dilemma and told me to listen to the Holy Spirit within me. What was my heart telling me?
My response could have been influenced by this verse I read today morning from I Tim 6: 18 “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
I had also been listening to Mathew West’s “My Own Little World” that week, which implores us to get out of ourselves and our cosy little spaces of “Population Me” and realise that there is a world that is needful beyond us. There is a hurting world behind a cellphone, if we just lift up our eyes; and we are being called to meet those needs, most times, in the most basic manner:- buying lunch for a hungry street boy, giving your couch to a friend thrown out by the landlord, praying with the woman trusting God for a child, giving your seat to an old or ailing person. Surely, we have been called for more than just us and our families.
That’s how we become the hands and feet of Jesus.
Some responses of course will call for more coordinated approaches, like where churches can have feeding programmes for street families, or where organisations provide ‘bedrooms’ for the homeless and vulnerable. You may not have access to the coordinated approach- yo are still called to act with compassion. We can’t close our eyes and hears to the cries of the needy in society and think that it shall be well with us.
I have a friend who is real wise. I tell her she has the gift of wisdom. She’s the one who finally brought perspective to my scenario by telling me that I’d be surprised to find out that the whole saga wasn’t about the needy mama and her baby but about me. She told me that if God had needed a person to take the woman to hospital, he would have sent one who had a car, or the cab money and the treatment cash, and one who wasn’t headed to a job she couldn’t be late for. He sent me. May be it was about testing my heart, my obedience to the small inklings in my heart and to the word I ad read… Did I pass the test?
I share a verse from one of my favourite songs by Lindsay McCaul that she sang after the devastating Haiti Earthquake of 2010 (my three-year-old aslo loves the video, may be because of it’s haunting images of the Haiti earthquake).
When she's crying, When she's hurting, When she's fallen and can't go on, When she's broken into pieces, In her mourning, has lost her song.. Who will help the Church, The one that Christ loves, who will rise up? How long will we wait, How much will it take, Who will rise up?