I met a man in Kenya a few years ago who had very little, but always delivered the brightest of energies through his word and his smile. His name was Wilson and he worked the night shift at a tiny hotel on the edge of downtown Nairobi as a security guard. One night I asked him what he wished to do in this world. He said simply, "I want to visit Germany. I have met several tourists from there and they always speak of how clean the streets are in their cities. I want to walk in a city with clean streets.”
If you’ve ever been to Nairobi, you know that the streets are far from clean. Trash builds up in every space that isn’t occupied by buildings or streets. There is a thick smog that sits heavily across the city. Even the giant vulture-like birds that flock over the city are a dull color of grey due to their street-food diet.
Visiting Nairobi was my first experience of a big city in a poor African country. My previous experiences of poor communities were mostly located in Latin America so I couldn’t help but group and compare the two experiences. One difference that I immediately noticed in Nairobi was the street vendors. The vendors in the Latin American cities I visited offered all sorts of fresh produce, juices, and meats. They also offered beautifully handcrafted jewelry and keepsakes. Nairobi was more like a massive garage sale of hand-me-downs. All the clothes, shoes, and plastic knickknacks you could ever want were readily available for next-to-nothing prices, but there was almost no food offered.
To get food you had to enter a building, share a table with any number of strangers, and order from the restaurant menu. I realized that this difference had to do with the availability (or lack thereof) of natural resources. As uninspiring of a discovery this may sound, it was a wake-up call to me and my naive experience of the world. There weren’t street vendors selling food because any food people had went to feeding themselves and their families.
Another difference I noticed was the nightlife. When the sun goes down in Nairobi, the streets are all but abandoned. One night at our hotel I went down the stairwell to look out onto the street through the locked and barred door. Wilson anxiously ran after me asking where I was going. He was worried that as a dumb tourist, I was going to let myself out onto the streets, something not even locals did after dark.
The streets empty at night because it is widely considered to be unsafe. You stay within locked walls for every hour that the sun does not illuminate the ongoings of the outside world. Even if the city manages to keep its power running through the night, citywide blackouts of an hour or more occur regularly, the streets still aren’t lit or patrolled well enough to risk a late night stroll.
When I think of the reality people live in outside of my own privileged lifestyle, I get overwhelmed. In Nairobi, I was physically uncomfortable because I felt so undeserving and helpless. Every afternoon when we returned to the hotel, I had mixed emotions of relief and deflation. Yet Wilson, a man who had never experienced anything other than the streets of Nairobi, would always greet me with a smile. His energy alone lifted me up. His reality was my uncomfortable situation and he was the one brightening my day.
Over the years when I think about traveling in Africa, I often think about Nairobi and Wilson. They remind me not to lose sight of what’s important. There is so much work to be done in this world, but thinking on a worldwide scale can be overwhelming. So I scale it back to something I can do right here at home to start making the world a better place. Something as small as being warm and positive can spread like crazy.
I don’t know if I’ll every be able to find Wilson and take him to Germany where he can walk down some of the most immaculate city streets in the world. But I do know he has done (and is probably still doing) his part to change the world. I will forever be grateful to him for being a constant reminder that no matter where I find myself, I am not helpless. I have the daily choice to improve my situation and the situation of those around me. Although I may not be able to make a worldwide impact every day, I can choose to make a local impact. All it takes is something as simple and profound as a smile.
It’s easy to be distracted from what’s important in life. We get bogged down in the details and fail to see the overall picture. But there is so much to be grateful for every day. If not for your job that allows you to have money to buy food and shelter, if not for nature that provides for and nourishes every part of life, if not for your family and friends who love you, be grateful for a safe and clean place to enjoy an evening stroll. I believe Wilson lives his life as though there is always something to be grateful for. What a wonderful way to live! Find what you are grateful for. Cherish it daily and you too will always have something to smile about and you’ll bring warmth to others’ hearts.
We joke about how Wilson was always smiling until he was posing for a photo!