A difficult fear

Sanjaya Fernando was born to a Sinhalese, rural family in Sri Lanka.  He is currently an academic at Rajarata University in Sri Lanka and moved to New Zealand three years ago to undertake his PhD research in Agribusiness.  There, he explores solutions to challenges encountered by small-holder farmers in Sri Lanka.

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Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2019

Anita and I became friends a couple of months ago.  We got to know each other when we randomly met in the common room during lunch one day.  After that, we would come across each other on the university campus, or on bus runs between the university and the city.  She came to New Zealand from Brazil for her post-doctoral studies.  I was here for my doctorate.  I remember she told me she had done her doctoral studies in the USA.

When we would meet in the common room, we would talk about various things: culture, society, people, food, education, safety, freedom, ways of parenting, economics and a lot more.  Anything that popped into our minds on those occasions we came across each other, that’s what we talked about.

There was also Francisco who joined us sometimes; he was from Brazil, like Anita.  He added spices to the hearty conversation soup to make it even more tasty.  I talked about my country; Sri Lankan people, culture and traditions, customs and systems.  I learned a lot about Brazil and Brazilian society from Anita.  Her facial expressions seemed to tell me that she enjoyed listening to stories about my country.  She nodded as I explained, acknowledging the similarities in lots of elements in these systems – the good and the bad.

Late one evening, I was waiting for my wife to pick me up – I’d been in my office until late, working on my research.  I was leaning on the wall by the path leading to the car park.  I was on my phone searching gossip and news on Facebook, checking now and then to see if our car was coming.  I noticed lots of students walk straight past me on their way along the path.  I wasn’t bothered by them, and they weren’t by me.

After a while, I noticed someone else walking along the path.  She jumped suddenly onto the road to avoid me.

It was Anita.

She didn’t recognise me.  Probably because I am brown and it was dark by then, since it was winter.

I didn’t know of any reason why she would avoid me, so I called out to her.

She turned to me with a sharp eye, taking a moment to recognise me.

I saw her expression soften as she approached me.  I could see her even in the dark, since she was pale.

“I am so sorry,” she said, gently touching my shoulder.

I asked her – “For what?”

“For making you embarrassed.”

I asked her what she meant.

“I was trying to avoid the man leaning on the wall,” she replied, “But I didn’t know it was you.”

I said to her, “You didn’t embarrass me.”

‘It wasn’t only you’, I thought to myself.  ‘Many hundreds of women – in my country, too – have avoided me like this.  Even on brighter days.’

I tried to take her worries away about it, to make the atmosphere lighter.

She wanted to explain.  She told me in a worried tone, “I switched to a safe place.  I thought I was unsafe.”

She disappeared into the dark, waving at me as she went.

© Sanjaya Fernando, 2019