Be it how it will, do right now.

I Know Who You Are

“You don’t know me, my friend.  You don’t know who I am,” the man with pale eyes sneered into the taxi at me.

I was sitting in a kombie, waiting for it to fill up with passengers so that we could leave.  (A kombie is a local, public taxi that runs a specific route and manages the impressive feat of cramming 16 to 18 adults with all their accompanying groceries and luggage into what amounts to a cargo van with seats.)  The man had eyes like a snake, elliptical and almost translucent, and wore his bright green polo with its white collar popped.  Caught in the crease of his mouth, protruding like a lure, was an unlit match.

Five minutes earlier, as I had disembarked one kombie and headed towards another, transferring at this taxi rank on my way home to site from visiting my girlfriend, the man in the green shirt had approached me and asked for money.

“Ncela emalini, mulungu.”  I ask for money, white person.

It was clear the man worked at the rank, either as a driver or dispatcher and didn’t really need my money.  (In South African taxi ranks, dispatchers load passengers into kombies, collect their money, issue change, and then give the driver gas money before the taxi departs.)  I kept walking.

“Sorry, bhuti,” I said.  “Not today.  Kuphi itaxi eNaas?”  Where is the taxi to Naas?

We were standing in front of a kombie and the man motioned towards it, then tried the next obvious move in this daily dance.

“I’m so hungry, my friend.  Please, just give me some money.  I want to eat.  I’m so hungry.  I can buy some pap and meat for R15 just over there.  Please, give me some money.”

Never mind the fact that you can buy pap (the staple food of South Africa) and meat for a third of what he was asking – it quickly dawned on me the man was simply asking me for things because I am white and I should give him something – anything – because he is black.  This happens frequently, but it’s always frustrating.  So, I did what any other rural South African would do in this situation, and gently chided him for not greeting me first.

“Hauw, bhuti.  Awubengele.  Ucele emalini, kodvwa awubengele.”  Hey, brother!  You did not greet me.  You asked for money, but you did not greet me.

In South African culture, it’s considered rude to start talking to someone without greeting them and asking how they are first – especially if you’re asking for money.  Among rural South Africans, indignation is often the preferred tact when attempting to convince another, as shame and social stigma carry a lot of weight here (see the AIDS/HIV crisis).

So, I played the indignation card and got into the taxi, though I made sure to thank him for pointing out the right one to me, and pulled out my magazine to read while I waited for it to fill with passengers.  He wasn’t dissuaded and proceeded to expel an incoherent mishmash of American pop culture icons and proper nouns in an attempt to forge some sort of connection.

“Please, my friend.  CNN.  Obama!  President Obama is a black man.  [Pause]  John Cena.  B…BC!  Osama bin Laden.  You know, you must give me something to remember you.  You, me, give me anything, something.  Give me something to read.  I must have something to remember you by.”

“Bhuti, I’m a volunteer.  Ngilivoluntiya.  I don’t have money, they don’t pay me.  Ngiyafundisa.  I teach labantwfana.”  I’m volunteering…I’m a teacher.  I teach the children.

“But my friend, if you are a teacher, you must give me something.  I went to school to get my law degree.  But there was an unfortunate incident.  You must give me anything to, you know, remember you.  Can you give me something, maybe something to read?”

His persistence was setting off warning bells, reminding me of the few other times that someone had latched onto an idea involving me and hadn’t let it go.  It can get uncomfortable and…intense.  I tried to defuse the situation with humor.

“No, bhuti, this is the only magazine I have today and I am reading it.  I’m not going to give you anything this time.  This way, you will always remember me – you’ll remember me for being the first mulungu who didn’t give you something.  Maybe next time.”

I said this with a smile and turned back to my article.  He tried a new strategy.

“My friend, CNN says that Osama is dead.  Do you think he is?  There are no pictures or video to show him dead.  Do you think they killed him?”

Most South Africans are only vaguely aware of bin Laden’s death and the man’s evident knowledge of the event and casual referencing raised the hackles on the back of my neck.  I straddled the fence, hoping a non-committal answer would bore him and he’d lose interest and go away.

“You know, I don’t really know, bhuti.”

I should have known better.  I shouldn’t have given him the opening, and I certainly should have recognized him for what he was.  But it was too late: Snake-Eyes saw his opportunity and pounced.

“You know, I don’t think he’s dead.  Why don’t they show the photos?  Or why don’t President Obama show the video to CNN?  He must still be alive.  You know, I don’t like what Osama did September 7th, but you know, maybe, like, 97% of what he did was bad.  You know, like 97% was wrong and I don’t know why he did it, but… like, 3%, maybe even only 3%, was good.  And that good was…Al Qaeda.”

And with that, he walked away.  I took a breath.  I was a fat kid for a long time, I know when someone’s trying to get under my skin.  I accepted that he was probably not happy about my decision not give him anything and had reacted with an immature but human response.  I was happy he was gone and turned to the woman who had just sat down next to me.  From her dress, I could tell she was particularly religious, even by South African standards, and I likely had a better chance at a more friendly conversation.

“Sawubona Make.  Unjani namuhla?”  Hello Mother.  How are you today?”

She smiled, answered, and greeted me back.  I replied, mentioned how unseasonably hot it was, and asked her where she was coming from.  We chatted for a minute.

Now, I’ve had this same exact conversation hundreds of times in as many kombies in the almost 11 months I’ve been here.  Most times they stop there, but sometimes the person with whom I’m chatting is genuinely interested in why I can speak basic siSwati and wants to know what I’m doing here: a white man in a black world.  I always oblige.

In fact, whenever I get into a kombie, I always greet the group as a whole, and then the person whom I sit down next to – or whomever eventually sits down in the seat next to me.  That seat is usually the last to fill, not because black South Africans think I have cooties, but because of the same reason Americans avoid the man with shabby clothes and unkempt hair on the bus.  I’m a stranger, an individual that isn’t conforming to social norms, and as a result an unknown quantity.  Why on earth would a rich white person ride a public taxi with poor black South Africans?  He must be crazy, or dangerous, or something.

For this reason, I always attempt polite small talk.  It’s tiring and half the time I just want to space out and watch the savanna stream by, but this in essence is why we’re here as volunteers.  Yes, we teach and do projects in the community; but we’re also here to show the rest of the world that Americans come in all shapes and sizes and that some are rich, some are poor, and some are polite young men who show the proper amount of respect and deference to an older, wiser woman.

I also endure this endless dialogue because Gogos (grandmothers) and older women (Makes) are the best defense in rural South Africa.  I could be under attack from five teenagers wielding steel pipes and one Gogo could walk up and shame those kids into apologizing to me, helping me up, and then tucking tail for home.  As most of us have learned, you never know what will happen in a kombie, and having a sympathetic Gogo/Make on your side, who knows you’re a teacher educating their children, is like tagging a star on Super Mario brothers.  You’re temporarily invincible.  Nine times out of ten, it’s just another short conversation; but there’s always that one time…

Snake-Eyes reappeared.  The taxi was full and he started collecting fares from all the passengers.  Of course.  I silently cursed myself for crossing the damned rank dispatcher and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, not having the correct change on me.  He was going to mess with me, and we both knew it.

Now, in taxis, the dispatcher usually collects all the fares, then goes one by one passing out change.  Rarely do they issue change as they take your fare and even more rarely do they ever forget to give you your change.  If that happens, the passenger will call out for their change as the taxi starts to pull away, other passengers will join in the chorus, and the taxi halts so the dispatcher can fix the situation.  It’s rare, but it happens, and it’s one of the few times that South Africans stand up to established power, together, for the benefit of one.  If you want to witness the better angels of rural South Africans, ride a kombie.

I gave him my fare and watched as he collected the rest of the money, then went through the cab dispersing change.  As he finished, he called out to ask if anyone still needed change.  I was half-reading my magazine and half-watching him, not wanting to play into his trap but also preferring to get my change.

There’s a pause, he starts to step out, and – God bless her – the religious Make next to me calls out for change.  She turns to me, asking how much I gave him.

“I pay R20,” I say in awful siSwati.

Snake-Eyes shoots me a malignant grin, the match in the corner of his mouth bobbing back and forth.  “For you, my friend, you don’t need change.”

My stomach drops out.  I want to scream at him, I want to jump up and tear the money from his palm, but I’m stuck in the back seat of a taxi full of Gogos.  I panic and play the indignation card again: I hold out my hand, palm up, and remind him the fare is only R9.

“No, my friend, you are donating your money to the children.”

Of course, the change will not be for “the children” – anywhere – but rather for his pocket and for his warped sense of pride; it is so he can brag to his friends about how he scammed a mulungu out of his money.  Yet, as he says this, the Gogos in the taxi, seeing the first Make stick up for me, rally to my side.  Four of them, in unison, ask for my change and then tell me, yell at me, to ask for it, too.

I take a breath, quelling the rush of adrenaline vibrating through my chest cavity, and play the part.  Respectfully, I ask for my change.

“Babe, ngicela emachange.”  Father, I ask for my change please.

He can’t refuse, not in front of a kombie of passengers comprised mainly of Gogos.  The social pressure is too much and he hands me a ten rand bill.  I thank him and ask for my change again, reminding him he’s shorted me one rand.

“Ngiyabonga, babe.  Ngicela emachange.  Shorta one rand.”

He tries to flip the tables and calls me out.

“No, my friend, not one rand!  You want one rand?!  You are donating this one rand to the children.  This money is for the children.”

“Cela emachange nyalo, Babe.”  I ask for my change NOW, father.

I stare at him, giving him my best you’re-starting-to-really-piss-me-off look.  Silence in the kombie.  After a moment, he hands me the rand and steps out.  But the driver hasn’t arrived yet, so he turns to a young girl in the seat near the door and starts talking about me.  I can’t understand everything he says, but he’s throwing around “mulungu” and some disrespectful verb stems a lot and giggling with her.  I turn back to my magazine, trying to ignore him.

Evidently not the response he wanted, Snake-Eyes turns back to me and starts bad-mouthing me directly.  Again, I can’t understand everything, but I get the gist.  The driver’s not here and my blood’s way past boiling.  I crack.

“Urude, bhuti.  You don’t care why I am here in South Africa.  You ask me for money because you see I have white skin.  Urude.  You did not ask anyone else in this taxi for money, only me, because you think because I have white skin you can ask me for money and I will give it to you.  You disrespect me and you disrespect yourself.  Urude kakhulu.”

Calling someone rude here, as I’ve discovered, is actually a pretty serious insult and I reserve it for rare occasions when I don’t think I can make my point otherwise.  And make it, I do.  That’s when he leans in to the cab, leers over at me, smiling that serpentine grin, and tells me I don’t know him, I don’t know who he is.

I’m furious now.  He’s taking the high road, throwing my indignation card right back in my face, for daring to call him out publicly – when his behavior and actions blatantly betray that tactic.  It’s offensive for being both false and ludicrously so – an insult to the passengers collective intelligence.  At that moment, I saw myself leap over the Make next to me, tackling him to the ground outside the taxi.  I watched myself grab him by his sickly-green shirt and smash his right cheek with my strong hand, my fist crumpling the flesh beneath it.  I saw myself yank him up by the shoulders and slam him to the ground.  I heard his head crack against the cement, his skull ricocheting like a bobblehead toy.  Seething with rage, I emptied my spleen on him.

You don’t know ME!  You don’t know why I’m here or who I am!!  You assume things about me because of the color of my skin.  I’m here to work with your friends and family and you are cheating me because you can.  You have no idea what I endure on a daily basis – the looks of distrust, the cat calls, the dismissive conversations and infantilizing treatment, the distinct understanding that I am unwelcome and unwanted by many men and nothing more than a source of upward mobility for any woman or teenage girl who can bed me, the knowledge that my time here may in fact benefit only myself – all because I care enough to show up.  Because I care what happens to rural South Africans I’ve never met simply because they’re human beings, too.  Because, black or white, we choose to take the problems of our communities as our own – all while you prey upon those who do.

Instead, I set my magazine on my lap, turned to face him, and looked through the limpid film of his eyes.  I stared into the emptiness inside him, into the gaping maw of his soul, starved of humanity.

“I know exactly who you are,” I said quietly.

He blinked, turned to the rest of the passengers, then slammed the door.  As he did, I yelled out, “hamba kahle.”  It’s the polite farewell here, a bidding to have a good trip.  I should have said the response, to stay well, because we were leaving and he was going to stay at the rank; but, this way, the tone of my goodbye was unmistakable, and several Gogos laughed.  The driver hopped in and pulled the taxi out of the rank and we were gone.

I know who he is, that man.  He is the reason why South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world.  He is why young boys think it’s cooler to ditch school and scam for money to booze than learn about their country and the world.  He’s why older men pray upon teenage and pre-teenage girls, buying them airtime and gifts in exchange for unprotected sex.  He’s the reason unemployment, post-Apartheid racism, and class warfare have mixed themselves into a toxic miasma untouchable by modern politicians.  That snake is why this country rots from the inside, unable to remove the infected parts of its core.

If I could, I would have told him, I know who you are: you are the example I will give the young men in my boys club of what happens when you give up.  You are a failed man.  You are umubi: ugly, a do-er of ugly things.


3 responses

  1. Lew

    Your writing style is engaging and insightful as well as informative.
    You should give serious thought to developing your writing into publishable articles (okay, short essays if you must). This particular one would be snapped up by Newsweek, I am certain.

    May 24, 2011 at 1:57 AM

  2. Jessica

    Hi Matt,
    I stumbled upon your blog whilst trying to find Peace Corps volunteers in my area (I live in Durban). This story caught my eye and I was spell-bound reading it. You write well.
    I find it fascinating to see how western foreigners experience South Africa. I am a white middle-class South African and thus quite sheltered from the reality of life for most rural South Africans. Your story about ‘Snake-Eyes’ hits the nail on the head – it is people like him who halt meaningful development in our country. I myself am a student and starting out work in the field of development – how do we overcome these issues? People with such mindsets? How do we build a country which doesn’t allow people like this to exert their influence, which doesn’t create people like this in the first place?
    I will continue reading your blog – your insights are fascinating and you express them so lucidly.
    All the best,

    August 10, 2011 at 11:17 AM

  3. Pingback: Blogroll Roll Call #6: South Africadventures | Green Bandit Press

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