Lounging on a chair by the apartment I either meet KB while he's browsing the internet on his phone or while he's engrossed reading his French novel. A big fan of Brazilian football, Malaysia and the Netherlands feature high on his travel bucket list. Even though I don’t speak French, which is KB’s first language, it's been easy to talk to him about journalism and the differences in food, culture, and lifestyle among African countries.
KB is the live-in guard at the apartment building I am staying in.
If I met him in a different setting he could just as well be a colleague at work or a friend from school. Originally from Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa, he gave up on a University degree to come to Accra in search of work so that he could help his family – parents and 6 siblings. Convinced that he can do better, his next goal is to get to Europe. Last weekend we researched ticket prices and visa requirements for various cities in Europe – he wants a cheap one-way ticket to get out of Africa and earn a higher wage in Euros or Polish Zloty.
His is not a story I haven't heard before. Bombay would probably be the best place to find millions of similar stories of brave and bright young men and women who come finding work, better pay, and a means to help their family. But whenever I have been surrounded by these stories in India, they have been buffered by a large gap that, as I realized last weekend, never allowed me to identify with them wholly. They were always stories of the other. It was the story of the pot-bellied building guard that doesn’t speak English, the 40-year-old who sweeps the floor who has trouble operating a non-smart phone, or the grocery delivery man who probably couldn’t identify 3 countries correctly on a world map. Over time, the social buffer between us made me almost indifferent and made the stories themselves routine and uninspiring.
There is no visual or otherwise identifiable social buffer between me and KB. His interests, music preferences, language, dressing, and goals are ones I can easily relate to as my own or that of friends. And with the collapse of an identifiable social buffer, his story hit home unlike any other had all these years. I felt helpless, inspired, unintelligent, and many other things – but instead of trying to identify exactly what I felt, I am happy that I still had the ability to feel at all.