Pugnacious, spittle and effluvium flecking the corners of his mouth, I watched the words pour forth from some deep and dark well inside him. “So you teach these kaffirs, do you? You want to make them clever, so they can steal our jobs and take our women?” And in that moment, trapped underneath a massive plastic tarp during a torrential downpour typical of the Lowveld, I felt the distinct tickle at the base of my spine that signals one’s genuine fear of death.
The man was several inches and multiple pounds above and beyond my own paltry size and, leering in until we were but breathes apart, reeked of brandy. And I was standing outside his gun shop. To my left, a boy of no more than 16 years played with a kitana – a sword of the samurai sort infamous for its penchant for disemboweling its owners. On my right side stood an otherwise pleasant man who had just finished regaling me with tales of his time hunting “darkies” as a member of the South African Police Force.
In my most pleasant of fantasies, I told them to go to hell, spat in their face, and grabbed my friend and ran for our lives. As is often the case in life, the reality is dispiritingly more milquetoastian.
“No, no,” I said, doing my best to inject that subtext of patronizing racism ubiquitous to most conversations I have with Afrikaaners, “we just do our best to help them understand the complexities of modern life.”
Coward: a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.
“That’s a good oak,” he said, tipping some more brandy into my glass. “I knew you Yanks had some sense. Now we’ve got to fix your fucking accent.”
Thuggery: behavior indicative of a violent person, especially a criminal.
In the language of the application for Peace Corps, they remind applicants that each experience is unique and that it’s important to abstain from forming too many expectations before arrival in-country. What they don’t tell you, what is impossible to relate in words, what one can only learn through the bias of experience, is the ineluctable process of moral capitulation that occurs inside you.
Historically, the Thugs were a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India that strangled travelers in a ritual manner before stealing their goods. I’m not sure if it’s the appropriate word, but something tells me neither is too far off.