Sunday, 21 February 2010

The kindness of strangers

London’s Euston station is a bustling hub of activity, even on a Sunday morning. On my way from Hampshire to Liverpool my route took me through the capital and ultimately through one of London’s busier railway stations, where I had a half-an-hour wait between trains. Hungry and tired I decided that the best way to spend my short reprieve would be to visit a coffee shop and get a snack and a much-needed Americano (with room for milk). As I stood in the queue waiting to be served I saw that, ahead of me, a man was standing, hunched and nervous, next to an ordinary looking couple. He had tattered clothes and his hair and skin were caked in dirt. He was clearly unfortunate, probably homeless and, judging from the few words I heard him utter, possibly suffering from some form of psychological disorder. My heart fell into my gut. Don’t misunderstand my meaning, I am aware that there are countless poor, homeless and unfortunate people in the United Kingdom and around the world, but leading the relatively sheltered life I do I rarely see their situation first hand. It looks so much more divorced when you see it on television.

The ordinary looking couple were buying this man a breakfast sandwich and a large, hot cup of coffee. The lady who paid did so with no self-serving ceremony, just a kind smile and the man gratefully took his meal and wandered off. In the middle of teeming London, where people often don’t spare the time to apologise for bumping into you as they hurry past, the kindness of two people shamed me. I have a good life. I have a great job and a nice home and a car and all of the things that mainstream western people enjoy without ever really realising how well off we are.

One of the most fulfilling things I have ever done was in 2005. Whilst in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a group of colleagues and I spent several days working in an orphanage on the outskirts of the capital, Freetown. We were there to help renovate the buildings and to deliver classroom furniture and supplies that had been donated by various schools in the UK. The vast majority of the children there were orphaned in the civil war and violence of the late 1990s, many had been mutilated and were missing limbs, some simply so traumatised by what they had experienced that they didn’t speak and rarely interacted with the other children. Some of the younger children had not lived through the violence and seemed a lot more content with their lot in life, such as it was. There was a great deal of happiness there too. This, more than anything else about the orphanage, surprised me. I don’t know why it should have, but my naive expectation was that it would be a dour place filled with sadness. And there was sadness there, but it was anything but dour.

The laughter of the children surrounded the buildings and the playing fields. They played football happily and ran around screaming in delight, chasing each other and finding all sorts of ways to enjoy life. In class they were the most attentive students I have ever met. Each of them was desperate to learn, to work hard and become a doctor or a teacher and help others and escape from the poverty in which they found themselves. The Japanese nuns who ran the orphanage were wonderful people, whose lives have been dedicated to helping those less fortunate than themselves and they worked tirelessly trying very hard to help heal the deep scars that a civil war had left in the minds of some of the older kids.

While we worked, knocking down old walls and building new ones, painting classrooms and setting up the new furniture, the children played around us, some helped us and all were curious about us. Where were we from? What was England like? Did I know David Beckham? Those who were helping worked tirelessly, never complaining and not taking breaks, even though we instructed them to. We had enough food and water with us to last the 3 days we were due to be there, but seeing the mediocre quantities of food allocated to the kids we simply couldn’t eat and our food was shared out between them, some of whom had never tasted chocolate before.

Those three days, at that modest orphanage in that poorest of countries provided me with one of, if not the most fulfilling and humbling experiences of my life. On the last day as we packed up our gear and prepared to return to Freetown, the reaction of the kids and the nuns was stunning. They treated us like family, despite only knowing us for a few days. I have never seen so many grown men and women crying so openly as among my colleagues on that humid African afternoon. We were all affected in different ways by our time there. I realised that the suffering we see on television has a human face, that these people had overcome suffering many of us could not imagine, and that despite their situation they were filled with hope and excitement about the future. Although it is considered charity work, my time there was incredibly selfish. How could it not be when doing it had made me feel so good about myself?

Now I’m sat on a train bound for Liverpool, with my laptop on my knees and the dregs of my now cold coffee on the seatback, and I am determined to try and do more for those less fortunate than myself. I will think long and hard about what I can do, whether it comes in the form of charitable donations or spending some of my time volunteering or, if the opportunity arises, travelling to somewhere like Sierra Leone again, I intend to try again to help somewhere, somehow, even if my reasons are selfish. I would encourage anyone reading this, who doesn’t already, to think about doing the same.


  1. oh god this post is so well written and it touched my heart

  2. Yes, thanks for this reminder. We so rarely stop to think about those who don't have anything but faith - which is so much of the world.
    Thank you.

  3. Great post! I absolutely love it when events like this happen to me- especially when i least expect it. Sometimes i need reminding that sometimes kindness and good prevails and exists! It's hard to remember more often than not.

    I don't think you have any reason to feel shamed by the act of kindess. Working in an orphanage is a wonderfully fulfilling thing to do. Not many people have done that. Remember that. :)

  4. I know I am destined to work in a volunteering context in the future, perhaps in fifteen, twenty years. There are commitments my family and society demand of me (get educated, get employed), there are my own personal goals (travel the world, have kids), but I always keep in mind the vast majority of people out there that aren't privileged enough to hold and to achieve goals like mine, that have commitments that are limited to a basic survival context. I'm glad to know you share similar opinions as I do for the most part.

    Although, the one thing I must point out is that not everybody 'gives back' for the right reasons, especially celebrities. It's all political with some people... I mean, on the one hand, 'whatever helps the kids', right? On the other hand, I find that with the wrong intentions, the morality of a deed is tainted and therefore not moral at all.

    What do you think?

    Do you hate it too?
    Holy Holism!

  5. I liked the story, too. I'm impressed by people who can do kind things for people who aren't clean, sane or socially acceptable. I'm getting a bit too fed up with the quick fix of giving a charity £10 then feeling good about myself. Sometimes people don't want money, they just want your support, your help or your time. The old lady down our street just needs someone on hand to help her, or take her out. I hate it, because it is an incredible bind, I'm selfish and I want to do something wonderful and generous, then move on. But she is a reminder that we should introduce kindness into our daily living, and we should reach out to the 'unpleasant' people in society, the ones that we instinctively shun.

  6. Thank you all for your comments.

    Lou, the reason I said I felt ashamed was because I hadn't done anything like that for so long, not because of what I had been involved in previously.