Where have all the Zeros Gone?

A note on our visit to the Southern part of Africa

“Give me feefty!” the wizened ten year old boy announced, “I am huun’gry.” The haggling process was now at a critical stage. In fact, it was over. But in typical Mozambiquean style, it never is over. Settling on a price, handing over the money and receiving the goods are not sufficient indications to the Mozambiquean child-cum-man trader that we should now part. It is quite a strange strategy, after all, what is it that makes these children think that after the business transaction is done, appealing for more money – and sometimes shirts or shorts – will lead to more being given? Sympathy? Maybe. Or is it that they are irresistibly cute, ‘cutishness’ that has no equivalent in the civilized world?

In any case, R had a slightly larger soft spot for these kids than I did. She obviously appreciated the necessity of haggling, even more the mutual expectation of haggling. But unlike me, she – sensibly – regarded haggling as a means (evil) to an end where as I had slowly grown accustomed to haggling to the point of enjoying it in and of itself. At certain moments in the haggling process I would see her bargaining defenses collapsing and from beneath emerges an irresistible ‘her’ that is exceptionally intoxicating to watch and that, naturally, brings the haggling process to an immediate halt. 

It must have been the bizarreness of the situation: Here we are legs folded and crossed on the concrete floor and in front of us a beautiful ten year old boy selling us hand-crafted ash trays and other tourist paraphernalia. Your first impulse, in fact the only natural impulse is to play with them, make them laugh, strike a conversation, the kind of special conversation that emerges when an adult actually talks to a child as they would talk to some one they respect. But no. You are expected to take that child in all seriousness, stifle your laughs, hide your smiles and haggle to the last twenty meticals! But when the absurdity of the situation reaches magnanimous proportions, when I find myself engaged in a heated haggle over a few coins, R would come to the rescue. She would do or say a small thing that would remind me that the person in front of me is a child, a ten year old boy.

The manifestations of poverty are significantly more intriguing than its causes. These young children have been irretrievably indoctrinated in to seeing tourists as a money-source (which, relatively speaking, they are). Despite my numerous attempts at playing with these children, I failed. It was almost impossible to divert their attention from their desire to sell you something and when you did you could only have a few snippets of conversation. Only once was I able to strike a personal conversation with an older boy and that was cut short by the re-emergence of money. He was seventeen and earlier in the day he had sold me a hand-made necklace. He approached me while I was sipping a cold beer in the sun.

“My friend, how are you. Would you like a smoke?”
“A smoke?” I asked.
“Yes, a big cigarette”.
“Oh.. No thanks I don’t smoke much weed, don’t like it anymore.”
“You know, me too. My friends smoke all the time but I don’t do it. It’s not good for you.”
“Good. So, tell me Fernando, do you go to school?”
“Yes, I finish this year”
“And what plans do you have next?”
“I will continue selling bracelets and other things but I want to work at one of the bars or restaurants here in Tofo.”
A bunch of younger boys approached us and asked him if he wants to play cards with them. He agreed and at that the four of them sat in a circle on the sand, took out a few hundred metical notes from their pockets, a deck of cards and let the games begin! I watched for a few minutes while the little hands exchanged money and, immediately, I was left out as the glimmer of the potential wins paralysed their social curiosity.

Back in the capital, Maputo, the situation was different. We certainly remained sources of money but over here it was less personal and more threatening. A brief look at the city map reminds you of the post-colonial struggle for identity and direction and the strange choices that countries make. Most major streets and avenues were named after long-lost communist figures: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Kwameh Nukromah. Among the crumbling colonial buildings and the fading avenues exists a make-shift city were, during the day, street vendors are scattered along the pavements and, when night falls, the streets are deserted save for several small groups of officially dressed men on patrol donning guns and a bizarre attitude. We had the luck of running in to a threesome. A minor traffic offense was described as a “big mistake” and we were given the choice of going to the police station or accepting the benevolence of the security guards and buying my license back for 2 million (sorry 2000, the government has removed three zeros from the almost worthless Mozambiquean currency to give the illusion of de-flation) meticals. Upon declaring that we would rather go to the police station (apparently the right move) the offer was immediately reduced to 1000 meticals, which we paid.

The thing that bugged me the most was not the money, not even supporting corruption, it was, rather, the fact that these men who have just robbed us have an arsenal of justifications to soothe their conscience. Rob me, God damn it, but do feel bad about it! Humans must react to poverty. I was always amazed at the indigent old man bundled up on a Cairo pavement extending his arm with the last ounce of motivation for a few pounds that would barely take him through to the next day. While on the other extreme you find the scheming, sycophantic government official who effectively robs you at every opportunity to do the job he was employed to do. I would give money to the old man anytime. Poverty does not justify moral weakness, nor should it automatically lead to it. The kids on the Tofo beaches understood this very well, but for how long?

Back at Tofo I had the opportunity to meet a thirty year old, Franco, who I presume started his life like the numerous kids scattered along the beach, selling bracelets and the like to tourists. We met at a beach bar where, initially, we thought he is simply one of the patrons. I bought him a beer and he initiated a conversation with R. Moments later he was spreading out his hand-made paintings in an attempt to sell her a few. From that night onwards he tried, in different ways, to foster a relationship that he, outwardly, was at pains to present as a friendship yet at every opportunity he was trying to get something from us. It was pitiful and annoying yet all the same endearing. I guess we are money-sources after all. The numerous associations and heavy baggage that we carry with us – not just through the colour of our skin (strictly speaking I am not black, Beige maybe?) or the style of our clothes but by the very fact of our presence in a resort that a select few Mozambiquans can afford to visit – immediately places us in a fortified category, one where there is limited hope of escape. At times I thought it is pretentious, even downright arrogant of me to demand human contact with people who spent the best part of their childhood scourging for money. The limits of contact must be drawn somewhere and there are things that even the most good-willed strategy will not alleviate: I did not fully comprehend the world of Franco because if I did I would have not felt annoyed by him and warmth might have been the predominant emotion.

The atmosphere a few miles away, in Swaziland, was different. It was certainly less poor than Mozambique or at least that was the general impression I got. On top of the highest peak at Mlilwane nature reserve we had the opportunity to hear Knowledge, our guide for the evening, give us pearls of wisdom. He was a thirty-something black man clad in safari gear. “My name is Knowledge,” he proudly declared when we asked him with suspicion despite a clear name badge, “there are only two of us, and the other one is dead.” The King of Swaziland has 22 wives, he began. Each year, sometime in the beginning of September, a major festival is organized where the majority of eligible Swazi women perform a ‘reed dance’ for the King’s sharp eyes. The chosen one becomes the King’s next wife. Knowledge is single, as he volunteered to tell us while asserting that he, too, can have more than one wife. Alas poor knowledge; he is single as he can’t afford even one wife. Twenty cows is the required dowry, evidently an enormous financial feat for a poor park ranger. 

So, when our rules and values cease to match reality, what do we change? There are eight million young Egyptian men and women who want to get married but cant. On one hand you have the highly unrealistic demands made by the bride’s family; a huge dowry, a flat and so on. On the other you have a political and economic situation that makes it virtually impossible for a young university graduate to find a job, let alone afford a flat. The result? Hordes of deprived, unfulfilled young adults with no jobs and zero future prospects. Societies are like stubborn mules, whose structure is maintained through power and where change is resisted mainly to protect the status co. It is painful to watch a society paralysed by its own contradicting commitments. And here I am thinking of Egypt. The required social change that should accompany the faded capitalism imposed on this country never occurred. Holding on to old traditions and forging – as a means of resistance – a new value-system loosely based on Islam, the people of Egypt are, to use a well trodden saying, stuck between a rock and a hard place. The problem does not lie in whatever values the people collectively hold but in the obvious mismatch between those values and the reality of life in 21st century Egypt. Again, we must ask, what do we change?

I suppose history shows that people only change their values and the ‘rules of engagement’ after too much had been lost already. They generally tend to keep on maintaining the status co at any expense. And that maintenance is invariably achieved through brute force and power. Wouldn’t the Egyptian predilection and expectation for conformity be just an instance of such power? Wouldn’t, in a much more obvious way, the blatant White South African racism be a major exercise of power? The South African experiment shows that there is nothing to be lost in opening up the dams and accommodating to reality, nothing but the slogans, guns and oppression of the power-wielders. The difference in Egypt lies in the fact that the oppressors and the victims are one and the same; ever present and ever contradictory in the collective consciousness of this land.


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