“Asa” they cry as I pass them on a bicycle taxi. A word meaning ‘whoa, check that out’ (more or less!). A person with white skin using a bicycle taxi – who’d have thought! When I walk by it’s a similar shout, “Ayyyy, azungu” – “Look! Someone with white skin.” And when I’m on our motorbike? You guessed it. Laughter, pointing and cries of exclamation and disbelief. It’s the same for Andrew, though perhaps being a man on a motorbike doesn’t draw quite the same astonishment. When I’m in a car (with a friend or for work) I have no idea what happens. I can’t hear and I don’t look. Ignorance is bliss. But I have a hunch that that’s how people expect me to travel and so might not draw the same interest.
What gets me is that I’ve taken a bicycle taxi to or from work probably 200 times in the last 2 years. I’ve used a motorbike maybe 100 times and walked the rest of the time. It’s the same 2.5km route every day and yet still it draws attention from those I pass en route. Why? Do I look or act so different from you? Every day there is someone who’s never seen me and for whom I’m an object of interest worth loudly exclaiming about. I suppose it’s mostly just interest, but that said there are those (usually young men) whose comments are more mocking. Less surprise and more “Hey everyone the azungu is coming. Look, look and laugh.” “Hey bicycle taxi driver, your passenger is an azungu (like he didn’t notice). It’s your lucky day, charge triple.” It’s draining. The beautiful walk becomes a source of stress. Even when I try and look straight ahead the stares enter my peripheral vision. I walk praying that that group of kids I’m about to pass don’t see me. It never works, and the “a-zu-ngu, a-zu-ngu” chants are repeat over and over and over and over and over. Louder and louder and louder. Now the people 500m up the road also know I’m coming. Great. The kids are already appearing from their houses to join in the chorus. A-zu-ngu, a-zu-ngu, a-zu-ngu. It’s all around me now, accompanying my journey, an audible warning of my presence. I still have 15 minutes walk left and I’m wishing for invisibility. I’m concentrating on every step, paranoid that I’ll trip, or do something that will cause laughter. I just want to pass by, anonymously. On the motorbike in the market it’s worse. I pray that it’ll start first time, scared that I’ll stall in front of the young men. That always draws a mocking laughter.
Being a stranger, an object, drains on you like you wouldn’t believe. It’s something that we won’t miss much when we leave Mozambique. But we do have something like a safe zone and a place where being special or interesting is fine, some of the time at least. As I get nearer to home some of the kids shout “ti-tia!”, meaning Auntie – a sign of familiarity and respect. Nearer still and it’s my name too, “Tia Joana, tia Joana!” It’s still attention, I still can’t walk by unnoticed, but it’s different. I recognise these kids, some of them I know by name. The panic subsides and I even begin to enjoy the welcome. It’s something special when our neighbours’ daughter sings and dances my homecoming every day.
Even so, the intrigue continues amongst those we know. It’s still funny to them when we eat with our hands or eat the local cuisine even though I do it in every get together with them and every time I visit villages. But they also chuckle when we eat with cutlery, they find that intriguing too. Sometimes they laugh when we carry water from the well to our house, which we have to do all the time. They laugh when we struggle to do that. I sometimes wonder what’s so interesting about me, or so strange about the way I do life.
I suppose it’s just that we’re from such a different world to them, but I kind of thought that after this amount of time we’d be boring by now. Maybe there is just so much that we do differently, even subconsciously, that there’s always something that is new. We’ve tried to explain obvious things – why we have to stop to put this strange cream on our skin if we’re in the sun, why we never eat nshima at home, why a meal for us is as much about the flavour as it is about the carbohydrate stodge that goes with it, why we walk up mountains for fun. Our closest friends’ questions and intrigue is never oppressive in the same way as that from those in the market. It’s more often than not an eagerness to learn about new things and a genuine surprise that we try to live life like they do even though we don’t have to. When you remember that the intent is not hostile it feels more refreshing. I hope the closest people to us understand us now a bit better, and I hope we’ve been open enough to learn from them.
It’s certainly going to be a more anonymous life away from Mozambique. In a way we’re like celebrities here. Going from celebrity to no-one is going to be an interesting challenge. Andrew says that reminds him of a plot from Game of Thrones. If you follow it, you’ll know what he’s talking about!