Sometimes, just sometimes I go to the park and sit alone in the benches. I look at the people that pass by. I can’t be sure as to what I’m looking for but almost every single time I find myself thinking about the faces I see. I assign them different personalities: for instance, a tall skinny light-skinned girl with a pretty face past by once. She was dressed in a short, promiscuous skirt. She was laughing with her friends. I automatically thought she had no sense of direction in life. You know the YOLO (you only live once) type.

Weeks later I went to a leadership programme about young people in South Africa and to my surprise the girl in the park was there, with her short dress, loud as ever. I have to admit that I disliked her as she was not anything like me. On the programme we were given a task and to my horror I got paired with her. I thought to myself, maybe I have committed a crime in my past life, perhaps murdered a whole town or stole candy from all the kids in the world.

She spoke first introducing herself as Lerato. Now having met all the Lerato’s in the world I thought she was no different. The Leratos I knew would bully me in primary school and tease me in high school. I was never at ease around a Lerato.

For a second I froze in thought, hating her for her name. Somehow it just fit the face and personality I had assigned her, and by the looks of things the way she looked at me led me to believe she had reservations of her own about me. Maybe she thought I was slow or another bully custom made for her.

I collected myself, held my head high with just enough pouting and replied:

“My name is Adilet.”

I had already made up my mind she was another “Blonde, Black girl” if that makes sense.

We were given an interesting topic “Breaking Down Stereotypes” you know the kind that say, “black people are lazy”, “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” and “blonde women are stupid.” Although stereotypes are derived from some sort of truth they are not entirely correct.

I let her discuss the thoughts she had about this wonderful topic in the hope of crushing her ideas. I thought I was the smarter between the two of us and what possibly could she know?

Sitting there listening to what she said made me realise how wrong and stereotypical I was being. She was saying all the things I wanted to say but better. She painted a picture in high definition. I could see the colours contrasting each other. It was perfectly crafted like God himself made it. She was not stupid after all. I fed from her and hung on every word. She was schooling me. I would not admit it to her, but she got me!

Our talk led us to our lives. She narrated her story about how as a child she was abused in every form. How she grew up abandoned and lost but found solace in books. How she escaped the confines of misery through worlds tailored in pages. How she had been in every story known by men. How she travelled the world with just her reading, and how she fell in love with herself again.

Lerato was two years older than me, had no parents and no support structure. Within a space of 60 minutes she became my role model, funny isn’t it?

That night I lay in my bed thinking how someone I disliked so much could end up being someone I looked up to? How could she be so carefree and happy when she had gone through such abuse when she was a child? I was amazed. I slept pondering about her and had dreams that were like timeframe collages, only I was in her shoes. I led her life and felt her pain.

In these dreams I found myself crying, my pillow soaked through with tears. I woke up in a sweat, dazed as if I had been asleep for decades. It was 04:25 am but I could not go back to sleep as something in me had stirred. I had to do something. I wracked my brain trying to find out what it could be, and then in all that mist I knew. I had to talk to her again. I had more to learn and I felt guilty and disgusted about my initial thoughts of her. She was a woman, a strong woman. I aspired to be a strong woman too.

I still go to the park sometimes. I look at the faces that pass by and think of heroes and heroines but mostly I go to the park to look for her, the Lerato that changed my life. I look for the girl I judged because of how she appeared, the girl who ended up becoming my role model!