Four months ago a young woman came to the United States from East Africa and sat down, waiting for the bus. This young woman has traveled through at least seven different countries, three continents, and one ocean to study at an American community college, so she can chase that elusive “American Dream.” She also has a baby girl, who has been her sole travel companion.
Surprising encounters and a bus stop
“She is good in my life; God put her there for me and her face it makes me happy.”
I know this because I am also at this bus stop waiting to go home; it has been a long day, and the bus is notoriously running late. Exasperated, I ask to see the schedule she clutches and subsequently strike up the typical conversation about who we are and what we do. I mention that I am researching mobile technology in East Africa, and she cries out. In the last four months, I am the only person she knows that has been to Kenya, a country where she has lived. It is clear that fate brought us to this bench.
And what fortuitous fate it is. I am trying to learn Kiswahili, and she needs help with English and Math. We quickly agree to meet again and work out how we can help each other. I see a successful collaboration in the works. Phone numbers are exchanged the bus comes, and we are on our way.
One week later I pick her up. We go for coffee, talk about lives lived, places we been, and where we want to go. She admits that speaking in English is quite “painful” and I offer that she could start teaching me some Kiswahili, but she refuses instead asking to see where I live. We go. Our conversation turns to why I am single. I brush off the questions trying to maintain my composure and not offend. By the time, we make it to my living room she suggests we get married in a not so subtle fashion. I am trying to decline spilling forth a myriad of reasons, but to her it is straightforward.
“You go to Africa, I come to America it would be easier for both of us if we marry.”
I am fully embarrassed, although not quite sure why. Explaining that she probably would not be granted full immediate citizenship if we wed. I take her home. She calls me every day for two weeks. I don’t answer.
My good hearted attempt to make a friend, learn and teach has utterly failed. Why? I suppose I could blame the State or a difficult road to citizenship. But, I am a coward and here I place most of the blame.
In retrospect this woman, trying to make the most of the situation, in no uncertain terms told me, citizenship was her goal. Even if that meant marrying a man she only knew for a week. I felt extorted and thus rejected her totally.
If I had it to do again, I would have taken her statement as a sign of Uberrima fides. The brilliant Jan Chipchase defines Uberrima fides as
“The legal doctrine covering insurance contracts – where all parties must enter into the contract making a full declaration of the material facts – in “utmost good faith.”
This young woman did not like the terms of our collaboration and in “utmost good faith” tried to make an adjustment to the terms. I was offering her English (a language she could already speak well enough to ply me romantically) in exchange for Kiswahili (a language I barely know and desperately want to learn). This woman put enough faith in me to say she wanted U.S. citizenship, and I failed to appreciate that in its context, and thus our collaboration crumbled.
Research, data collection, policy making, and product design are no longer (and perhaps never have been) one way streets. Going forward with my various projects I hope to make the most of people letting others know what they want in subtle and not so subtle ways, taking it as a sign of Uberrima fides.