After returning from downtown Dakar with two other Fellows, I felt a bit overwhelmed by what I had seen. I looked at the clock. It was one thirty. I had to get a project done for class at three. Assuming that the project would take little time, I picked up my bag, my brown leather journal, and my water bottle, and headed downstairs. I didn’t really know where I was going. I just needed to be, to breathe, to see, and to write. And so, I did exactly that. I walked past the Mosque to a street that seemed quiet and friendly. The spot that I picked was sunny, situated right next to a little boutique for women’s clothing.
I sat and listened to the Wolof chatter, with the occasional French response, as I wrote in my journal. As I released my thoughts and heart onto my paper, I was approached by a boy, no older than eight years old. His shoes were ragged, his face dusty, and his clothing worn. Or was there more to this boy than my initial judgment? I sat as he began to talk in Wolof, frightened to lift my eyes once more to what I thought I would see. Staring at his worn shoes, I heard him address me directly: “Stranger, Stranger, aren’t you hot sitting there in the sun? Would you not like to sit in the shade?” I couldn’t look up. I kept my eyes on the ground, and said politely, Non, merci. He walked away. I sat still, my body and mind frozen on one question. Why was this child concerned with someone like me?
Ten minutes later, I sat in the same hot sun, and as I continued writing in my brown leather journal, I heard the voice of the child once more: “Stranger, would you like to come into my house and sit? It is awfully hot outside, and I don’t want you to be ill because of the sun. Please, come, sit with my mother and I inside, we don’t want you to be without good company and shelter.”
My response was the same, but this time, it was quieter. The boy turned slowly and walked away, as I refused his offer once more. Again, I sat and I wondered why this child was concerned with someone like me.
Five minutes later, the boy spoke again. This time he said: “Stranger, can I at least get you a chair? You look so uncomfortable, sitting there on the rocky street. You would feel much better sitting in a chair.” I didn’t respond. I looked up and locked eyes with the child, unable to look away. Tears welled up in my eyes, and the boy’s brown eyes took me to an entirely different world. I thought about misconceptions, judgments, mistakes, achievements, failures, and moments of happiness that had led me to Senegal. It was one of those moments where a million things go through your head at one time. It was one of those moments where the eyes of a child really did hold the window to his soul. For when I looked into his eyes, I saw more than just brown. His eyes were welcoming, daring, strong, bright, curious, compassionate, and mysterious.
I snapped out of the trance I had experienced through the eyes of this stranger. I felt an overwhelming sense of rejuvenation, confidence, motivation, and strength inside of me. As the boy recognized this change occurring within me, his eyes lit up. He reached out for my hand, and this time, I didn’t push him away. I grabbed the boy’s hand, and said to him with a smile: “Mon coeur, I must now return to school for class, but you are a good man. I appreciate your generous offer, and hope you never lose your sense of compassion, curiosity, and kindness.”
I turned around to look at the spot where I had just sat. The boy stood there with a smile that I will never forget.
“What is your name, mon coeur?” I asked in French.
“Je ne t’oblierai jamais, Malik.”
And with that, I walked back to school, knowing entirely that I had experienced a whole new world through the eyes of a stranger.