The truth is, we each have the power to bring about the best in people we meet each day. Everyone has a story. Sometimes all we need to do is provide someone with the space to share theirs.
I was traveling alone, again, but it was only for one night. Friends were coming in from the airport the next day.
The inn where I was staying looked like an old country manor. It reminded me of so many buildings I’d seen while studying in Oxford, England, with its stone towers, stained-glass windows and rustic shingles.
When it began to rain, I was tempted to stay in and order room service, but there were several restaurants downstairs. The pub was full of people watching a game. I wasn’t looking for company, but a little bit of conversation would have been nice. That seemed unlikely at this hour. Was I destined to eat alone?
I looked into the formal dining room, which was beautiful, but hardly a place for dining alone. I decided to go in anyway, although they were just about to close. A large family party was breaking up nearby, the last table of the night until I walked in.
A young woman came over to assure me they would be happy to serve one more customer. I placed my order and exchanged smiles with the large family as they hugged each other goodbye.
A young man started bussing the table of the large party, quietly humming a melody to himself. He was impeccably dressed in a white suit, looking serious as he went about his work – but something about him didn’t match.
His name plate read “William,” though having lived in Africa for many years, I could tell he was from Africa. I suspected that William was not his real name. Wanting to know his real story, I asked him, “What is your real name?”
“I am from Ghana,” he told me earnestly. My Ghanaian name is “Kwabena,” he said.
“What does it mean?” I asked. “It means that I was born on a Tuesday,” he said. In many African cultures, children are given a name based on the time and circumstances of their birth. Sometimes a child is named for feelings or expressions of the mother’s experience giving birth, such as “painful labor” or proclaiming a destiny over the child, like “mighty warrior.”
“Why don’t you put Kwabena on the name plate,” I asked? He looked around at his co-workers, with the serious expression still on his face. “William allows me to blend in.” “Why do you want to blend in?” I asked. “Not everyone is born on a Tuesday.” He laughed. “No one will know that you’re from Africa if you don’t tell them,” I said. “Be proud of who you are.”
I told Kwabena, “I was also born in Africa, although no one would know from looking at me.” We both smiled about that. I continued to tell him some of my story. “I was born in a small village in Kenya. I have several African names, but my favorite one is ‘Aicha’ from Senegal, West Africa. My friends gave me the name Aicha, after the wife of prophet Mohammed because my American name, Sarah, is the wife of Abraham in the Bible. They called me ‘la femme des prophets,’ the wife of prophets.” “That is beautiful,” he said.
“I also noticed you were humming,” I mentioned. “You must like to sing.” “I sing to myself,” he said, “because no one knows my language.” I told him that I would like to hear him sing in his language. “Really?” he asked. “Really?” “Yes,” I said, “it would make my dinner so special, as I am here by myself and now I am not so alone.”
He was being shy. “Please wait until I come back. I need to practice first.” In only a few moments he returned, and began to sing the song, Meye, in a soft, slow voice.
The first day I met her, I shuddered
This woman is exquisite
The way she talked melted my heart.
His voice was so soft and beautiful that the other servers setting up tables for the next day came over and formed a small circle around him. Now he had an audience, and he kept singing, a smile now spreading across his once serious face.
When he finished, one of his colleagues exclaimed, “That was beautiful.”
He smiled more. They all began to ask him what language he was speaking and where he learned to sing. A wide grin spread across his face. “My mother used to sing me that song in Ghana.”
I finished eating and paid my bill, and the young woman serving me said, “You know, we didn’t even know he was from Africa.”
“People are more interesting than you think they are at first,” I remarked. “Sometimes you just have to ask the right questions.”
As I left, I told Kwabena to change his name plate and keep singing. “Remember,” I told him, “not everyone is born on a Tuesday.”
His broad smile in response remains in my mind to this day. I was reminded that evening of how little it takes to break down the walls that separate people from different cultures.
We share a common humanity that transcends personal identity. When we recognize this humanity, we feel less isolated from one another. We can celebrate that humanity over a meal or a melody, or by learning someone’s true name.
Listen to Meye by Ghanaian artist Kwabena, Kwabena
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