Campbell Corner Essay Prize

Contest Archive


Sandra Conant

The first time I saw the little man, it was the rainy season. The dusty road leading from the Kawangware Market to the bus stop had turned into a morass of viscous, endless mud. He was navigating it carefully, his tiny body and misshapen legs no match for the slippery muck.

He was a dark chocolate brown, a tangle of mismatched parts. The fact that he could walk at all was a miracle. Severely crippled, his legs bent and splayed like green twigs under the weight of his thin trunk. His arms seemed too long; his head seemed too large. He was trailed by a gaggle of children who were staring and nudging each other, twittering like sparrows. I knew they would follow him all the way to the bus stop, just as they followed me every day, singing out “How ah you? How ah you?” They seemed more fascinated than repelled by him, and indeed he smiled at them as he struggled toward the road.

I was a recent arrival in Africa, but I had been there long enough to figure out that it was an “in your face” place. The colors, the smells, the crush of bodies, the noise, the daily struggle to get from one place to another, to buy food, to live, all conspired to keep you alert. It was intensely fascinating, warm and welcoming; it was intensely mysterious; it was intensely cruel.

I was still reeling from the shock of arriving in this slum and realizing that it would be “home” for an indefinite time. The sounds of women screaming kept me awake at night. The drunk prostitutes that lived nearby often fought in the street below, splashing blood and spit and mucus on the walls. The men from the bar peed in the hall I had to walk through to get to the road. I now knew every Chaka Chaka song ever written because the juke box played her music from 6 a.m. until midnight. My dreams mirrored the bombardment of the days, and I felt tired, inside and out. I was sitting on a sea of squelched emotion, and the minute I saw the little man, tears sprang to my eyes. I watched for a moment, then looked away, hating the staring children, hating the pain, hating myself for hating. I kept my eyes on the puddles and walked the last few yards to my room above the local bar.

In the days that followed, I couldn’t shake the image of that small crippled body. I was filled with sadness thinking of what he must have endured as a child, the taunting, the abandonment. Who looked after him now? Where was his tribe, his community? Was there anyone who saw beyond his deformity?

My mind wandered back to a time several years before when I had lived in a small West Texas town. There was an unforgettable dog (should I say “dawg”?) that lived in my neighborhood. He was a mangy, dirty white mutt who was missing his right hind leg. In spite of that, his walk always looked jaunty and confident. The interesting thing was that he seemed to be the King of the Doggies. I often saw a retinue of healthier, more well-bred animals following him. There was never any sign of an owner, and his air of freedom was palpable. He had a curious dignity, a sense of self that totally defied appearance.

This sense of self was the quality shared by the little man and the little dog. Even at that first sighting, with the children, the mud, with the general nastiness of the scene, he seemed dignified. He appeared neither victimized nor angry. He looked at the children with something almost like love. I was reminded of the D.H. Lawrence poem,

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Several months passed before I saw him again, but hardly a week went by that I didn’t think about him. He came to symbolize Africa for me, in all its pain, with all its resilience and courage. As I slowly adjusted, I saw even more clearly how crippled it was, yet how profoundly intact was its sense of identity. My own inner dialogue was filled with contradictions.

On the one hand, I experienced an instantaneous love for Africa; on the other, a constant revulsion at the cruelty and waste and inhumanity of life there. Every day included a new experience of suffering and helpless pity at others’ fates. Pity fought it out with a deeper compassion that accepts what is, seeks transformation, sees beyond the moment. I wanted to be useful, and I resented the black hole that swallowed up all attempts to put something lasting in place. I was struggling with my own sense of vocation, and Africa made me question the value of what I was doing. Yet even as I struggled, I fell more and more under its spell. I loved the profound generosity and beauty and warmth that infused even the smallest encounters. I loved the smell of clean-washed clothes in the tightly packed mini-van to town. I loved the sunrise and the sunset.

These inner contradictions produced a state of quiet rage. A chorus in my head taunted me, reminding me that I never wanted to come here, saying that I had been involved in this type of work too long, pointing out that I was tired. I was having visions of moving to some quiet little town, buying a quiet little house and being sort of a global Miss Marple. I spent my days feeling inadequate and bereft of vision.

The pain was not simply for myself. I grieved for a place that seemed full of situations that all the good will in the world wouldn’t change. All the aid money, all the imagination, all the hard work seemed destined to go to dust in the relentless corruption and failure of services that mark Africa. I was weeping over Jerusalem. I was weeping for myself. I was wishing I could make another decision about my life’s work. Yet if someone had given me the opportunity to leave, I wouldn’t have done it. Why? There is no single answer. Terrified of confronting this tangle of emotions, I stayed busy, appeared content and hoped it would pass. So it was that the little man’s crippledness mirrored not only that of Africa, but also my own deep lack of wholeness.

I was hurrying down the road to catch the bus. The rains had passed and now it was dusty again, crammed with people selling peanuts and going to market or to town, littered with garbage, the open ditches plied by chickens and goats who mysteriously disappeared each night and reappeared at dawn. I was running, angry at having to do an unexpected chore in the middle of a tightly packed day. I almost ran over him.

He looked at me, grinned and stuck out his hand. I smiled back. We looked like two old friends. He asked me how I was, and I said, “Fine. How are you?” He asked how long I had been living in Kawangware, and I said five months. Then he said, “I’ve never seen you before”, and we smiled again. He asked where I was going, and I told him I had to go pick up the watoto. “Ah”, he said, “the children.” Our hands unclasped and we waved good-bye. I never saw him again.

It was a sacred encounter, a moment in which the world stops and an alternative reality intrudes. I knew it even then, and in the years since, it has taken on the power of personal myth. It was not merely the reconciliation of obvious opposites---two cultures; a tall, white, educated, privileged woman and a small, dark, crippled, illiterate man; one who chose to live in this wretched place because she wanted to “do good” and one who had no choice. It also reconciled the inner adversaries that battled for my soul.

There is a wonderful story about Krishna’s mother coming to clear his mouth of mud that he has been eating. When he opens his mouth, she suddenly sees the universe inside him---all his gods and demons, good and evil, heaven and hell. Since she would not be able to handle such a spectacle, he erases it from her memory.

There is a photo in my mind’s eye of myself and the little man, standing in the middle of the dusty road, holding hands, and I have suddenly become aware of the universe within. It’s a wild place, full of polarities. Like Krishna’s mother, I seek forgetfulness. Unlike her, I do not find it, and suddenly, I’m glad.

I am confronted by one small, crippled man who, for no good reason, is infused with spirit and wonder, and I see.

I see my freedom. It stares me in the face and says, “What you do with your life is not dependent on anyone else’s truth.” Doing good, living a life of service has no moral justification, no inherent value. It’s simply a choice. But, I say, I want to “make a difference”. Freedom answers: There are other ways. Okay, I admit it, I want to feel loved and appreciated. Freedom says: Well, that might be easier someplace else. As I wrestle with this, Freedom patiently waits, then says to me, “So now, what will you choose?”

In that void, I was given back a sense of liberty that I had given away. I was offered awareness and a chance to make a new decision, wholly new. I could leave; I could stay. I could continue; I could quit. Any choice was valid. I saw too clearly the prison I had created for myself, and it had nothing to do with Africa or poverty or futility of effort. It was made of anger and self-pity. It arose from oughts and shoulds and stale morality. The prison lay in the abandonment of my own freedom and responsibility for my life. Standing before me was one who should have been imprisoned, but wasn’t. He seemed to say to me, “I cannot change the circumstances of my life, yet I am free. Can you do less? Choose with your inner eye. Crippledness is a given, but there is something more.”

In the years since, I have created other inner cages. I have trapped myself in fear of change or unreal expectations. But the little man has joined my meditative council. He sits there, and by his very presence reminds me that the real possibilities of life are often not apparent at first glance. He reminds me of my freedom to choose my relationship to life, to transcend anger, to enter the unknown, to love what is.

Faced with deformity and dignity, limits and possibility, in the same vessel, old paradigms mingle and disappear. That which is ugly becomes beautiful. That which is seductive becomes anathema. Interpretations of life that allow me to deny or repress the parts I don’t like are transformed. My tendency to divide events or people or life phases into “good” and “bad” is revealed as unbearably limiting. If I am open, a fresh awareness comes to rest in my own soul; I see without anger my own divided self. And I am once again awakened to the wonder that it is to be human. I feel the enormous freedom, both as burden and as release, that comes with it.

I lived six years in Africa and describe it as my “heart place”. When people ask me why, I rarely give the real answer. I say, “Oh, the people are wonderful and it’s beautiful”, and that satisfies them. The reality is that, among the many gifts Africa gave me, the most important was the gift of being awake. It was a mine field of mindfulness. When I thought I understood what was going on, I’d be blasted by some incredible act of generosity or some tragic event. A total stranger would invite me in for peanuts, pineapple and tea. A thief would be caught by an angry crowd and kicked to death as I was walking to the bus. I began to see Life as a safecracker who sands his fingertips to make them sensitive to the inner workings of the lock, and I was the fingertips. I was raw, occasionally in pain, but more often filled with a sense of anticipation, waiting for the next miracle or bit of madness. It never failed to come, more often than not cloaked in mundanity.

This story took place in mud and dust. How many legends echo through time of humanity created from mud or clay or dust? How much of our lives do we spend trying to run away from the return to earth, to mystery, to the “unknown Unknown”? How many chances do we miss to bleed meaning from the ordinary? I was fortunate not to escape.

I never saw the little man again. I often wondered if he died. There was a suddenness about death in Africa that I never felt anywhere else. There were always three ladies selling peanuts on the corner (“two for a shilling and one as a deescount!”) Then one day, there were two. The third had died; no, they didn’t know what it was, probably malaria. Everything that no one could explain was malaria. A schoolmate of my daughter’s missed a day. Dead. There was the lady who ran the health clinic, went home feeling sick. Died. Their lives and their deaths were swallowed up in the soil of Africa. Perhaps my little man met the same fate.

Whatever the case, he never knew that he had changed my life. He emerged from the mud, and he has probably rejoined it, just as I will. Our lives touched for an instant and created a legacy. Surely that is holy.