She had two neatly tied pigtails that brushed her shoulders. Her denim overalls were tidy. Her face showed no emotion one way or the other. Standing by the side of the road, holding her mother’s hand, she looked to be about 10. She may have told us her name, but I don’t remember it.
In 1997, my wife and I rented a small apartment in Antigua. It’s a roughly round Caribbean island that’s part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, most of which were previously governed by the British Empire.
It was our 25th anniversary gift to ourselves.
The apartment was in the southeast near the town of English Harbor. We intentionally selected that location because it was as far away from the all-inclusive resorts that attracted mostly American guests who had much higher comfort requirements with all things foreign. From our window we could look down into the harbor where enormous private yachts were moored.
English Harbor, as the name suggests, echoed the significant impact UK culture continues to have on Antigua. You can even hear a tinge of English accents there, mixed of course, with the clipped Caribbean cadence.
We had rented a small, open-topped jeep for the week. Almost daily we took drives around and through the island, stopping at one or more of the hundreds of beaches along the way. Often, we crossed over the inland mountain ranges and drove through small villages.
Antigua is not a poor country. We passed schools with uniformed children playing outside. Shops offered a wide variety of foods and clothing.
It was in one of those villages that we experienced something that confounds me to this day, 25 years later.
That mother, standing patiently at the edge of the road, waved at us to stop. “Are you going down to English Harbor?” she politely asked.
“Yes, we are,” I said. To myself, I immediately thought of some uneasy experiences we had at some away-from-tourist areas in other Caribbean countries. Where is this conversation going? The naïve white people a long way from home, several miles from English Harbor if bad things started to happen.
“Would you mind dropping my daughter off at her violin lesson there?”
“Sure. Hop in.” The girl had a case in her hand. “Does she know where to go?”
“She’ll tell you where to stop.”
And with that, the girl climbed into the back seat. I recall trying to engage her in conversation, but like many typical 10-year-olds, she didn’t have much to say until: “It’s that house over there,” whereupon she hopped out and walked away.
My wife and I drove back to our apartment in near silence. Neither of us could, by any stretch, imagine putting our 10-year-old daughter into a stranger’s car. Admittedly, a stranger who didn’t look like us. We were dumbfounded.
But then it dawned on me. A snapshot of — I’ve come to understand and appreciate — what our world is supposed to be. There need be no expectation that strangers are dangerous, not to be trusted. Who could conceive that two adults would harm a young girl? If it takes a village to raise a child, why should the race of the villagers (or foreigners) affect those children’s opportunities?
I knew that this wasn’t the first time the mother hitched a ride for her daughter. She knew her daughter knew the way and intuited correctly that we could get her there.
As we reckon with the inequities that divide us, I still go back to that simple, uncomplicated moment. Trust. Dignity. Understanding. Our society has so much to learn — maybe more to unlearn — as we continue the struggle for justice and peace.
I wish I could remember her name. I hope she got a ride home and kept practicing her violin.