Friday, April 17

Short stories from my recent travels

“We are beautiful. All the others are ugly.”

There were quite a few people packed into our combi on the ride from Gabs to Joburg, the first leg of our trip. We were not surprisingly the only white people. An outgoing lighter-skinned woman was in the front. As soon as she got on, she expressed her excitement that there were ‘beautiful people’ on the combi and passed out Tupperware catalogs. After speaking to some people in Setswana for a while, she turned her attention to the four of us and switched to English. She asked the usual questions: where are we from, what are we doing here in Botswana, have we enjoyed it. She told us that she would like us to find a job for her in the States (not an uncommon request). She called us all her grandchildren, pointing to us one by one, “Granddaughter, grandson, granddaughter, granddaughter.” And then pointing to herself, “Grandmother.” She went on, “I am friends with all your mothers.”

Here’s the worst part. This may have been the most uncomfortable moment in my life. Before she got dropped off in Joburg, she reminded everyone in the combi that there were only five beautiful people on the combi – the four of us and her – and then, in all seriousness, said that everyone else was ugly.

For our CIEE Language & Culture Practicum, we all paired up and selected semester projects. Jami and I are tackling colorism. According to Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone by Margaret L. Hunter, "Colorism is a systematic preference for lightness that stems from the larger and more potent system of racism. It is difficult to distinguish between our own innocent preferences for skin tones and the socially constructed hierarchy of skin tones informed by racism. Many have internalized this racism so deeply, that they can no longer recognize colorism and racism for what they are, and instead see them simply as individual tastes." So there it was, on a combi, our semester project hitting us like a brick. Of course, our experience on the combi was more racism than colorism. [I will post more about our semester project when it is completed.]

“My water is trucked in every week.”

In Maputo, we met some Peace Corps volunteers also taking the shuttle from Maputo to Tofo. Three of them are stationed in Botswana! One is in Mozambique. They shared a lot about their experiences with us. The woman stationed in Mozambique (somewhere between Maputo and Tofo) is teaching English to future English teachers. She said she feels like she is really making a difference and her work is wanted and appreciated. The Botswana volunteers, on the other hand, feel differently. One of them is in the Kalahari “in the middle of nowhere” where water gets trucked out to him weekly. Him and another volunteer are supposed to be doing HIV/Aids work (not surprisingly the most common Peace Corps work in Botswana), but hasn’t been assigned anything terribly specific and so he just doesn’t really do much. One woman is teaching English in a primary (elementary) school.

They feel useless because they just don't know what to do. Botswana is a pretty developed and well-off country, at least in the context of southern Africa. The Peace Corps left when Botswana established some form of stability and returned when HIV/Aids became increasingly prevalent.

Some of their experiences with culture were very similar to ours. A few examples:
1. Confusion/surprise when seeing other white people. We all figure that we're the only white people in Botswana and when we see others, it is unfamiliar and we are taken aback. We want to ask what they're doing here, especially other young white people.
2. Annoyance with men. The proposals, the stares, the hoots, the hollers, the whistles. Wow, do they get old. We're white and different. We get it.

“Management is trying to decide to send a mechanic or another bus.”

The Intercape bus from Maputo to Joburg left at 7:00 p.m. and was supposed to arrive at 4:00 a.m. Everything was fine until the bus broke down at about 11:30 p.m. We were pulled over on the side of the road for an hour with no communication about why we were pulled over and what was being done about it before Rebecca and I decided to go find out what was going on. We went downstairs (it was a double-decker bus), got off the bus and walked over to the driver and a man standing by the driver door. He said that management was still trying to decide to send a mechanic or another bus. Again, this is an hour after we pulled over.

Three hours later, another bus came, and there was a mad rush to get the good seats on the other bus. There was a lot of pushing and shoving – elbows everywhere. Then we drove about two minutes to our one rest stop of the trip. It was a petrol station… with a mechanic.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, my one fellow grad student and my fiancee definitely got a lot of unwanted attention when they were in India. It's interesting -- here, random strangers will come up and ask to have a picture taken with you so they can prove they saw a white person.

    (I, of course, get no such thing. Mainly people interrogate my driver about who I am and what I'm doing there.)