Originally published Monday, 19 January 2015.
My head pounded from dehydration; I was out of water.
Walking alone back to base camp [in war-torn Sudan], I met a tall, beautiful woman on the road coming from the opposite direction. She smiled cocked her head curiously as she looked me over. We both attempted conversation, but the language barrier made it difficult.
We stood in the heat, exposed to the blistering sun, studying one another. She was the first to raise her hand to my face, slowly seeking permission with her eyes. I stilled myself to show my acceptance of her touch.
Her calloused fingers felt like crocodile hide sliding across my face. She giggled at the softness of my skin, pulled her hand away for the span of time it took her to cluck her tongue against the root of her mouth, and then covered both my cheeks with the fullness of her thick hands.
Our eyes locked, and immediately I loved this woman. The woman I could’ve been. The woman who could’ve been me. The woman, who certainly suffered hunger, war, rape, death of husband and children, simply because the color of her skin, the spot on the planet she happened to fill, and the fact that she was a woman.
I loved her, and I felt a smidgen of my selfishness slip away. The horrific stories, my loneliness, and facing my fear – with no one present to comfort me – all worked together to melt my mask of security. Sharing a small bit in their suffering helped my move beyond simple compassion for God’s broken creatures – to admitting I am one also.
My heart gave a morsel of itself to this strange woman I had met on the road to nowhere.
I touched her face as she had mine. She held her eyes wide open, boring into mine. Her crocodile-skinned hand guided mine down her throat to a scar just above her left breast. She never took her eyes off my face as my eyes studied the scar I now fingered.
Cautioning myself not to recoil at the smell of disease her body carried, I drew close to this tall, gallant woman where I could study her disfigurement.
I felt nauseous, and again, wanted to run. But to where? There was no place I could run, just like there had been no place this beautiful woman standing before me could have run. I was there to be a witness. It was the only thing I could give her – my presence and willingness to see her, witness what she endured, stand with her, and not turn away.
To be a witness for another seemed like such an insignificant call, and yet I had no idea that it would demand everything within me to learn to do this simple thing.
She pointed to my boots. Unsure as to why, I put my hands out in a confused gesture. Continuing to smile, she bent down and pulled gently at my boot strings. She wanted my boots.
I looked at her feet. She, like [my Sudanese friend] Rebekah, wore green rubber flip-flips.
I bent down, unlaced my boots and handed them to her. As she slid her feet from her slippers, my heart stopped for a moment.
They were Rebekah’s. There was no doubt. They had the same perfectly round hole in the exact spot in the heel. Emotion welled within me at the realization that these women shared whatever they had with each other.
If one had a pair of shoes and another did not, when the one without shoes had to walk a long way, the one with shoes would share whatever she possessed. This kind of sacrificial sharing stunned me. They shared not just shoes but a true and faithful sisterhood.
The stranger on the dirt road handed me Rebekah’s flip-flops, inviting me to participate in their sisterhood. I pushed my feet in to them. Feelings of unworthiness to where Rebekah’s shoes overwhelmed me.
I cried in the dirt road while the woman wrestled her feet into my boots. I knelt before her, lacing the thorn-scared boots for her.
A woman whose name I would never know towered over me as I knelt at her feet, fumbling with boot laces. Studying my tears, her crocodile-skinned fingers caught one as it dripped down my sunburned check, and she rubbed it on her own black face. Not able to find her own tears, she borrowed mine. I prayed somehow they would offer a ray of healing for her suffering heart.
As abruptly as our encounter began, my nameless, tearless friend ended it. Proud of her wares, her face shone as she smiled and waved at me, walking away with her first-ever pair of real shoes.
© 2011 Kimberly L Smith. Passport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances is published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.
Kimberly L. Smith is the president and co-founder of Make Way Partners, the only indigenously operated relief organization in [North] Sudan and South Sudan providing anti-trafficking efforts to the most vulnerable orphans and former slaves. Smith is also the author of the award-winning book “Passport through Darkness,” which chronicles much of her experience in Sudan. For more information on Kimberly L. Smith and Make Way Partners, please visit www.makewaypartners.org.