Thursday, 14 January 2010

"Estou a pedir..."

“Estou a pedir” literally translates into “I am asking for.” It’s roughly equivalent to “please.” On a cultural level, however, there’s no comparison.
A founding father once said something along the lines of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” He would never have survived in Moçambique. Moçambicans “estou a pedir” for anything and everything. It makes sense in this culture – no one has everything one needs, so people think nothing asking a neighbor or friend for it, knowing that neighbor or friend won’t hesitate to ask for something when they need it as well. Tomatoes? Clothing? Stove? Children? No problem.
However, it’s a little more complicated for Americans to get accustomed to this concept of “estou a pedir”-ing…especially in certain circumstances.
People along the side of the road will estou a pedir you for a sip of water. Kids will estou a pedir you for your shoes. And worse.
For example:
I was peacefully enjoying my bucket bath one morning in Namaacha in our outdoor “bathroom” next to the house. Just as I was bent over filling up a cup to rinse off, I heard Mama Celeste approach from the house. I looked up from my bucket just in time to see the curtain that serves as a door pull back and Mama C stick her head in. Confused, I froze, bent as I was over my bucket, wearing nothing but suds, and blinked.
“Estou a pedir tesoura.”
At this point, my Portuguese was still a work in progress, so I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard correctly.
“Esta a pedir…tesoura?” I repeated. Literally, “You’re asking for…scissors?”
She replied with a grunt – which translates into “yes, please” in the local language of Xangana.
I stood there a moment longer, racking my brain for any possible way that this request could make sense at the present time. Nothing.
Finally, I said “Não tenho agora” – “I don’t have them now.”
She grunted again – this time meaning, “Oh, okay.”
She remained standing in the doorway. We stared at each other. The soap was starting to dry on my skin. I wondered if perhaps I’d been too obliging in the past.
“Umm…depois.” I finally said. “After.”
Her next grunt (meaning “fine”) sounded a little disappointed.
Another uncomfortable and soapy moment passed. Then she disappeared back behind the curtain.
I stood there blinking for a bit before finishing my banho. Afterward, I went to my room and fetched the scissors for Mama C.
“Muita obrigada,” she said. Which confirmed that, for better or worse, I’d heard her correctly.
Another night, I was awoken by a knock and my door and Mama Celeste calling my name (kind of… “Valer” is close enough). In a sleepy and worried daze, I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and mosquito net to open my bedroom door.
“Estou a pedir lanterna.”
At this point, I still didn’t know what the emergency was, but I understood that it required a light – in this case, my cell phone that doubled as a flashlight.
I went to my bed, retrieved my cell phone and handed it over to Mama C. I watched from my doorway as she walked to her room, peeked through a stack of clothes, and get a pair of socks out of the bottom. Then she came back and handed me the cell phone.
“Muita obrigada. Vou dormir.” Thank you. I’m going to sleep.”
I took my cell phone, saw her go back to her room and heard her climb into bed.
Then I looked at my cell phone. 3:30 a.m.
I didn’t say a word. I just went back to bed.

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