While social media has helped bring people together, let’s face it-sometimes our virtual lives can get uncomfortable and overwhelming. Sites like Facebook has brought people together but they have also created a stream of non-stop chatter, some of them highly charged with egotism and negativity. Sometimes when I finally log out of Facebook, I feel like I have just left a warzone. While I believe that everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, the anonymity and lack of face-to-face contact that people are afforded online unfortunately also encourage plenty of dramatic and ‘I don’t care who you are’ exchanges. In the virtual world, words are weapons and people are using them pretty recklessly. This virtual anarchy has seeped into well-intentioned social groups. Instead of building bridges, we are burning them. Donge La Mombasa was such a group. While we (the members) were well meaning and intent on producing positive change in our native city, our social tango was a hot mess. Metaphorically speaking, we had the right dance moves but our lack of cohesion made for a dance troupe with dancers constantly tripping over each other. Arguments were plenty and accusations were almost a daily occurrence. Needless to say, our Facebook group was in pure chaos.
Recently, one of the group members posted a video of a young quadriplegic man from Tanzania asking for financial assistance in buying a wheelchair. Posts of pleas are fairly common online but this particular one not only changed our virtual group dynamic, it united people from all over the world. It was the smile that revolutionized our little community.
The name of the young man in the poster is Ahmed and he was injured in a diving accident that paralyzed his body from the neck down. His physical injuries were evident, but what of his mental and emotional scars? Honestly, I think anyone who has been through what Ahmed has been through has every right to wallow in self pity. Total paralysis; words fail me in my attempt to imagine the unimaginable. But what does Ahmed do instead? He smiles. He smiles with courage in the face of tragedy, hope against all odds, and a determination to live joyfully no matter his circumstances. I had an opportunity to talk to him on the phone and honestly if it wasn’t for my prior knowledge about his condition, I would have thought that everything was going great for him. I would have thought that he had a ‘normal’ life. Charming, courteous and ever so cheery, Ahmed is the kind of guy that leaves you with a sense of joy that lingers long after you’ve said your good byes. I wasn’t the only one that was captivated by him. Pretty soon after the video was posted in our group, members rallied together to help him out. The noisy members focused their energy on fundraising discussions and the dormant ones jumped out of their hibernation holes and started participating too. Our personal differences no longer mattered in our pursuit to achieve one common goal-to raise enough money to buy Ahmed his wheelchair. Posters and videos were produced, emails and text messages sent out, and phone calls made. In a matter of hours, the fundraising video had gone viral. Ask anyone who has connections to Mombasa and Tanzania about Ahmed and chances are they know him now. People in places as far flung as China were sending in their donations. Men, women, poor, rich, powerful, ordinary-people stood up in solidarity with Ahmed. After a mere 48 hours, we had raised enough money to buy him the wheelchair that he so desperately needed. In a further fortunate twist of events, Ahmed was also reunited with long lost relatives living abroad who recognized his name from the forwarded posters and video.
There is a popular analogy that compares life to a ripple in a pond. When you throw a stone onto a pond, it causes a ripple, and subsequent ripples goes on to cause bigger ripples, and so on and so forth. One ripple, no matter how small, has the capability of changing the energy of the entire pond. Ahmed’s smile was the one tiny ripple that changed our community for the better. It reminded us that while we may not have the ability to control what life throws at us, we have the ability to choose our reaction to life’s wrenches. We may not end up with the life that we dreamed of, but our attitude towards it will determine whether we live in the pain of the past or in the joy of the present.
Ahmed may have gotten his wheelchair but we gained much more. We gained the realization that when it comes to community, unity is everything. Unity, or lack of it, will determine the survival and continuity of our community, and indeed, identity in general. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is quoted to have said “The faithful, in their love for one another and in their having mercy for one another and in their kindness toward one another, are like one body; when a member of it ails, all the parts of the body call one another to share the pain through sleeplessness and fever.” (Muslim)
The social environment in Donge La Mombasa has been cozier and less abrasive lately than in the days past, but as with any family, we are bound to have our share of dysfunctions. I have no doubt that there will be disagreements along the way. I only hope that when that time comes, we can pull back Ahmed’s smile from the archives of our memories and remember that in the end, love is all that matters.