Elizabeth’s friendship and compassion, so unexpected, opened me up to see the similarities between my world and the new world that I had walked into. Through such an unexpected friendship, I was able to see that my hopes and fears weren’t that unlike those of others across the world. Elizabeth wanted to finish her degree, return to her family (she had two adorable kids), and make the world a little better as a teacher. My friendship with Elizabeth taught me that compassion shown to another human can open up doors you might never imagine.
The world needs more compassion.
After graduating college, I found myself in Johannesburg, South Africa, serving out of a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship at University of the Witwatersrand.
For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people unlike me in every imaginable way–a big departure from my small town Southern upbringing. Johannesburg is a city of roughly 5 million people, and like the rest of South Africa, has eleven official languages and multitudes of ethnic and religious groups. As a newly minted college graduate, I was definitely in a world I didn’t understand.
It was easy to become disoriented, homesick, or jaded by the bustling crowds and unimaginable poverty. But in this confusing new place, I was lucky to find a friend. Elizabeth was a middle-aged teacher from Botswana also studying education with me at Wits. She was also unlike me in many ways. She had grown up in Africa in a much more impoverished situation than myself. She spoke Setswana, English, and some Afrikaans. We had very little in common from a first encounter. But on one campus bus ride home from class, we found our common ground.
“Eish, I’m so homesick!” Elizabeth said to me. “It is so hard for me to leave my family and to be so far away. But who am I to tell you? Your family is even further away than mine! Shame! How are you doing with all this change?”
From then on, we spent rides home and evenings studying and giggling like elementary schoolers.
Being a humanitarian isn’t about saving the world or doing all the right things. It’s about being a human who is fundamentally “for” other humans. It’s believing that we are more defined by our similarities than our differences, and that when we find those similarities, we can see each other as partners and advocates instead of adversaries or competitors.
Compassion enables us to work toward a better future for all.
Elizabeth and I were able to live out our compassion for each other by being around when the other was homesick. Elizabeth would make me traditional Motswana food while I edited her writing (English was one of several languages for her). We would make sure to meet each other at the bus. Years after leaving South Africa, I am still struck by Elizabeth’s compassion. She now works as the Head of School at a rural school in Botswana which has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many of her students are orphans, many arrive without proper nutrition, and few have not been affected in some way by this terrible disease. Elizabeth lives out her days as a true humanitarian by offering compassion through the act of education to children who desperately need someone to be “for” them.
Humanitarianism is ubuntu. I am because you are because we are.
Comment to share your voice on the importance on compassion and share the post via social media with the world!