ARE THESE PEOPLE ‘JUST STRANGERS’
A series of memories by Donna Williams www.donnawilliams.net
When a fax came through from a UK agent that my scrappy typed manuscript, Nobody Nowhere, was being auctioned to the highest bidder and was going to be published, I was 26 and had a two hundred dollar car, which was my greatest achievement.
At that time, I lived in a one room bedsit… lounge, kitchen, bedroom all one room. In fact there was no bedroom for it was my sofa, and the only one I’d been able to afford was an olive green hard vinyl one (felt like concrete!) from the Salvation Army charity shop which had cost $15 and was shaped like a banana so you couldn’t even roll over!
My underpants were all years old, there was not a pair without holes and several were held together with safety pins.
I had a few jumpers, all but one scrounged from local hard rubbish collections and that one was stained but it was my prized best jumper.
I had one bra, I had sewn it to size because it’s hard to find your own size in a hard rubbish collection.
I had a frying pan, passed down by someone throwing it out, warped, missing half of its non-stick coating, but I felt it was a luxury.
I had two cups, one just in case I had vistors, one plate, one bowl, all chipped and mismatching.
My shoes had holes in the soles (kind of like me), were faded and the vinyl had peeled.
I ate mostly rice and mince and vegies because they were cheap. There had been other times, months, were all I could afford was packets of chicken noodle soup and only the rice.
I had known homelessness and poverty greater than this. I knew times when to sleep upright in my friend’s shed was a luxury compared to the alternatives of walking around and around the street in the early hours or going home to violence my shattered emotions could often no longer dare (there were kids in those days sleeping in the charity clothing bins who’d been set on fire by those who see street kids as rubbish, there were cases of homeless adults sleeping in rubbish skips who had ended up in the back of rubbish crushers, so I had ‘good options’).
I washed my greasy hair without soap or shampoo under the taps in the front yards of strangers. I scrounged a shower where and when I could wash with real soap and often felt too guilty and grateful to dare ask for a towel, merely putting my dirty clothes back onto my wet body.
I knew what it was to choose education over food and a roof, to choose poverty over domestic prositution.
I knew what it was to watch others eating when I hadn’t eaten all day, sometimes for two days, (but wouldn’t yet eat food from the bin in case it was poisoned).
To feel proud of the things I scrounged, to feel blessed to know gratitude so deep you can cry because someone gave you a cup of tea and a biscuit when such luxuries did not exist in your place, if in fact you even had one at that time.
But I had the strangest honour, the Christmas of 1989 when I was put on a plane for the UK to meet my new publishers and enter the whirlywind life of a famour author, a life for the next two years of hotels and dinners, interviews and gifts from strangers.
I was booked on a flight with Air Lanka and my first stop, on the way, was Sri Lanka.
I arrived to a foreign world of Indian-Asian people in horse and carts pulled by bullocks with horns and flaring nostrills, of fishermen and fisherwomen lining the sandy beaches with blankets of shimmering silver- sardines laid out to dry to sell as cheap ‘salt-fish’, of people with piles of salt who would sell salt for a living.
My hotel was on the beach, perhaps owned by foreginers, perhaps built up by collectives of families who had pooled their resources, who knows, but it employed Sri Lankan people who had a gratitude to be of help, a natural kindness and warmth that filled their eyes, they felt so lucky, so lucky to work here, on the beach, in a secure business. The women likely had small children left at home with grandparents so they could work, the young men likely supported an entire family from grandparents through to aunts, uncles and young children.
I went wandering along the beach and an old man beckoned me, face beaming, his eagerness burbling… he had found a ‘foreigner’.
He kept a distance from me and we came to his hut, a tiny shaggy hut about 8 feet square made with bits and pieces of found materials, some natural, some not, a chair on the front ‘porch’.
He opened the door to his hut and invited me in, forming his hands into a prayer form as if blessing me on my way in. He presented to me his glass cabinet, many of the glass panes missing and some of the wood, but one of those one’s that grandma’s have with treasured items in it.
He opened the door and took out what was obviously his pride and joy, a tea cup commemorating the marriage of Lady Di and Prince Charles, and presented it to me smiling like he was making some great connection between cultures. Of course, I was an Aussie with an accent broad enough to once have been sacked for it, but to him I was ‘a westerner’.
He took a large big knife and my heart raced. I thought I was a gonner. Then he took a coconut and split it. He lead me to the chair on the porch and insisted I sit on it. then he spooned out the raw coconut and offered it to me.
He took great pleasure in being able to give. I remembered my father having told me, ‘Miss Polly’, if you want to give to the poor person, the best way to give is to take from them what they offer, it makes them feel like a king’ and I knew this was so, just like my spare cup for visitors. But I knew too, this man had no money and was old and that perhaps this was his only way of making money, so I offered to pay him. He shook his head and looked surprised. It was clear that what he’d given was a gift. A gift to a stranger.
This man lived on the beach, perhaps 200 feet from the water itself. The Tsunami that has killed over 125,000 people in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand… killed people just like this man. It killed people like the young Indonesian man Chris and I met three years ago, a young man who took us back to his village where we met the large extended family his one small wage supported, barefoot elderly people and small children living in huts who had only well water and grew and bred all their food in an enclosure smaller than todays urban housing plots. It killed people who are neither strange nor strangers, for what makes them who they are are the very same experiences all of us have known, or perhaps have been protected from knowing. My father said that to take what is offered is the greatest gift to the poor person for it makes them feel like a king. Right now, it is giving which matters. We can all do this, whether it is a dollar from the poor person, ten dollars that will mean no chocolate biscuits or Coke in the shopping this week, of one hundred dollars which might mean a bit less fillet steak. Here’s where to send it.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Let’s make a difference.
Thank you for listening.
Donna Williams *)