”…How do I thank Mr. Jonas, he wondered, for what he’s done? How do I thank him, how pay him back? No way, no way at all. You just can’t pay. What then? What? Pass it on somehow, he thought, pass it on to someone else. Keep the chain moving. Look around, find someone, and pass it on. That was the only way….”
I was seated in the trite Wangari Maathai auditorium, at the second seat of the second row, watching an EFF film, when an idea occurred to us. I have to admit, I did not exactly know the nature, nor name of the film. To get here took me a lot of willpower on my side. The Nairobi clouds had been pregnant with signs of rain release, and I, against my infinite wisdom, was headed to the CBD to watch a film, instead of home to my warm blankets and comforting bed. I am the kind of person who loathes the CBD; I deem it a loutish and unnecessary place to visit every so often, unless of course for banking and IMAX ventures, or while en-route to another location. The CBD is a mess, and especially so when the skies open their gates. Traffic- human traffic which is the worst kind abounds, sewers spread out into the dirty pathways and potholed roads, vehicles swim in the concoction of human waste disguised in sewages and floods, splashing the dirty remains onto those of us who dare not afford vehicles, and chaos dominates amid the confusion. And with all this knowledge, I was still headed to the CBD to watch a film.
A good friend they say is one who is willing to spend time with their friends, one who is willing to sacrifice and get out of their comfort zone in order to have a good time with the other. And I consider myself a good friend, but hey, who am I to judge myself eh? The reason I was at the CBD on Friday evening was because I was meeting my friend Nyambura for the film date, and later on Freddy, who had the previous day tweeted me saying he really needed (in his own words MUST) to see me. So here I was, at the second seat of the second row of the Wangari Maathai auditorium in Alliance Fraincaise with Nyambura, ready to watch a Belgian film “D’un Mur L’autre” or “Wall to wall” if you prefer. Nyambura was seated one seat from me, I think, my recollection of that night are still hazy, but I guess she was in that position, because when the documentary started, I leaned forward, opened my eyes wide enough so as to spot her in the darkness, then divulged, in my really horrible horrible whispering voice (something I would do for the rest of the evening) that I thought I had watched the documentary some time last year. I hadn’t.
“D’un Mur L’autre” /“Wall to wall” is a documentary that “zigzags across Europe focusing on a single theme: the new multicultural Europe. The director goes in quest of men and women who have migrated from all over the world, offering a fresh, cliché-free vision of the new world of European immigration, with optimism, joy and sometimes irony.” I did not get the optimism nor the joy implied in the documentary, the irony and shades of hope, yes, but joy and optimism- No. Watching the documentary made me feel sad, loads of sadness engulfed me, the stories from the immigrants were so poignant, and the only message I got from all these immigrants was that of the untold suffering they were facing in their new countries, the nostalgia they felt of their old countries, and their desire and yearn to go back to their families and children. In the documentary there was a man holding a cardboard saying “free hugs” and people were approaching to hug him, and right there and then, a rather nondescript idea crossed my mind. So I pssst’ed Nyambura from my seat, and signaled her of the idea, and she was more than willing to jump on the non-idyllic concept. That is how our “free hugs/ Pay it forward” idea was born.
Walking through Loita Street into Monrovia Street, then down Banda Street, we kept on discussing how our idea could be transformed into action. I was to make the placards, and she was to think up a way in which our actions would benefit the community. A venue had to be picked, a pristine spot not stained with the chaos that is human traffic or one that wasn’t expectant of the human populace. So Mama Ngina Street, just in front of the IMAX was singled out. Then a time had to be established. 11:30 a.m. seemed like a good enough hour to engage in our radical jaunt. And finally a message had to be formulated, and the message of “kindness and doing well unto others” was thought up by the absolutely brilliant and magnanimous Nyambura. Each of us went our own way, that night at around 2100 hours, after buying book.
(It did rain that night, and I was caught up in the agony of having to wait for a Matatu to my place for 20 minutes, did I mention I do not like the CBD?)
Kindness, the eight letter word most of us take for granted. It is one of the knightly virtues. One of the seven biblical virtues, its direct contrast being envy, listed as one of the deadly sins and one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. A close description to the definition of love. The “most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse”, according to one Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, so we have to take his word for it. It is that thing you are supposed to accord to everyone, something that is not earned, nor deserved, but that which is accorded out of free will. Have you ever felt the urge to show kindness to a complete stranger, or are you those people, who like me, thought for a long time that kindness is only shown to those we love, those we know, and if we must, to our acquaintances? What is the essence of Kindness? Is it that thing we give away to those who are dejected, in pain, or in trouble, a sort of discriminatory yet noble allusion chiseled out to be presented as a raw, yet refined aspect of prejudiced love? Does it make you feel conceited once you give it away, make you have a kind of “you see that, I made that happen,” smug look and haughty attitude? Is it sufficient, or do we need to be motivated to show random acts of kindness? Random acts of kindness….
That thing, that emotion that made us give up our busy schedules to stand a few feet from IMAX, carrying hand crafted cardboards with the writings “Free hugs”. Cardboards we had perfected on a street bench, those set apart for “idlers” in the CBD, opposite city hall. Yes, that is where we calligraphed the messages on our crafted cardboards. Placards we were now carrying around, in a bid to show our random acts of kindness. The deal was this, for anyone who came for a hug; we would urge them to make sure they did a good deed to someone else- a stranger, in their own way. A kind of pay it forward. I was skeptical that this would work. What if they thought it was a hoax? Or what if they thought we were lesbians trying to advocate for our rights? Such thoughts did occur in our minds, (we almost have the same mind ) but we shunned them and carried out the at hand. At the end of the day, we had hugged 48 people in total, 31 men and 17 women.
During our hugging spree, many people came to inquire why we were doing this, what we hoped to achieve, why our cardboards said “free hugs” when in essences hugs are free, if we were part of a larger organization, or part of the “Naswa” crew, why we were being radical and why we were embarrassing ourselves. We were asked in disdain if hugging others was the only way to spread love and to show acts of kindness, if that was the only way we could think of. We were accused of being attention seekers, of being idle and having nothing else to do with our time. Of the many people who approached us, only 3 people, one from Egypt, one from America, and a Kenyan woman, who had received a random act of kindness from a stranger, understood why we were doing this.
- We Kenyans are a talking society and not a doing and acting one. We like to talk so much on social media, we gossip about problems, we look at those in trouble, talk about it and walk away, but seldom take the initiative to help out and be part of a group that provides solutions, even in the simplest way. Solutions entail changing things in the smallest if ways you can think of- be it hugging someone and giving them a word while doing that, or doing a charitable act, or talking to that person in the street. A good deed to initiate the change you want to see.
- Hugs are not free; we hug the people we love and cherish, people we have met through others, but not strangers. As one man pointed out to us, hugs are an expensive affair. “They come with strings attached”, he said. A random act of kindness on the other hand is free, and should be accorded to everyone in any way we deem appropriate. ” …You just can’t pay. What then? What? Pass it on somehow, he thought, pass it on to someone else. Keep the chain moving. Look around, find someone, and pass it on. That was the only way….”
- The idea was conceived by two good friends who have a passion of being the change we want to see in Kenya. We are not part of any organization. But on a more technical aspect maybe we are, we do exchange book every once in a while in an organized way.
- Yes, hugging is the only way we thought we could spread the message of kindness and love, and partly because we watched and got the idea from the documentary we watched, but those are details!
- We had better things to do with our time, but oh well; hugging strangers was as good a way to spend our time as any other thing.
- Yes we are radical, and we have been called crazy sometimes.
- I am melancholic in nature, so seeking attention is not really my cup of tea. So if you are one of those who thought we were attention grabbers and that it was an act of “ushambaness”, I bite my thumb at you.
- As just sham it aptly put it “I don’t have much of an intellect but I have an abundance of passion. I don’t have much money but I can spend time. So should you.” The same goes for us.
We really thank Alex for everything you did. Thank you.
And for everyone who came for a hug.
Bonus Text: For technical reasons i say:
”The Free Hugs Campaign is a social movement involving individuals who offer hugs to strangers in public places. The hugs are meant to be random acts of kindness – selfless acts performed just to make others feel better. ” To know more about this, visit http://www.freehugscampaign.org/