He finally made his way back to my desk and started to grunt at me very loudly and unintelligibly... I was confused for a moment and then he managed to say very loudly "deaf!" and point to his ears. He gestured for a pen and I quickly obliged. He introduced himself by name and went on to say he was from Congo (former Zaire) and proceeded to list the languages he spoke: English, French, American Sign Language... I quickly wrote back, introduced myself and apologized that I did not know sign language. He grinned and shook his head.
I asked him if he needed help finding anything in particular and he shook his head no. I left him to explore the library at leisure. It soon became evident though that he was looking in the wrong places --in our book donations, unprocessed books, etc. so I went over and showed him a section in our pamphlets on Congo/Zaire as well as some documents. He was so thrilled, he could hardly contain himself! Later on he returned to me to ask about photocopying some of the old newspapers he'd found.
I had to wait for someone to come back from lunch and then I escorted him downstairs myself. The guy in charge of the photocopy room came out to help us and was able to print the front pages of the newspaper on large sheets of paper. The Congolese guy was SO excited... Steve and I couldn't help but grin.
I wasn't able to find out if he had money to pay for the copies and had warned Steve prior, and he replied, if it was just a couple copies, he could have them for free. It turns out the man had understood me and reached out with a dollar bill to pay for the copies. Steve shook his head no and the guy stared at him in disbelief and then broke out into the largest smile. His entire face absolutely shone! Though he couldn't speak, we could tell how grateful he was. As he and I turned to go back upstairs, he looked back at Steve and they exchanged a thumbs up and Steve put his hand on his heart. Just a little moment, but all the same, very moving.
Not sure why I felt compelled to write about this, but this job of mine is SO much more than just a job... As an African Studies Library, we own things that many countries in Africa today no longer have (due to natural disasters, civil wars, etc.) or that are virtually inaccessible - government documents, speeches, constitutions, and many other things. To many they are rather faded, sometimes torn old pieces of paper or dusty books, but to some of the people who enter our doors they are so much more! It's a real privilege to be able to assist these people and be on hand to witness their excitement as they hold their history in their hands.
ADDENDUM: March 2010
Months after I posted this, Albert has become a regular fixture at the library... he shows up every Friday and his face glows with the biggest smile in greeting!
He wanders around our collection, reading up on all the French-speaking countries and then he watches African news videos online. He's become my 'informal informant', tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention and then solemnly handing me papers, one at a time, often badly creased. He makes sure to point out what they are--events having to do with African going on in the Boston area. Some of them are so obscure, I've no idea how he finds out about them---African student organizations meeting at MIT, a church concert with African singers to raise funds for an orphanage in Kenya and the list goes on and on. If they're public, I stick them up on our bulletin board --much to his obvious pleasure.
The rest of the staff have come to know him too and we miss him on the odd Friday he doesn't show. He's taught me a little sign language, but I often forget, I fear. I really do wish I knew more about his past and how he left Congo to be all the way here in the United States....