The Zombie Beggar Woman from Bairro B
At the edge of Bairro B, there is a German bakery. New to town, this padaria aims to teach the art of baking in countries around the developing world. There, you can buy a loaf of bread for twenty cents or a cookie for three cents. A sweet bread pastry, my favorite, costs thirty cents- a ten Medicais piece slapped down on the tile counter at the window.
“Ate amanha,” we say to the woman who hands us our bread, with whom we practice our Portuguese. “Until tomorrow.”
I don’t think we realized that these treats were unattainable for the majority of the population. To us, they were easy and so tempting, a 10 cent dent in a 600 cent weekly allowance. Nothing, nothing! Every day, we spent a new 5-cent or 10-cent piece. We were slowly growing gorda, forgetting the drudgery of rice and grits. But one day, as I walked home along a shortcut through the heart of Bairro B, cradling my sweet bread in a wax paper wrapper, I stumbled upon something unsettling.
“Americana!” A gregarious stranger first greeted me along the road. “Welcome, welcome! We are sorry for our roads are so poor.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. I hate talking to men when I am off-guard and alone. I am also still coming to terms with the decidedly random introductions I receive from strangers. “No, I like. I like Africa.”
“Good,” he said, waving cheerfully, speaking deliberately and slowly in the highly punctuated way of Mozambican English. “Nice to. Meet. You.” He continued in the opposite direction.
I had been trying to hide my sweet but the warm bun in my hand was distracting. Glancing around and finding myself alone, I stole a bite.
Then, in a flash of dirty clothes and fingernails, came the zombie beggar woman of Bairro B. I literally gasped. From behind a grass fence appeared a haggard, tired-looking woman, dragging her left foot behind her in a sort of drag-step, drag-step gait. Her clothes were ripped and torn and a large chunk of breast was clearly visible.
“Bom dia,” I said, trying to be gentle and unobtrusive. I changed my course somewhat.
“Estou a pedir sua doce?” she said. I am asking for your sweet. What was jarring was that she spoke completely without dignity. She was begging, her voice whiny and wheedling.
“You are asking for… my sweet?” I asked, backpedaling, stalling for time. “But…half for me, half for my husband.”
She thrust her hands towards me. “Estou a pedir sua doce?”
It was as if I had been hit with a twenty-pound weight. I was drenched in guilt. Why could I afford this sweet cake? Why was this fair? Would giving her the cake make things fair?
“Umm… pouco,” I said, hesitantly, ripping off a piece of the cake. She received it with both hands and thanked me with embarrassing profuseness.
“Obrigada, obrigada.” She limped away, disappearing into a neighboring compound. It was with a start that I realized that she had been the same age as my mother in the United States. I stumbled home in a daze, rethinking my position as an American in Africa. The rest of the cake tasted like sand. I gave it to Dan.
In Paul Theroux’s novel, “Dark Star Safari,” he notes that Africans tend to treat Americans with a “weird, rude sense of entitlement. “ It makes me wonder. Do I owe my community something simply because I am American? Do they feel as if I owe them? Is it not enough that I am here to teach? There is no easy answer.
I will still buy sweets, I think, but in the future I will avoid the zombie-infested heartland of Bairro B.
An Introduction to Snakes
My first introduction to snakes in Africa came from my sister.
“How do you say this animal?” I asked, trailing a finger along the ground and making a hissing sound.
“Aeee!” said my sister. “Cobra!” In Mozambique, the word “cobra” comes from somewhere deep in the chest, a guttural expulsion of disgust. Goe-brrra.
“All are cobra?” I asked.
“Cobra,” she confirmed. “Aeee!”
The following week, I was planning a trip to the nearby waterfalls with a few American friends. One girl called to say she couldn’t make it.
“Oh. Why not?” I asked.
“My Mozambican family is scared of the waterfalls for some reason.” She said. “I’ll come some other time.”
Another confirmed that she would be coming but that her adopted sisters weren’t allowed to come with her- the Cascades were “off limits” to children. Her family had explained the situation to her.
“At the waterfalls, you must watch out for very dangerous snakes. Specifically, at the top of the waterfall, you will find a shiny rock. You must take care to avoid the large snake that lives under this shiny rock.”
Our third friend had also been warned about the exact same beast: The-Cobra-under-the-Shiny-Rock-at-the-Top-of-the-Waterfalls-Aeee. I made a mental note that this would make a good children’s tale if I needed material in the future.
We had a wonderful trip but never did encounter the mythical serpent. My first snake encounter, actually, occurred on the same day as my cake-zombie encounter. I was walking to class alone and nearly tripped on a rock in the middle of the road. Startled, I looked down to find the toe of my shoe against the engorged belly of a patterned adder. The snake was dead. It had been battered beyond belief. The skull was crushed, the neck and body cavern were torn open. A rock sat atop the dead body, a superstitious act. Predictably, I was repulsed. I was surprised, though, by a sudden flood of relief. I was glad that snake was dead.
The fear of snakes runs deep here. The community throbs with a tangible dread. I have never heard my sister say “cobra” without adding an “Aeee!” at the end. My professors shudder at the word. In a world where antivenin is unobtainable and venom is quick, a snakebite can be viciously deadly, much more so than in the United States. So with a big toe butted up against the shredded belly of the mysterious snake, this reptile-loving American shuddered with relief to find it so cruelly, and unmistakably, dead.
The Time I Stole a Crianca
There is a toddler on my street who loves me for no reason. The most likely explanation is that she thinks I am someone else. I don’t have the heart to disillusion her, nor do I have the capacity to explain: First, she is only two years old, and second, she doesn’t speak Portuguese. I have no other option but to be that girl she clearly adores.
As I walked home from school at the end of a morning session, this girl was waiting for me in the center (the center!) of our long dirt road. When she saw me, her face broke into a giant smile and her hands went straight up over her head.
“Ola, menina!” I said. “Ola, little girl!” I can say anything I want to this child but have decided that the best course of action is to stick with very simple Portuguese. She had on a frilly pink T-shirt and was wearing only one sandal, which was on the wrong foot. Because the shoe made her taller on the right-hand side, she walked with a very stiff up-down, up-down limp. She looked like a little old man.
I picked her up and shook her around a little bit. She gurgled. Then, because it was hot and because I really didn’t feel like playing, I put her down and waved goodbye.
“Tchau-tchau, menina. Vou a minha casa.” Bye-bye, little girl. I go to my house.
But, as is often the case, Little Girl was not done with me yet. She put up her small hand in a charming “hold hands?” gesture.
“Bom, menina. Vamos juntas.” Fine, little girl. We go together.
Hand in hand, we made our way down the street. She grinned at the passers-by, proud to have such a friend.
“Voce gosta minha crianca nova?” I asked the school children we passed. Do you like my new little girl?
We walked slowly. I was leaning to the right, trying to accommodate the little fist. Little Girl was shuffling along on her single bare foot, up-down, up-down. We finally reached my house, about 500 yards down the road.
“Entao… tchau, menina.” So… bye, little girl. I attempted to pry my hand from hers. She let me let go and stood there, watching me. Suddenly, I realized what I had done. I had stolen a crianca! I had taken a two-year old from her own front yard, walked her down the street, and attempted to leave her a quarter-mile from where I found her.
This wouldn’t do! This wouldn’t do at all! What had I been thinking?
Well, I couldn’t leave her there and I couldn’t make her walk again on her little bare foot. I had no choice but to pick her up and carry her all the way back up to the top of the road.
This time, I got lots of stares.
I realized that I didn’t know exactly where she lived. I would have to approximate. I put her down along the side of the road near where I had found her.
“Tchau, menina. Tchau-tchau-tchau.” I started to walk away. Deftly, like a second zombie in so many days, she began to limp after me.
“No, menina!” I said. “No!” She continued to follow me.
I broke into a jog.
“No, menina, no!”
She limped after me, arms outstretched. Her mouth was stretched into an I-AM-ABOUT-TO-CRY face. Unsure about what to do, I broke into a run.
“BYE MENINA!” I yelled. Most people were staring now.When I returned home, I glanced back up the street. Little Girl was a tiny dot at the top of the hill. Once again, she was back in the center of the road, staring in the direction I had come from just ten minutes before. She was waiting, waiting, waiting, for her friend to come back and steal her one more time.