During my son’s spring break, I was sitting “ringside” at the skate park in beautiful Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. While watching kids zoom by I noticed a man sitting on a set of stairs directly across from me. His back was to me, but the relaxed way his body was angled on the step made me take notice. Anyone who sits like that must be friendly, I thought to myself. I was moved to go say “hello”. Many may assume this is my normal mode of operandi, but it truly isn’t. Sure, I talk to strangers, but I have never approached a complete stranger without making eye contact. But my instincts really pushed me outside of my own comfort zone. I walked around the steps and approached with a hello. Within ten minutes, I was flabbergasted to find myself in a meant to be moment.
The man met my hello with a smile and a returned “hello”. He shared that, like myself, he was there with his young son. A boy I had noticed earlier to be full of confidence and fearlessness because he was following and chatting up my son and his friend even though he was probably half their age. When he shared with me his son’s age, I was floored. He was only 3. I shared with him my thoughts on how incredible the boys vocabulary and confidence were for such a young age.
Having heard an accent while the man talked, I asked if he was from Seattle, knowing most likely he was not. “The Gambia”, he replied. He was surprised by my knowledge of the country and our conversation took off from there.
“Do you speak Wolof?” I asked.
“Yes. I also speak Soninke, Fula and Mandinka. I know five languages.”
“You speak five languages? Wow, that’s amazing! I only know two and a half…English, Sesotho and German…”
I had never heard of Soninke or Mandinka. I grabbed my phone to write down the languages. “How do you spell Soninke?” I asked.
“I am not sure how to spell it, but it is spoken by many people in The Gambia. I am Soninke and the language of my people is Soninke” I thought it was a little strange that he did not know how to spell his native language. Soon I would discover why that was.
I typed my best guess into my phone and returned to the conversation.
He shared that he arrived in the States 22 years ago. Landing in the Bronx where his uncle lived before moving to West Chester.
“Did you grow up in the city or in the countryside in Gambia?”
“Both. My father had a farm in the village. At harvest time, I would live with him and help with the harvest. Then I would go to the city to live with my uncle.”
“Did you go to school in the city?”
“No. I never went to school.”
“What? You did not go to school at all?
“No, I have never been to one day of school.”
It was now clear why he could not spell Soninke.
I am not sure why, but I was totally shocked. I had lived in Africa. I knew kids in my village that were not able to go to school. But I had never thought about what that would look like played out in the life of an immigrant in the United States. I had never met anyone, outside of Africa, who had never been to school. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around.
In my surprised state, I asked him if he would be okay having me record a few minutes of our conversation. I just wanted to make sure I heard his response to the question that sprung to mind. He kindly agreed.
“You said you hadn’t ever gone to school, how does that feel? Do you wish you could have?”
“I wish I could have. I could do more better in my life. I know how to use my hands and to do a lot of things. But without school, without education, it is difficult. People are not going to trust you to give you a job without an education. It’s hard.”
“So what type of jobs have you done?”
“I do construction. And I do cooking. Mostly I do cooking. I know how to cook really good.”
“What type of food do you cook?”
“I do American food…I know grill, sauté, seafood…”
“So how does it work for you? Do you know how to read some?”
“Yeah, because I have been in the States so long, I learn how to read a little. Like my letters, my address, street names. But I cannot write no letters.”
“You must have a lot of street smarts.”
“Yeah, you know my first job in New York was in a car wash. I learned how to talk to people. I’m not shy. Sometimes I would say some things wrong and they laugh at me, but then they would correct me. That is how I learned.”
“Well, you have a happy personality, so that must help.”
“Yeah, I’m always trying…”
“Is your wife from Seattle?”
“She is East African but we met here. She is Somalian. That’s way far from me [The Gambia].”
“Do you speak Soninke with your son or does she speak Somali with him?”
“Yes, my son knows three languages already.”
I share with him my project and ask if he would be open to being part of it. Again, he agreed. We hadn’t formally introduced ourselves. I told him my name as I handed him my business card.
“Tara is your name?” he asked.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Really? I have your name tattooed on my arm.”
“What??!! No way!”
There was no way, I thought as he is taking off his down jacket to show me.
I’m sure it isn’t spelled the same way…ask any Starbucks barista, there are at least 3 or 4 ways to spell Terra.
I was floored when he rolled up his sleeve to reveal my name below his own.
I asked if I could get a few with his son. I loved seeing them together.
I thanked him for his sharing with me and said I was so lucky to have met him. It is obvious he is a survivor, has a great spirit and is doing a great job with his son. I wished him the best.
His parting words to me were, “We are all humans and we can learn from each other.”
There smiles and spirit for life will stay with me forever. And I still can’t believe I my name was tattooed on his arm…what are the chances. One in a million…I feel like we were meant to have met that day.
The world in my backyard never ceases to amaze and inspire me!