Apparently, there comes a time in every Mozambican baby’s development in which said baby’s optical maturity achieves a certain capacity to discern skin color. They are suddenly aware that the all-too-pale, hominid-like figure disrupting what would otherwise have been a snuggly snooze wrapped against their mother’s back in a capulana is markedly different from the rest. At about 9 months of age, many babies become afraid of me. While we had been buddies just the day before, BAM! I am suddenly scary and provoke a fit of tears, screams, and attempts to hide behind one’s mother. Then, just as magically, a few days or weeks later, the same baby will brighten and cheer when he lays eyes on me and the admittedly goofy face I am trying to win him over with. I realize that I am a rather fair person, but I had never thought that my skin color could incite such horror as to make a baby cry. Alas, I was clearly very wrong. The women of my neighborhood find this sequence of events incredibly funny and love to joke with me about which babies are currently scared of me, which used be frightened of me, and which are soon to assuredly harbor the same terror of my whiteness. Much to my relief, however, other PCVs have also admitted to elicit the same reaction from babies.
I am also apparently just as capable at alarming the elderly. It doesn’t happen very often but I have been known to stop a crusty old man carrying lengths of sugar cane on his head or a preciously toothless old woman toting around tomatoes in a reed basket right in their tracks. Like the babies that tremor in my wake, they are scared of white people. But, in this case, I believe, they are mostly afraid I will beat them if they don’t show me respect: i.e. stopping to allow me to pass while bowing slightly at the knees and neck, and then meekly offering up an open-hand as if to greet royalty. I am sure this subservient behavior is a remnant of the old colonial days when the white man ruled all and bred fear. Whenever an instance such as this happens, I make a big effort to humanize myself, greeting them in the local language and holding out my right hand, with my left one cupped under my elbow, the universal way to greet someone of a perceived higher societal rank here. Usually, they accept my peace offering and take my hand, though they have also been known to simply stare back unmoving, and I can continue on my way, idealistically thinking I have done something to improve race relations. I try to think of myself as a harmless white person, perhaps even a helpful one, so I usually walk away rather befuddled and pensive after interactions such as this.
Though I don’t like to be seen as an imposing figure, I am glad I do not rouse hateful words or violence, as do the Mozambicans that are considered “crazy.” Just earlier today, I was sitting on my porch watching the events of the neighborhood unfold (shocking I know), when a shirtless man came storming into the middle of the neighborhood and promptly broke two buckets that people had left near the water pump. For obvious reasons (buckets are a necessary household item and larger ones such as these can get pricy), people got all up in arms, screaming at the guy, at each other, and generally just ranting and raving. Finally, the man left, and from my porch, I saw him terrorizing some innocent passers-by. My neighbors then talked all day about the “malouco,” until, about 5 hours later (again, I was on my porch reading), the man returned. This time, however, people were not as passive in their response. Some of the young men started beating him: punching him, throwing 5-liter buckets at him, and whacking him with sticks. Not surprisingly, as Mozambicans are generally bored and always looking for a good show and some afternoon entertainment, the whole neighborhood turned out and formed a riotous crowd around the fight. And this time, I was also more enraged at the situation. Careful to stay on my porch, I started screaming things like, “You aren’t helping! Stop beating him! He is sick!” as they forced him out of the neighborhood, passing right in front of my house. Finally, he left bleeding and I ran up to some of the guys who had been the main perpetrators and asked them why they had beaten the guy. “He is not sick or crazy, he has been smoking” was their response. I replied, “Even is he has been smoking, it doesn’t mean you should beat him. He is also a person and clearly something is wrong with him.” I do not believe the man’s actions were due to drugs, but rather, I wholeheartedly believe they were a result of mental illness. I do not believe I made any impression on these guys, but I momentarily felt better about my role in it all. Mental illness is not really understood here, as people who are considered “crazy” can get no help, and therefore generally just roam the streets, eating trash, covered in dirt, clothed in rags, and begetting negative attention in the form of taunts and physical abuse at the hands of other citizens. So I will take a few crying babies and bows of respect as the alternative to that which I witnessed earlier today, which was downright petrifying. Mozambicans are not xenophobic and generally accepting and welcoming of guests, e.g. me. Most of the attention I get is wholly too positive: men who find my being here interesting and think I can give them money or sleep with them (warranting smooching noises as I pass by), or the most coveted prize: to take them back to America. Fat chance.
I have written recently about the water problems we have here in Invinha. The pathetic water pressure of our tap makes water dripping through a coffee filter look like a steady stream. Last week, the chefe do bairro (head of the neighborhood who handles neighborly squabbles like “The dog of Teacher Ana ate my chicken and I need her to pay me back”) called a meeting for the people who fetch water from each of the 20 houses that use our communal tap. Naturally it was all women in attendance. The flawed system was addressed and ideas for improvement were shared. An hour and a half later, the sun had gone down, and there we stood, in the dark, with screaming, hungry children running in circles around us, and no definitive consensus had been reached. I have learned in my 20 months in Mozambique that when planning an activity or trying to estimate how long something should take here, I must double, and at times even triple or quadruple, the amount of time the American version would last. But I was still a little peeved at the situation. Finally, it seemed that some decision had been made and I woke myself from my Portuguese-overload daze and joined back in the conversation, eager to hear the news. But alas, the new and improved system would be exactly that which I had already thought the system to be. Essentially, we would all put one bucket in line and everyone would amiably take their turn filling up four 20 or 25 liter buckets. The extra buckets of the people who had been trying to cheat the system and have 5 different buckets in line were taken out. Some more bickering ensued, and then we all went home to cook dinner. The next day, a Saturday, I noticed early in the morning that I was second in line. Oh the joy I felt. But seeing as I had to go to the city to run a review session some students had asked for, I couldn’t hang out until I filled my quota of buckets. So I asked a student who lives in the neighborhood to watch for my turn and fill up my buckets for me (honestly not a difficult or uncommon favor). He agreed and off I went. I returned 6 or 7 hours later, my line-stand-in bucket had been moved to the end of the line, my empty buckets remained empty, and the kid I had asked to help me out was nowhere to be found. Naturally, I was outraged. Apparently, you snooze; you lose. You are just supposed to aimlessly hang out in line all day, shooting the shit with everyone in the vain hope that you will potentially get some water and therefore, maybe wash some clothes later in the day. It is not laziness, it is just that there is literally nothing else to do so why not hang out at the water pump for 6 hours? Unfortunately for me, 20 months of Mozambican life has not been able to even create the smallest of chinks in the armor established by the 22 years I spent living in a culture that attempts to fit as much productivity into as little time as possible. I stormed home and sent one of my “houseboys” to fetch me some definitely less than sanitary river water that afternoon.