THE BLOG
05/14/2010 06:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Push to Get Out of a Pothole

Cairo, Mexico City, Manila -- a number of cities vie for most insane traffic and wildest drivers. After some long drives in Kenya last week, I've got my own nomination based on some hair-raising (if I had any to raise) tales.

But it isn't the five-lanes-of-traffic-functioning-in-two-actual-lanes that stays with me now, nor is it the sudden swerving, constant lane-shifting, casual use of oncoming lanes or driving on pedestrian shoulders with pedestrians leaping out of the way. What stays with me is a small act of kindness along a gritty street in Mombasa.

Next to the road in the pot-holed gravel shoulder, a boy in orange flip-flops, maybe fifteen, was pulling a rough-made wooden cart, a smaller version of an ox cart. Headlights lit the dust rising around him and reflected from the dark potholes full from afternoon rains. The boy was hauling a large bunch of green bananas and five or six burlap bags of what appeared to be potatoes or maybe onions. Elbows up, head down, surrounded by pedestrians returning home in the dark from a long day's work, he lacked the bulk in his own body to provide sufficient momentum for his cargo. And so when one of his tires splashed into a filthy puddle, forward motion stopped and his body angled a little farther forward, but still there was no movement.

At that moment, a gentleman dressed as nicely as anyone dresses in these situations put his hand on the back of the cart and gave a push and then leaned into a shove and the cart inched forward. Since foot traffic was moving faster than car traffic, I watched this gentleman stay behind the cart for another fifty yards or so, pushing the cart out of a few more potholes and helping the boy get through the merging traffic of a cross street. At the far corner, the gentleman went left, the boy straight, and no words were exchanged -- just a small act of kindness from a man who perhaps remembered what it was like to pull a heavy load when he was a boy.

Many of our structures -- political, religious, economic, social -- are as gnarled and dysfunctional as Mombassa traffic. Many of us imagine how they can be improved -- better laws, better doctrines, better policies, better protocols -- and we dedicate ourselves to systemic change. But change nearly always comes slowly, and sometimes, the snarled status quo is as good as things are going to get for quite a while. In those situations, thank God for the small acts of kindness that help people get through: a wave to let someone back in traffic, a kind and patient worker at the front desk of a sluggish bureaucracy, small change into a beggar's hand, a thumbs-up to a weary worker, a push to get out of a pothole.