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I remember the first time I found myself in a country where English isn’t the native language. At eighteen, the furthest I had traveled away from home was to New York City. To say I was naïve would be an understatement; green, tenderfoot, and youthful. I knew traveling to India would be a different experience but I failed to grasp how daunting it would be.

The first time I noticed I was in a great minority was during a layover in Bahrain – the sounds, the stares, the unfamiliarity. The next 6 weeks in India were not much different. Our group had contacts there who spoke English but for the most part I was lost in a language that was foreign to me.

I learned only enough Hindi to tell the rickshaw driver when to go and when to stop. Gesturing never quite conveyed what I was trying to say. A feeling of restlessness as people on the street around me spoke unfamiliar sounds at breakneck speed became my new norm. I remember straining, hoping to catch a familiar word.

The next time I would experience this feeling is 20 years later. On my first trip to Uganda in 2011, there were a few more English-speaking people. But again, I was relying on gestures to try and communicate with the native people. The villagers who came to our medical clinics spoke no English, and even though we had interpreters there were times the language barrier still loomed between us like a dense fog.

Savannah making "Chicken Balloons"

Savannah making “Chicken Balloons”

A few of us resorted to using objects as a way of finding common ground with my daughter excelling at this technique. A rubber glove was transformed into a chicken balloon, complete with scribbled ‘Sharpie’ eyes. Bubbles became the catalyst for belly laughs. Things these children had never seen eased the fear of unknown Mzungus examining them. And the next year there were Matchbox cars.

I’ll never know if Joseph’s initial apprehension was related to our bleached skin or if he was weary of being examined. The usual tricks I had learned to rely on didn’t alter the detached look in his eyes. I felt inept as I tried to entertain Joseph and his brother, Godfrey, while their father was arranging details of the upcoming surgery in Kampala.

The first time I saw them smile.

The first time I saw them smile.

…Matchbox cars.

I don’t even remember where they came from, whose suitcase carried the unsuspecting ambassadors around the world. But I will never forget watching the veil drop and a smile creep up Joseph’s misshapen face. The squeals of unabashed, barefaced laughter are still burned in my memory.

We didn’t need words – English or Lugandan. Two brothers, some toy cars, and a table to roll them across… these were the ingredients to an afternoon of freedom; freedom from doctors, tumors, worry, and fear.

That afternoon I felt like they were the teacher and I the student. The subject: universal language. We didn’t need common vocabulary. We didn’t need an interpreter. We didn’t need to stare quietly at each other, wondering how to communicate. Smiles, cars, and belly laughs became the bridge that united us.

I’ve often wondered what Joseph was thinking. Was there a key to unlock the dialogue in his head? Now, I know it doesn’t matter. For a little while however, two boys were liberated, and I will never be able to put into words how fortunate I was to observe no matter how many languages I learn.

Click here to read previous posts in this series.Godfrey's Smile