It was the first week at school, a new country, a new place, everyone was a stranger. Everything seemed foreign, even the rain and the clouds who were always my support in the burning days of difficulty seemed adverse. The rain was cold and depressing, the clouds were genuinely dark on me. I was clueless, aloof, unaware, scared and uncertain of how I was going to get by. I was brown-skinned and distinctly noticeable amongst the paper white crowd of students. I looked so different, I felt so different, my English accent had that striking Indian-ness in it. I felt like the new exotic animal in the zoo being introduced to unknown visitors. I spent the days visiting clerks and officers all around the school, there seemed to be an unending list of forms and applications to fill before I could even sit in my classroom. I had the trouble of finding a hostel, arranging my expenses on a meagre stipend, and I was supposed to give my biology lab work full time too. It was stressful to say the least.
In the midst of all this pensive contemplation I was washing my hands in melancholy in the restroom when a kind and joyful high toned “Hi” greeted me. It was a thin tall girl with a huge grin on her face. “Are you new here?” “Yes”, I replied shyly. “Welcome, its really nice to meet you”, “Where are you staying” I wasn’t staying anywhere, I was in a hotel near the school and I hadn’t arranged anywhere to stay. She effortlessly offered to help. Within a few minutes she had become friends with me. I was too engrossed in thoughtful grim to be friends with her, but her warm behaviour compelled me to believe I had actually made one friend.
She took me around to the nearest residential area near school, we met with her friends living around there. Through her network I finally managed to secure a tiny cosy home on a reasonably low rent conveniently near the school bus service stop. She then helped me get my residency student card from the immigration office. It was so far away. She travelled the entire distance with me. A full weekday was wasted in that effort.
I then needed help around the nearest grocery store, I didn’t speak a word of the language and had accidentally bought buttermilk instead of milk. Mary Ann helped me with all my groceries, and household items I needed to survive. She also cheerfully invited me to her house. She had invited over a large group of her friends along with her flatmates. It was a surprisingly happy event after such a long time of adjusting and uncertainty. She introduced me at school to all her labfellows and friends. Her friends became my acquaintances immediately. One day she needed to go shopping and asked me if I wanted to come along. I gladly accepted. She took me around the entire city educating me alongside which bus goes where. I needed nothing from the shopping mall, but I ended up buying more stuff than her. It was my first real girls day out.
She ended up taking me with her whenever she went shopping. Once we went to her graduation event at a historical building in the old city. It was a glamorous affair and I felt honoured she chose me to share this with. She took me along on ferry rides across the city. It was a daunting experience for a Punjabi person who only lived in a landlocked city her entire life. The sea appeared deadly but was transformed to a brilliant turquoise like under the sparkling sun because Mary Ann was with me as the truest friend I never dreamed of.
She even took care of my adjustment to the university work environment. The department was large and all the science programs were in one building. There was the lab dynamics to understand, the politics, the do’s and don’ts, who to contact for help, who to steer clear of, she had all the advice ready for me to make my place in that alien environment.
One day my apartment window broke open due to an abnormally strong storm which my landlord wrongly blamed on me. He was already reluctant to rent out to a foreigner, the argument got heated and I had to immediately shift out. I had no place to go. I panicked badly. Mary Ann tried to help but instead I burst out at her for making things worse. She was so pacific and calm and instead of reprimanding me for my behavior she helped me shift with her in her apartment. I was astonished at her patience and big heart.
Shifting with her she taught me so many meaningful things about life in general. She took me out with her even more regularly, meeting more of her friends in the city centre, taking more buses and routes and festivals in the city. They were weekends which I enjoyed more than anything.
She invited a big group of Kenyan friends to our apartment one week. Even her friends were awesome. The birds of a feather, they all treated me as if I was also their old friend. Despite a language barrier with a few, I enjoyed an exhiliarating fun time with songs, movies, dance and games. It was a week long sleepover with pure fun and enjoyment.
And then she had to finally leave. She had graduated. I knew she was getting married and she probably would not buy herself any beauty items. I sneaked out to the market and bought what I thought she might utilize. I tucked the bag into her suitcase secretly. When she saw it she said “it isn’t mine, where did it came from?”. I said convincingly, “it’s yours”. She opened it and said “who is this for?”. I said “it’s for you of course”, she said “why, so many things?”, I said bursting into tears “because if it hadn’t been for you, I would never ever have survived here” she was shocked at my acknowledgement of her kindness because she completely did not want or expect anything in return. We embraced each other in shrill cries of tears.
Even as she packed for the airport she didn’t even ask or expect me to help her even though she was there for me the entire 8 months. I found out from our flatmate and I immediately pushed that I must accompany them to the airport. It was a beautiful goodbye with the whole day spent chatting and travelling, and waiting for the time to pass at the airport cafe.
I usually used to call her “The” Mary Ann she always asked in a serious tone “why ‘The’ Mary Ann”? I never gave her a clear answer. But the truth was that there were so many Mary Anns out there but there was only one like her. She was one of a kind, she was The Mary Ann. She was from Kenya and she was black. From all the races and colors in the entire university, it was a black woman who helped me like a guardian angel. I was a stranger to her yet she showed me the kind of empathy, unconditional sisterly love, care and compassion which I haven’t encountered to date. She taught me how to live and moulded me into the person I am today.
Black lives are precious, infact priceless, black lives matter, and if anyone cannot understand that then they are the ones who are at a genuine loss. And mind you a heavy, heavy loss indeed.
RIP George Floyd, you united us in a way which is the true definition of humanity.