The kindness of strangers.  How wonderful it is when, out of the pure goodness of their hearts, complete strangers step in to rescue us in moments of peril.  When it occurs, unvarnished altruism is remarkable.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” Bill Miles is here to tell us what it’s like to be on the receiving end of truly extraordinary kindness.


“Frère!” my Muslim host yelled into the pitch black African night, the rainy season downpour slowing but not ceasing. “Brother!” 

That is how one cries out for help in Wagadugu, capital of Burkina Faso. We had just flown off his motorbike. My watch and glasses were smashed to smithereens. When I saw the expression on his face and blood spilling off mine, I knew too had been pretty badly smashed.

“You need to go to the clinic,” he said in a combination of French and Hausa, the African language I shared with him, and whose minority speakers I had come to Wagadugu to study. But how? Hisown scooter was now inoperable, and I had little inclination to get on another one. Nor did I speak Mossi, the local language in which he was now explaining our plight to a passing motorcyclist who had wheeled around in response to my driver’s appeal.

From his robe and cap, I surmised that this other motorbiker also prayed to Allah. His French was rudimentary, his knowledge of the neighborhood shaky. He didn’t know where the clinic was, and he had his own plans for the evening. Still, this Good Muslim Samaritan readily took me on his motorcycle, in the dark and rainy night, a complete stranger whose color– white from skin, red from bleeding --- contrasted completely with his own.

Mind you, this occurred when two American journalists had just been beheaded in the name of Islam. “Muslim Brotherhood”? Still being vilified as a terrorist organization in Egypt. War in Gaza was still raging. I had to wonder if in Burkina, as elsewhere in Africa, government forms included a line for religion - in my case, Jewish.

None of this mattered. I was treated with care and compassion. Even complemented for my “bravery” while enduring five stitches above my eye. And when my motorbiking rescuer finally left, it was he who apologized. But he took my local cell number and called at 1:00 am to ask how I was doing. And then again the next day, for the same reason. We never exchanged names.

I believe that the word “brother,” in whatever language, means much more than mere sibling. I was rescued in Wagadugu by a complete stranger – not because we shared a parent, or a color, or a language, or a religion – but because we were simply – humanly -- frères – brothers. And brotherhood, it took an African road accident for me to discover, is universal.


Bill Miles is a political scientist and the former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. One month before getting his scars in Ouagadougou, Scars of Partition, his new book on postcolonial legacies, was released.


Bill Miles, a resident of Seekonk, Massachusetts, is a professor of political science at Northeastern University.  One month before getting his scars in Ouagadougou, his new book on postcolonial legacies, Scars of Partition, was released by the University of Nebraska Press.