While boleia-ing home one afternoon, I had the great fortune of attracting the attention of a white SUV with a license plate from Gauteng Province – I had succeeded in what is typically thought impossible: the much-coveted South African boleia.
“Are you going to Chokwe?” I ask when they pulled over.
The middle-aged couple take a moment to consult their map before confirming that yes, they are headed to Chokwe.
“Great!” I say, and start to open the back door. I quickly realize it’s locked. And then I remember… oh right, South Africans. I lean back over to the passenger window and after running through a list of possible English translations for “boleia” settle for asking, “Um…could I get a ride?”
“Oh sure!” And the man unlocks the door and I climb in the backseat amid ice chests, bags of canned and processed food, fishing gear, suitcases and, miracle of miracle, air conditioning. I had found the four-leafed clover, the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the star power in the question box, and now my road would be easy.
Of course, the questions start.
So, you’re not afraid to hitchhike here? Not at all, it’s very common, and much safer than public transportation. Do you speak their language? Yes – I teach in Portuguese. What are you doing here? And the standard spiel about volunteering with Peace Corps, etc.
At this point, the wife turns around in her seat, and I can see the concern spilling out of her eyes as she ingenuously questions…
“Your students at the school, are some of them…black?”
She’s speaking English, so I know there’s not a translation issue. But I suddenly feel like these people are so far from the world I know that I’d have more in common with a Portuguese-speaking Mozambican boleia.
Oh, South Africa.
This was one of my first real eye-opening experiences with the people who look like me living in the “developed” country next door, the one with the highest per capita on the continent and, startlingly, also one of the highest crime rates. I’ve only spent a brief time there myself – enough time to relish in efficient customer service and commercialism, but not enough time to have any idea about the culture. While answering questions and explaining a little about my life in Mozambique to the beach-bound tourists I often encounter, I also learn a lot about their country. Questions like these speak volumes.
At first, I thought most of the South Africans I encountered were simply the elite – they drive through Mozambique in their caravan of SUVs stuffed with food and water from their own country and their boats or trailers hitched on the back, not getting out of their cars from the border crossing to the resort run by their fellow South Africans except to fill up their 50-gallon tanks at the legit gas stations where the Indian owners accept credit cards and speak English better than they do. Naturally, these types are probably just as sheltered in their own country and completely unaware of how the other 95% of their fellow citizens live, and so I shouldn’t judge their country based on such a select group.
But then you run into the working class guys, usually here in Mozambique to make use of the country’s natural resources, so they can send the gas or water or sweet corn back to South Africa to be processed and packaged and sold back to Mozambique for triple the price, without Mozambique actually seeing a penny of profit.
One South African friend, who invited us to a barbeque (“braai” in South Africa) on the beach one day, comes from a family of farmers, far from the tourist hubs of Cape Town or skyscraper-lined Johannesburg. He told us about the atrocities black South Africans commit against his fellow farmers, burning the land and raping the white women, and how they had assassinated the president of the white-only Afrikaans farmers’ union. He told us about how these horror stories never made the newspapers because the media was corrupted by the government, run by a black president. He told us about how things were so much better during apartheid – less crime, less fear, more breaks for hard-working white folks. He told us about how he used to be friends with a volunteer up north, until they meet for a drink one day and she brought along her boyfriend – a black Mozambican – and he hadn’t spoken to her since then. He told us about how his niece goes to a preschool where a black kid also goes, and his brother forbids her to play with him and tells the teacher that he’ll take her out of the school if the black kid even touches his daughter. He told us how blacks are more like animals than whites, not even using a fork when they eat, but just using their hands. He told us how blacks just don’t deserve the rights they have in South Africa.
(At this point I think back to Mama Celeste, and remember the countless times she ate with her hands – there were three forks in the house, including a plastic one saved from a neighbor’s fancy wedding some years back, and when everyone was home those three weren’t enough to go around, so Mama C always made sure I had a fork and opted to wait until we were finished before cleaning one and using it herself or simply eating with her hands when possible.)
The one thought that kept running through my mind during this enlightening conversation was that South Africa today sounds exactly like what I would imagine from a pre-Civil Rights era United States. And it makes sense. Apartheid – the South African law of strict separation between whites and blacks – was eliminated less than twenty years ago. The majority of the blacks in South Africa have relatively new-found liberties after centuries of suppression, lack of decent education and generally being seen as less than human. And the whites are dealing with the fact that they are no longer entitled to all the perks of being superior and unquestionably in charge. Though the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution made African Americans legally equal to whites in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until well after the Civil Rights movement that things really started to change there.
And the things he had to say about Nelson Mandela – did people once think the same thing about Martin Luther King Jr., who is today heralded as a hero of peaceful change in our culture? And do people honestly believe they have a God-given superiority over an entire race of people – to the point that they don’t even consider them to be the same race?
But being judgmental would just be hypocritical. I know without a doubt that had I been born in the US a century before, I would have the exact same view as these South Africans. These opinions are a reflection of society more than the individual. It's purely cultural.
Though I grew up in podunk Azle, with a larger number of trailer parks than African Americans, I also grew up watching The Bill Cosby Show with my grandparents, learning to count in Spanish on Sesame Street, celebrating Black History Month in schools, and singing “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight…” at Sunday school. It has been ingrained in me since childhood that people of any race, belief, culture and country are created equal, and deserve respect accordingly. I’m not naïve enough to think that America is free of racism, discrimination and its fair share of race-based hate crimes, but I've never encountered someone my age who so adamantly held these beliefs, which I consider to be "old-fashioned."
Moreover, he was equally surprised that I, also being white, did not hold the same beliefs. We live in Mozambique as the average citizen does – we have the same cookie-cutter concrete houses as our colleagues, we speak (more or less) the same language they do, we also lament when water stops running or stretch out on our esteiras when it’s just too unbearably hot inside the house, and they are the people we turn to when we need help.
We told him these things. He seemed puzzled. Not really sure how to respond.
Of course, we also have South African friends living in Mozambique who are trying to learn the language, make friends and respect the cultural differences, frustrating as they might be at times. They make the effort, and they enjoy living in Moz because of it.
But when the South Africans from the aforementioned boleia stopped to drop me off at the market in Chokwe, they at first refused on the grounds that it wasn’t safe. I could understand their concern – the market is a mass of mud-and-stick stalls next to a chapa stop, where your car is swarmed by people wanting to sell you pirated phones, cheap plastic jewelry and homemade egg sandwiches out of a bucket when you stop. I have to assure them that it’s okay – I’m here every day, they know me, and I’m perfectly safe.
“You would never leave a white girl at a place like this in South Africa. There’s no telling what they’d do to you,” the man says as he reluctantly unlocks my door.
Unlike Mozambique, South Africa has an airport with more than one baggage claim, they have more than one TV channel, they have multiple-lane highways with brdiges and wastewater treatment plants, they have oatmeal, sanitary packaged meat, grapes and peaches, as well as big, clean cities where they hold world sporting events like the World Cup. But I feel perfectly safe in my town here in Mozambique. I’ll take that over McDonald’s any day.
My friend says he’s sure that all the racial tension and violence will lead to a full-on war between South African whites and blacks. I say I’m certain things will get better – it just might take a few generations.