I was doing a big clean up in the early part of last year and my kids were helping. As he rummaged through boxes and bags, one of my sons came across a knotted handkerchief with an old dark brown coin nestled inside. ''Mum, can I have this? Can I play with this in my cash register?'' he asked. I took one look and was immediately transported to another time. ''You can play with all your coins, but not this one,'' I said slowly. ''This one's special. I will never again see the woman who gave this to me.'' I fingered the coin gently. ''This coin is worth much more than its monetary value.''
My son looked at me strangely and I explained. In 1991, I had spent five months in a bleak African country, Niger, ravaged by sandstorms and blistering heat. There were many things I found difficult about this place – the climate and beggars were my biggest and most constant gripes. Street urchins would continually thrust their hands into your face, shouting ''Cadeau! Cadeau!'' [gift] in French, the former colonial tongue.
After I'd finished my nursing stint there, a friend and I headed for neighbouring Burkina Faso to work in a health clinic.
''It's much greener in Burkina. Even the Coke tastes better,'' the locals assured us.
Arriving by taxi at our destination in Burkina, we began to unload. I had a large backpack and a smaller daypack. With my daypack wedged between my legs, I reached for my larger piece of luggage. Out of the darkness, a motorbike with two men approached slowly. Without warning, one of the men grabbed my daypack as the motorbike swept close by. Within seconds, the two were out of sight, swallowed up by the night.
The bag had my passport, money, traveller's cheques, camera, an airline ticket and other paraphernalia precious to me. I was in deep trouble. And the nearest Australian consulate was in Ethiopia.
In the weeks that followed, I zealously guarded the rest of my valuables and regarded all locals with suspicion. I endured interrogations by the authorities with thinly veiled frustration. All I wanted was to leave this hellhole.
Then, walking through Burkina's streets one day, I was accosted by an old woman who thrust her hand in my face. ''Cadeau! Cadeau!'' she cried.
I'd had enough. I was sick and tired of the country: its poverty and corruption, its thieves, its inefficiency, the heat, the dust and its time-wasting officials. I told her firmly in French, ''I have no ‘cadeau'. I have no money. A thief stole all my money two weeks ago and now I can't get out of your country. I cannot give you anything.''
The beggar woman listened attentively and pondered my words. Then her face crumpled into a toothless grin as she reached into the folds of her dress.
''Then I will give you a cadeau,'' she announced. Kindly, she placed an old, dark brown coin in my palm. I looked at it in shock. It was a minuscule amount of money – but for this woman, the coin represented a meal. In that moment, I felt the shame of affluence and the humility of charity. She had given me a gift disproportionate to anything that I had ever donated. In the midst of her poverty, she was able to give me something priceless.
I saw then the unexpected beauty of the people of Burkina Faso – and appreciated profoundly the quiet dignity of the poor. Humbled by the old woman's gift, I hope never to part with the coin she gave me. With one small token, she turned my perceptions upside down.
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