“I want to ask what country you are from.”
He had been staring at me while I searched out taxi prices to kakata. An older man, slender, graying, with a sort of lean that I assume was palm wine induced, and a cigarette dangling from his fingers.
When I replied he said, “but you are a black from America.”
I concurred but was feeling uneasy. I knew how this was going to go before he approached me. When he was staring at me as people are prone to staring at me. I knew and yet I was torn between who I am and who I have become through experience.
He held out his hand to shake mine and I acquiesced. The handshake lingered inappropriately and I tried to tactfully remove it from his grasp. He continued to talk. “I lived in Germany for a while, but my family -brothers and sisters – are naturalized citizen in that America. I would like to talk to you.”
“you’re talking to me right now.”
And then he made a kissing gesture and said something about visiting me that I didn’t quite  hear because I turned brusquely, scanned the street for oncoming traffic and crossed without looking back.
The seasoned part of me wanted to ignore him as soon as he approached. There was nothing tangible to base it on but in my gut I could feel this scene play out even before it did. South Africa attuned my sense, making my hyperaware of all circumstance that might result in being molested by taxi drivers, police officers, or random men who wanted to “greet” me.
The problem is complex though. Part of it is that it is in my nature to smile and speak. I’m southern. Not to mention I give what I’d like to receive – and friendly open faces make my days easier -they are like gifts of sunshine in England or gifts of shade in Liberia.
The other issue is that I’m a guest here. Moreover, I’m a guest doing a job. Beyond my work with the Ministry of Health, I am also an American- a black American – and fair or not people assign what they know of a country – of a people – to whatever representation they have access to. So if I’m rude. If I’m sullen or antisocial. Hell, if I’m just having a bad day, that ceases to be just me and begins to be…peace corps volunteers, Americans, blacks, foreign women, white women…
My first few months in South Africa were brutal for me in this vein. Trying to navigate the nuances of a place that values people and greetings like no other place I’ve been while balancing my “otherness“ that drew so much attention proved difficult. And after a plethora of inappropriate comments and touching, I shut down. At one point I stopped talking to men. Period.
sitting in a khumbie (minivan taxi) in Pietersburg, a young man persisted in talking to me. He kept trying to get my attention. He may even have tapped me on my arm. For the entire ride…more than an hour, I ignored him. I never even made eye contact. I sat rigid in my seat staring out the window at the passing scenery. Back in the township, preparing for the last leg of my trip into my village, I realized that same man was on my taxi heading for Makushoaneng. He was someone from my village who couldn’t remember my name but who remembered my face. And now he’d remember this.
I snubbed him. Pretended as if he didn’t exist.
And it doesn’t matter that I was reacting to a dozen other people who didn’t have my best interest at heart, he‘ll never know that…it only matters that I was “too good” or “thought too little of him” to talk to someone who might have become my friend.
But my gut is usually right.
I can usually feel out a situation in the first few moments and foresee if it will end in “take me to America” or “I’ll visit you tonight” complete with a leer or something else suggestive…but I persist in having the conversation, in giving the benefit of the doubt. When I feel compelled to be rude without provocation or to dismiss someone before I have cause my mind recalls that taxi ride in South Africa.
Walking back to my house I spotted two familiar faces. They both smiled greeting and we fell into step talking about the holidays and the coming weeks. Roland and Jallah walked me through the nursing campus to a new shop I’d heard about. They taught me how to say “I’m not a white woman”, we talked soccer and they walked me home. Fully respectful. simply friendly and open as people are wont to be friendly and open.
South Africa, or the stooped man with a cigarette could have colored my reaction to them. I could have smiled tightly and walked quickly on. But I would have missed a walk through my community with a couple of friends; and people, more than place, make anywhere home.

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