With a smile, life is beautiful

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy”. Nhat Hanh

 She smiled. I looked up and smiled. We both smiled. We both knew that this was not just a coincidence but a meaningful smile.

 “You could smile more often” I had told her several months ago.

I met this young woman in a guest house while travelling in a field site in Uganda. She works in the guest house and I had noted how she was acting and wondered if she knew life is too short to live with a sad face. She was far from polite but something about her pulled me towards her. I thought of her as young woman struggling with life’s challenges and wondering when the day would end, starting another day and the drudgery continued. One day after telling me in a “do-not-disturb-me” tone that what I needed was not available, I called her aside and started chit chatting with her. I reminded her that she was in the hospitality industry that required that one be hospitable to others. Don’t judge me that is close, right? Hospitality, hospitable, it rhymed and served the purpose.

“In this sector, it is about how you relate with people and a smile can go a long way. Even if you tell me something is not available with a smile it makes all the difference”. I continued with my unsolicited advice.

She took this seriously and started. She tried. She had some smile. Eventually it became easier and by the time my two week’s stay was over I could see a smile on her face. That is why I was truck when the previously shy and less bothered young woman saw me in the guest and came to say hi, with a smile! She looks happier. May be nothing has changed in her life, or things have become better or worse. I am certain that smile is helping her manage better. It starts from the face, but goes deep inside. It is that interruption to a scowling face, when doing some of the yoga poses and the body and mind are struggling to keep at it, and the instructor says “with your smiley happy face”, and you try to smile and the pose is done.

 A smile is part of how I measure impact in my work. Well, I do not write this in reports, but maybe I should.

 She smiled.

I recall years back when I worked in a project on violence against women in a rural setting and my roles included coordinating between the community workers and any services in Nairobi that survivors were referred. I interacted with some of survivors of violence. When you work on such deep issues in the community, you see tears and sorrow every day, you must work on yourself and practice self-care in order avoid developing lethargy. Lethargy…that word, I had to use it. Lethargy.

I recall the many women and children that I encountered but one in particular remained etched in my mind. She was a victim of violence for long. She was not the usual profile but was an economically able person who was the bread winner in her family. The lazy husband not only sat around in her house where he had moved into doing nothing (okay may be not nothing, but nothing constructive) but was also violent. I met her when I was organizing for her rescue to a safe house. I had gone to the field and one of the volunteers told me “Sophie you must meet this woman. If I was her I would rather be dead”.

 Tabasamu (not her real name) was emotionally and physically traumatized. Her children were literary under her skirts, equally traumatized. The man’s family had connections so despite reporting to the police several times no action was taken. It reached a point that the community volunteers in that area decided to take an extra step and seek higher authority at the district level. When I met Tabasamu she was wearing two dresses, with the dress on the outside worn inside. She was not aware. She was just existing not living. We took her to safe shelter and to the hospital. The medical staff were shocked at the physical trauma that were revealed in the x-rays. The program further addressed the legal aspects as she got psychological counselling while at the safe house. After six weeks she was ready to go home and the man was out of her life. I did not meet her in between the healing process but only met her about two months later when I was conducting a training in the field site near her home. I was told there was someone who needed to see me. I saw a smiling face of a woman I did not recognize and I smiled back. I like smiling! :She greeted me with recognition and I was a bit blank then I looked at her again and I was amazed to recognize a different version of the woman I had encountered. Tabasamu was now a different woman. She laughed, more than smiling, she laughed.

“I know you cannot recognize me, I am now smiling” she said.

I may not remember the face of that woman, but to date, that smile remains etched in my mind over ten years later. It was also a significant smile since it was my last month in that organization. Many times when encountering more and more cases of violence I had asked myself if the work I was doing was having any impact in the lives of women and girls. This was a confirmation. One smile at a time on women’s faces.

This came back to my mind when talking with social workers in our Women’s Protection and Empowerment program in Uganda. I met with four groups of social workers separately and for each group I asked them what makes them feel fulfilled in their work. In each group, one or two of them said “when I see a smile on a woman’s or girl’s face, then I am happy”.

 A smile goes a long way. A smile says many things. A smile is not always easy to get, or to give, but with a little effort we can give a smile. We can put smiles on people’s faces and hearts. As mother Theresa said, peace begins with a smile.

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