It was mid-September 2015 when I first stepped into the market. I was looking for some beaded bracelets to send home for my sisters and younger cousin. That’s when I first met her, a smile beaming across her face, she ran up and greeted me with jovial enthusiasm. “My friend” she called me and helped me pick out a few bracelets, and I promised her I’d come back in December to buy Christmas presents for my family. Over the next few months, I’d stop by her stall just to say hi or buy a pair of earrings so she'd have bus fare home. She'd always greet me as “my friend” and give me a huge embrace. We’d become casual friends during that time, but little did I know there was such a story behind that bright grin.
In December, I came by as promised and bought a lot of my christmas presents from her little shop. She thanked me sincerely and gave me a huge hug. And I realized in all the time that I’d known her, I’d never asked her for her name. “Neema,” she told me. I returned to the U.S. for about 6 weeks, but I told her I’d be back and would be sure to come see her.
Monday, I dragged myself out of my sleep-induced stupor. I was still dealing with jet lag and adjusting to not only the 9 hour time difference but also the climate and altitude change. I knew I needed to go to the supermarket and stock my new kitchen. After the supermarket, I remembered Neema, so I walked over to the little kiosks set up as a makeshift market. When I first glanced at her stall, she wasn’t there, disappointment hit me like a ton of bricks. Where had my friend gone? Then, I saw her smiling face at another shop, she ran up and gave me the biggest hug. We talked briefly, but I had to rush off quickly because my taxi was waiting.
Two days later, I returned to her shop. I took a seat next to her and we talked for hours. I wanted to get to know this girl that had been calling me friend for the past 6 months. I wanted to know the story behind the smile. Eager to have someone to talk to, she trusted me with her story.
Neema is 21 years old, and originally from Tanzania. She is the second youngest of five siblings. Her older sister is married with two kids, and her two older brothers are working but not supporting her parents. Her parents have a small farm, but not a decent source of income. At 21, Neema is the sole provider for her family, She moved to Nairobi alone to work at this kiosk in a local market. She gets a small percentage of the profits. Her principal in Tanzania connected her with the shop owner, and at 20 she moved by herself to a new country to make a living for herself and her family. She works the shop 7 days a week from 8am to 6pm. She lives by herself in a not so safe area of town. She said she can only communicate with her family rarely because it is so expensive. She’s only been home once in 15 months. When I asked her if she’d wanted to go to college, she pressed her head into my shoulder and started crying. She was quiet for a few minutes as the tears ran down her face. She looked up at me, “It’s…” her voice breaking.
“Too expensive,” I finished her sentence for her. She told me she didn’t have any friends and often felt lonely and sad. Her neighbors keep to themselves. Her fellow shopkeepers compete for business. She said her customers become her friends. I thought back to the first day we met, and how she quickly called me her friend. I wonder then if she imagined a friendship with me, even played dialogue through her head. I told her a little of my story, about how I too moved alone to a foreign country far from my family. Of course I can’t imagine the burden of being financially responsible for my family or not being able to communicate regularly. We talked some more about being single and waiting for God for marriage. And how Jesus is the nearest and best friend a person can have.
When I got up to leave, I gave her a big hug and told her she was not alone anymore. She had a friend. I would be her friend. After discovering that she loved to read, she told me her favorite storybook was about animals, but she didn’t have any books. I told her next time I came I’d bring her my favorite book, The Lion ,the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she could read it and we could talk about it. We exchanged numbers and one final hug. And as I was walking away, feeling heavy from the conversation and sad for my new friend, I called over my shoulder, “What does your name mean?”
“Grace,” she said as her electric smile returned.
Grace, I thought as I walked away, how fitting. Then, it was I who was wiping the tears from my own eyes.