A random act of kindness has been the hallmark of my life for as long as I can recall. Like the random act of kindness when I was six years old, and Miss Ivy plucked me from the streets of Kingston, fed me, clothed me then sent me to school for nearly two years because I looked like her only son who had died in a road accident.
Or the random act of kindness at a carnival in Salvador, Brazil, when a white English man in the crowd lent me £500 because my back pocket was slashed with all my cash and travellers’ cheques stolen, and he scribbled an address in Brixton where I could return the loan when I was ready. How surprised he was to see me standing outside his front door about ten days later, cash in hand, and a big grin on my face. “So, you found it, then?” he murmured. I wasn’t sure if he meant the money or his house.
However, a random act of kindness from a total stranger has always served to remind me of my humanity beyond the usual limiting classifications of race, gender, colour, religion, age or sexuality. We’re all just simply human when it comes down to it.
So, I was shocked recently at the way a post office worker spoke to a very respectful young man who asked her a simple question that I almost cried. Yes, I almost cried. I’m not afraid to admit to you that the tears welled up in my eyes because you might think me a soft-hearted, simpleton who cries at the slightest sign of injustice in the world. But deep in my heart, I felt that the great Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, or even the late Nelson Mandela, might have cried, too, to see the hard, heartless creatures we have become and the way we treat our own people in Ghana.
Like me, the young man had come to the post office to collect a recorded delivery letter, which they made him tear open to reveal that someone abroad had sent him a cheap smartphone as a gift. Another random act of kindness, perhaps. Nothing too elaborate that he couldn’t get in Ghana, but a present nonetheless, most likely because he couldn’t afford to buy one in the home market. The gleeful look on the young man’s face betrayed his excitement as he tore open the package to pull out the phone from its box.
The post office clerk quickly whipped out her calculator and started churning out random numbers. As if to reveal her incompetence further, after what seemed like a very long time, she had decided that he needed to pay 1,760,000 Ghana cedis in import duty. He asked her to repeat the amount because he could not believe it. Nor could I. She crossed out the first amount she had written down and replaced it with 1,760 GHS, which after further scribblings turned out to be 176 cedis (new money). Mathematics even with the aid of a calculator obviously wasn’t her forte.
The boy looked surprised. “But how am I supposed to pay 176 cedis?” he asked. It was rhetorical question mainly brought on by the high duty fee in comparison to the low cost of the cheap phone. “The phone is probably not worth that much,” he continued. But it was the way she spoke to him that ultimately drew my rage.
“You ask me how you are to pay 176 cedis? Who are you? Are you the child of an animal? You are an idiot boy. How dare you question my authority? Go away! Move, move from here, you ugly son of a lazy whore. Look at you. Who are you?”
It wasn’t even that she had not assisted the young man whatsoever, or even that she proceeded to shout at a customer and insult him for no good reason at all, but what shocked me was the complete and utter disdain and contempt with which she did so. Exuding this vile air of superiority while displaying the lowest levels of common human decency. The anger she expressed toward the young man was as if she could just as easily see him dead. It was shocking. A total disregard for the feelings of another human being, and yet she was the face of customer service. I was standing there watching her with my mouth catching flies.
I seriously wanted to slap the woman. Wanted to degrade her like she was degrading the boy. But my better instinct wanted to pull out my wallet and throw the money in her face, just so that I could express with a random act of kindness exactly how I felt about her and this manipulated situation. But I hadn’t enough money on me. And I hesitated to catch the young man’s attention, avoiding my natural instinct to reach out, to help. By the time I’d finished collecting my package, he had gone. He had walked out leaving the phone behind in its box, which the woman promptly wrapped back up in its padded envelope and threw in a heap under her desk. We know where that’s going.
Outside in the scorching heat, the post office was crawling with people like ants around the door to a nest. I tried looking for the young man in passing, thinking that I could make it to a cash point in the car, but he seemed to have vanished.
I had wanted to take him back into the post office, and take that money and shove it in her hand, and let her know what I thought of her and her despicable behaviour. But I couldn’t see him anywhere. All the way home in the car, and for weeks afterwards, the incident still played on my mind. It troubles me still.