â€œMadam, which way is 5th Avenue?â€ I asked the next passenger as we emerged from the subway.
â€œHoney, if you donâ€™t know where youâ€™re going, why do you travel?â€
This was my first awakening as a young foreign student in New York City. It dawned on me in this city; I was alone in a crowd!
The village community in which I was born and raised in Zambia was small. Its members were all relatives. Everyone knew everyone else: facially, by voice, and footprints.
All children were the collective responsibility of adults. We had our biological parents and lived in individual family homes. But this was no reason an adult could not exercise the responsibility of assisting any child to meet its needs, including discipline. As tradition taught, Mwana wa munyako ngwako, meaning, â€œYour neighborâ€™s child is also your child.â€
All meals were shared: men and boys above the age of three years ate together, and so did women, girls and boys under the age of three. Nobody went hungry because they lacked food in their home. However, it was not unusual for a prosperous wife or mother to keep some â€œasidesâ€ for her husband or children which they ate before sunrise or at bed time.
There were no orphans. Children who had lost their biological parents got special favors. We all belonged together. No man, woman, or child was left to feel lonely.
This is not to suggest life was all a bed of roses. There were fights among women, especially those married to the same man; men squabbled often; and children fought over trivialities. But we all made peace because we shared a common life.
Fast forward to the year 1967. I arrived in New York City which was different and unfamiliar. For starters, New York was far from home and in a different time zone (seven hours behind Zambian local time). I had flown the length of the African continent and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in order to reach it. Back home, relatives asked my mother, â€œWhere did your son go?â€
Ah, we kuya muthengele -- â€œHeâ€™s lost in the wilderness.â€
For my mother, any collection of people who were strangers to each other was a wilderness. I had left behind a group of people of shared life to be alone among people she didnâ€™t know; a wilderness.
For me, coming from Zambia to New York was like traveling to another planet. The population of New York City was over nine million people, while the population of my entire country was three million. My village community comprised only thirty households!
New York City was the meeting point of all nations of the world, their different cultures creating a shifting kaleidoscope. The Jewish community, an old culture with a distinctive religion, philosophy, history and institutions, was one ingredient.
I had been admitted to Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, which was Jewish. In my class of fifty students, there were only three non-Jews: one Irish Catholic American and two Africans, me included.
The school operated from a building on 5th Avenue between East 12th and 13th Streets, near New York University. It had no campus. Students commuted from their homes to attend classes. After classes, everyone returned to their homes. Left alone and lonely, I would retire to my lodging at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in mid-town Manhattan.
My first days at Wurzweiler were trying, and my experience is best captured in the words of Robert Russell, the blind author of To Catch an Angel, when he explains how he felt as he settled into an American university for sighted persons: â€œEveryone was too busy to say â€˜helloâ€™! I went from class to class, from building to building, in silence. I passed outside the edges of conversations in the passages; I sat outside the edges of conversation at meals. I was alone.â€
This was how I felt that fall of 1967. The experience was daunting and it brought back memories of a folk story my father used to tell us when we were little children:
A hunter and his son lost their way in a rain storm. Suddenly the son drew his fatherâ€™s attention to smoke: â€œLook Tata, a fire in this rain?â€
On approaching it they found an entrance to a cave. An old woman beckoned to them with her aged and quivering arms:
â€œCome in my children. Youâ€™re cold and hungry. There is a fire inside and plenty to eat and drink. You are welcome to stay the night tomorrow you may find your way to your village.â€
E-e gogo, chiuta waliko! --â€œThank you grandma, God is helpful,â€ the hunter answered as he quickened his step toward the cave. Inside the cave were many people and lots of food and drink. There was millet beer for the hunter, and musunje, sweet beer, for his son. The hunter and his son ate greedily and soon were so full the son fell asleep, ignoring the commotion around him.
Abruptly, the old woman appeared and announced:
Kulya talya, sono po gona? Kapili-kapili--â€œYou have eaten and drunk but where to sleep?â€â€¦ She vanished. So did the other people, leaving the hunter and his son stranded in the dark cave.
Every class day I belonged to a temporary community of classmates which dissolved into thin air once the session was over. Like the hunter and his son, I was left alone.
My luck was no better on the streets. The pavements were crowded. The subways were even more crowded. Everybody was in a hurry as if rushing for a missed appointment.
One snowy morning on my way to school, I took an express train on the subway. The trains were so packed I didnâ€™t have to do anything to get in or get out. I was squeezed into the train like serum injected into a patient. And I was squeezed out - pop! Like pus from a boil. But at an unfamiliar station!
Out on the street, I couldnâ€™t make out where I was. So I asked the nearest exiting passenger, â€œMadam, which way is 5th Avenue?â€
â€œHoney, if you donâ€™t know where youâ€™re going why do you travel?â€
I realized that in the crowds of New York City, it was â€œevery man for himself â€¦â€
I was alone. I missed my village community.
WORLD - CITY LIVING
Copyright © 2010 vundula
Lonely In A Crowd
Copyright © 2010 vundula
About the Writer
Vukani Nyirenda (Vundula) is a freelance writer specializing in children's folktales based on Zambian folklore. He was born and raised in a rural community in Zambia where story telling was a daily ration for growing up. After graduating from UCLA with a Doctor of Social Welfare degree, he worked in his home country, Zambia, as university lecturer, admninstrator and civil servant.He has published two children's picture books and his other stories have been published in children's magaines and other publications.He lives in Ontario, USA.Want to write articles too? Sign up & become a writer!
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