A Timeline of Privilege

April 30th, 2015

  • James takes a walk in the evening. He finds himself on a small path winding through the river basin just below his house. The sun sinks below the hill behind him and the light on the landscape grays. The closer he gets to the stream, the colder and heavier the air feels. And for a moment he is no longer in Mozambique. He finds himself in the meadow in Mission Trails Regional Park, the grass taller than his head. He finds himself along the Riverside Walk behind Mast Park, where the cold from the San Diego River seeps into the air and embraces him in a swift hug. He loves it. He closes his eyes and breathes through his nose. He loves the feeling of home. But the sensation is ephemeral; he is far from home. The feeling gives way to guilt. He feels guilty about enjoying, above all else, the aspects of Mozambique that remind him of his home, as if Mozambique could only be worthwhile in the ways that it is similar to where he comes from. He recalls the words of a friend: maybe these places don’t make him happy because they’re an escape from Africa, but because he is discovering that they can also exist in Africa, that he can form a connection between home there and home here. He holds on to this thought.

1858

  • The famous explorer David Livingstone travels up the Zambezi River from its mouth. He was sent to Africa by the London Missionary Society. Livingstone turns north up the Shire River and “discovers” Lake Malawi, where Africans have been living for centuries.

May 9th, 2015

  • James finds a friend. His name is Angelino. He comes from Beira, a city along the central Mozambican coast, but he and his brothers moved to Lichinga with their father. Angelino is 21 or 22 – he’s not quite sure. He did not complete twelfth grade. He wants to attend a training institute to become a customs officer, but the course is expensive. For now he does odd jobs, like making bricks. James and Angelino hike to Matama – a small mountain in the east of Lichinga that rises out of the pine forest. With Angelino, the meadows and mountains become something James enjoys, something he shares with his friend, something that is good because of the company and not because of the memories it evokes. James’ initial guilt, however, is replaced with a new guilt. He feels it strongly after a sunrise hike to Matama with Angelino. The pot is a small pot, a GSI Outdoor backpacking pot with a collapsible, orange handle. I took it out on the summit to boil water for tea with an alcohol stove I made from a tin can and some methylated spirits. He just stared. The orange handle jutted towards him like the magnetic needle of a compass. I felt the need to justify myself, telling him that I had begun to acquire backpacking supplies over the years (not a lie) because it is my hobby. He did not speak.

1884-1885

  • The European powers meet at the Berlin Conference to formally partition Africa into colonial territories. No African peoples have any say over the division of their homelands.

May 10th, 2015

  • James flies to Nampula city for his Re-Connect conference at the end of the first trimester. His roommate calls him that evening. Their house has been burglarized. Someone ripped off the metal grate covering the small bathroom window. It must have been a local, everyone will tell James in the weeks to come, because he did it during the day. He knew you would be gone, they tell James. They always use the word “he.” After the phone call, James feels helpless. He can feel a rushing energy in the veins of his arms; a tightening in his sore shoulder; a heaviness in his stomach. The bathroom window. The window above the toilet. The one window Angelino would have stared at when I let him use the bathroom yesterday. James should not be hungry – he already had two plates of Chinese food and some street food that afternoon – but he is starving. He begins to eat. He has another plate of Chinese food. He drinks a beer. He has an ice cream cone. He drinks a beer. He has another ice cream cone. He drinks another beer. When he gets back to his hotel room, he vomits Chinese food. He vomits until there is no more food in his stomach. Then he falls asleep.

1964

  • The Frente de Libertação Mozambicana begins waging a guerrilla war against the Portuguese state in eastern Africa.

May 29th, 2015

  • Angelino stops by James’s home to talk. A man came and took Angelino’s dog, a wiry puppy with pointy ears named Scooby Doo even though he looks more like Scrappy Doo. The man claimed that Scooby Doo is his, that Angelino stole the dog. The man has other puppies that are clearly Scooby’s siblings. James tells Angelino that they should go speak with the man, attempt to arrange something. He says so without hesitation. He is especially fond of Scooby Doo. When Angelino leaves, James mentions the situation to his roommate. His roommate responds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he did steal the dog.” James doesn’t know what to say. He feels as though the orange handle of his backpacking pot is stabbing him in the stomach. It hit me then, the realization that perhaps I’m just the white man who can be a source of money for him. Can I trust him to be my friend or should I suspect he is merely taking advantage of me? I was torn by this doubt today. It is a mixture of guilt for my place of privilege and sinking loneliness at the thought of being exploited. I don’t want to be exploited. Perhaps neither did every Mozambican during the 500 years of colonialism. I need to organize these thoughts better.

1975

  • Mozambique gains independence after the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal is overthrown. The Resistencia Nacional Mozambicana begins waging a civil war against the new government in Mozambique.

June 7th, 2015

  • James meets Fátima to give her a small bottle of honey for her lingering cough. They first met in December, when James had just arrived in Lichinga. Fátima made James go to church with her. Fátima is not a Jehova’s Witness, but she likes the stories from the Bible and she likes that everyone at the church does not drink, so she attends regularly. Fátima tells James that she is his mother while he is in Mozambique. Today she lectures him for twenty minutes. She tells him that when the people here see James they think he has money. People here don’t have money, so when they see someone with money, they don’t like that person. They want to take the money. She says James can’t wander around with just any person that wants to hang out. She says he can only have one friend. Choose one friend in whom you can trust, and make excuses not to hang out with anyone else who asks. She tells James that he has to be in his house before 5pm everyday. She tells him he should only leave the house in the mornings, and once he has done what he needs to do he has to go right back home. She tells him that the people here don’t like him because he is white. They want to take advantage of him. Then she asks him to repeat back to her what she told him. The entire time she speaks her left breast hangs out of her shirt for the baby wrapped around her back to suckle. James can’t help but watch it as she speaks. It seems to shrivel throughout the lecture, to disappear. The baby cries out once. There doesn’t seem to be anything left inside. Fátima has never tasted honey before.

1992

  • The Rome General Peace Accords mark an official end to the civil war in Mozambique. James is born in a hospital in southern California.

June 17, 2015

  • I’ve been waiting to write this post. “Let muddy water sit and it grows clear.” I’ve been waiting for the water to settle, for the dirt to sink to the bottom and allow me to read its message. Maybe the dirt has no message. Maybe it is still settling. In the muddy meantime, I’m a bit disoriented. I would say that my thoughts have settled, but mostly I choose not to confront the issue. That is, I choose to ignore the overwhelming force with which my privilege has become evident to me. I’ve labeled this as the “essential and unavoidable question of my Peace Corps experience.” So, naturally, I try to avoid thinking about it. I’m not quite sure how to approach the issue. What comes to mind now is the “Peace Corps approach to development”: to assist Mozambicans to use their own resources to meet their own needs. More and more I’ve come to realize that physical items, all of these things that I have, only separate me from Mozambicans. For example, my bicycle. My goddamn bicycle whose rear axel I’ve had to replace, whose seat I’ve had to weld, whose derailleur usurped four hours of my day today. When I ride it to the market, the locals stare me up and down as if I were a prostitute in a mini skirt. The men call out to me, but mostly I pretend not to hear them. There are Mozambicans with nicer bicycles than mine, but those bicycles are not mounted by white men. I am the white ghost of first world, male privilege floating through their lives. So often I am frustrated by the fatalistic tone in the voices of these catcalling men. They have accepted with such certainty their lot in this world. You are white, they tell me. You have everything we will never have. But how wrong are they? Their fatalism frustrates me because my experience has conditioned me to believe that, as long as I work hard enough, nothing is out of my reach. But that is the experience of a white male from southern California. That is the experience of a volunteer who will disappear from this African land after two years. This is not my reality. Lichinga, Mozambique is not my reality. It is my two-year adventure. How would I react if it were my life? I think of Fátima, my polar opposite mother: a black, third world woman. When I ride to the market, only male voices heckle me. The women stare in silence, more ghostly than I will ever be. But, as my host mother during training always reminded me, “Tomorrow is another day.” Fátima will rise before the sun. She will stir the coals from tonight’s cooking fire to reignite them. She’ll hold her hands above the flames to warm them. She will pull her shriveled breast from inside her dress and let the life be milked from her body. And long after I have left Mozambique, the sun will return without provocation each morning to milk more and more of the life from her.
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2 thoughts on “A Timeline of Privilege

  1. This is probably your best work thus far. (Have I said this before?)
    Your format, historical allusions, and intensely personal revelations make for an exquisite post.
    Thanks.

    Like

  2. Sorry to hear about the theft. I recently had my bike stolen off my balcony on the second floor of our apartment building. I also feel like it was the inevitable result of ‘white privilege’ and close proximity with people who were born with less. Nothing to do but move forward with greater awareness and caution.

    Looking forward to your next update. Hang in there!

    Like

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