I’m continually amazed at some of the stuff we can indelibly recall as kids—inconsequential details involving our childhood experiences—yet I can barely remember the name of someone I’ve met several times, or the last movie I saw.
One of my earliest autobiographical memories that still lingers around in my long-term repository involves a nameless female character—nameless in the sense that I still don’t know who she is and where she’s from but that her unexpected encounter encompassed events that impacted my life and are permanently lodged in my long-term memory bank.
It was sometime in 1991, in the midst of a deepening civil war, where entire families were separated, and violence and anarchy characterised the already-gloomy air of unrest. It was at a time of where me-against-my-brother scenarios were ruthlessly played out, food and water were dangerously scarce, and the threat of death was ever-present.
I distinctively remember that we (my maternal uncles, my siblings and my mother) were somewhere in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, having driven hundreds of miles through an endless stretch of rugged and unforgiving remote landscape involving red silt marked by miniature thorn trees and giant anthills. The journey was as perilous as the civil war itself; with a high probable chance of the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere and the danger of succumbing to imminent dehydration. We temporarily made a base in a remote village — neighbouring a relatively large family. My uncles immediately looked for clean drinking water — alas, to no avail. All that was available was some contaminated drinking water. In retrospect, I was told that the only few local families that had access to clean drinking water in that village were reluctant to share given the level of scarcity of water and the criticality to survive. We couldn’t resume our journey to Caabudwaaq until we had an acceptable level of water as part of our backup supply, so my uncles rationed the little clean water that we had left.
A pre-schooler at the time, I befriended our new neighbour’s daughter. She was a bit older than me, perhaps by 3 to 4 years. I oddly recall how she looked like: she had this dark playful eyes that danced so merrily, a bubbling smile and a mop of bushy dark hair. Her smile hid the deepest dimples I had ever seen. We met and played together every day, like two siblings who have spent much of their lives together.
She sensed our dire situation, more so from my childish whining about the lack of water than observing the rest of my family. She grabbed my hand and led me to the back of her family’s humble abode. Close by; there was something, I can’t remember whether it was a private well, a shed containing a private well or something else but what I do remember is that she led me to a private source of clean drinking water that belonged to her family. Against the strict instruction of her family, she risked it to help her new-found friend. I immediately called my older sister, and we must have carried buckets of clean water —back and forth—to our temporary accommodation. I was over the moon—excited beyond belief—and couldn’t wait to see the happy look on my uncles’ faces.
Not long after, her family discovered what she did, and sadly that was the last I ever saw of her. Eventually, we resumed our journey with enough safe clean water to sustain the remainder of our journey—thanks to her.
Though she is a blip on the general surface of my life’s memories, she crosses my mind from time to time, and there must be a reason why the single memory of my very brief encounter with her remains with me. I don’t know her name or whether she’s still alive or has departed this world; whether she has children of her own or whether life has been unkind to her. I’m reminded by Maya Angelou’s immortal words: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The Prophet (SCW) said: “Whoever does not give thanks to the people does not give thanks to Allaah.” (al-Tirmidhi)
So thank you, belatedly.