Sunday, after worship and a large community dinner, we drove back from Ressano Garcia towards Matola and on to our hotel in Maputo. Ezy, a friend and colleague who lives in Mozambique, drove. The chilling morning clouds in Ressano gave way to intense sun, and the truck’s interior warmed quickly with no air conditioning to curb the rising temperature. By early afternoon, we were sweating in our seats, even with the windows down.
I’ve ridden that stretch with Ezy many times. Ressano sits right on the border with South Africa, up in the rocky hills with slightly cooler temperatures. Several congregations worship along the corridor that runs to the border, and they make for easy stops when someone from my office visits Maputo. We’d worshiped that morning with the church right on the border, Ezy, two other colleagues from Missouri and me.
On the road, trash litters the highway, though some of the best pavement in Mozambique allows easy access for trucks entering South Africa from the Port of Maputo or vice versa. At Matola, about half way between Maputo and Ressano, the smoke from a constantly burning trash dump makes it hard to breathe. It burns your eyes and clouds your vision. On either side of the dump, people set up makeshift stands, cooking chickens or selling fruit.
Dinner in Ressano had been lavish. The women cooked over a fire, grilled chicken, sima (a heavy cornmeal porridge that tastes like thick grits), matapa (a dish made from cassava) and several dishes I’d never experienced. After the meal, after two hours of extremely active worship, in which we dealt with three languages, English, Portuguese and Xitswa, after twenty hours of flying the day before, the heavy meal and a poor night of sleep, all of us from Missouri started to doze in the hot truck.
I woke just before it happened. I opened my eyes and saw the semi-trailer immediately in front of us. I looked around to get my bearings and knew were were near Matola, still forty minutes from the hotel, assuming the traffic didn’t jam. I began to settle back, to allow myself to sleep a little more. But, then ahead of the semi, a chapa, a small public minibus crammed with at least a dozen people, slammed on its brakes. Sometimes chapa drivers do that to pick up a rider they’d missed. The sudden stop created a chain reaction, the semi slamming its brakes just as hard. I only remember seeing the tail lights. I don’t know what I thought, but my colleagues woke when Ezy slammed on his brakes. They screamed, and Ezy cut the wheel hard to the left, swerving onto the side of the road to avoid crashing into the trailer. Several people were purchasing fruit, a kind that I’d never seen, dark reddish orange on the outside. Maybe they were peaches. I didn’t really look closely enough. Whatever they were, they were piled on the side of the road and Ezy’s swerve ran over several, ruining what had to be dozens. Somehow, he’d avoided all cars and people.
I could tell the close-call bothered Ezy, but he put the truck in reverse, backed up, and eased himself back on the road as traffic cleared. I took time to recover. We had nearly hit the semi’s trailer. That would have been horrific. We may have been injured or killed. But, maybe more troubling, we could have hit one of the throngs of people at the fruit stand, children, young mothers carrying their babies. I gathered myself and said what I genuinely felt, “Ezy, you’re really good at this.” He laughed and said something about not panicking. That’s true. He never panics.
But, let’s be honest, while no one is calmer, more collected, than Ezy, he drives a little too fast, he and everyone else in Mozambique. The near miss wasn’t my first. I’ve ridden many miles with various drivers in Mozambique. Colleagues from Missouri have ridden even more. It’s just a world of wild driving, not unlike other developing countries. The rules of the road, stated and implied, are just different. The entire place is just different.
Maybe that’s why I like going, the difference, the wildness. Maybe it’s why so many United Methodists in Missouri have gone: to experience difference. It seems good to take some risks, to experience the unpredictability. If an American, particularly an American Christian, hasn’t done that somewhere in the world, I think that person would do themselves a favor by giving it a try. That’s neither new nor unique advice. Television is full of travel show hosts like Anthony Bourdain who speak and write so positively about encountering other cultures.
That said, I want to offer a word of caution, or maybe critique, though one that might seem surprising: please don’t be too nice. Nice, can be negative. I’ll explain.
I’ve been to Mozambique with many Americans, and like all travel writers and those involved with mission or charitable work, I’m always dismayed by the insensitive, even mean, “American” attitude that the rest of the world has come to hate. Make no mistake. It’s never ok to complain about hospitality that’s offered. It’s never ok to be critical without really understanding someone. It’s not ok to be rude or mean. It’s never ok to refuse to accept a gift, even if it’s food that might worry your sensitive American digestive system. Americans who are too afraid to accept hospitality with graciousness ought to stay home. At the same time, there’s another attitude that drives me even crazier, one to which I’m prone myself.
Too many Americans, especially those working through the Church, go to a place like Mozambique and see the warmth, the graciousness, the hospitality and receive it with absolutely no hostility. That’s great, but then, for some reason, especially upon reflection, they go too far. They begin to idealize the people and the country.
In the minds of too many of the visitors I know, Mozambique, for all its struggles, becomes Edenic. The people become angelic, even deified and the language we use to describe them borders on ridiculous. At its worst, this sort of attitude so idealizes an entire people, especially those in an impoverished place, that it condescends. The Mozambicans start to sound like well-behaved children or Rousseau’s noble savages (and yes, I know Rousseau never used that phrase). We say things like, “They’re just so sweet,” or “They have nothing, but everyone you meet is just so happy here.” It also gets carried out as critique of home. “We are so excessive and should be ashamed when these people are so happy with so little.”
I’ll be gracious. I suspect that all of this, is just a rolling out of the guilt so endemic to Americans, especially white Americans. It isn’t just that we’re unfairly privileged. It’s that we feel guilty for it and even guiltier for the fact that we won’t ever willingly give it up. I don’t say this to point a finger at my fellow Americans. I do it too. I’ve written and spoken many times of the warmth shown me in Mozambique, and I’ve struggled to adjust to American excess when I come home. I’m actually writing part of this entry in the American Airlines Admirals Club at London’s Heathrow Airport. I have all the food and drink I can consume, a soft leather chair and a place to plug my laptop (with both UK and US outlets). I certainly feel a level of guilt having just left Mozambique sixteen hours early. Right now, especially after an American woman elbowed her way past me to take the last of the breakfast croissants, I want to say, “Mozambique has it right and we, in the West, have it wrong.”
But, that’s all just nonsense. My guilt gets in the way of seeing the truth. Every Mozambican isn’t happy. And everyone in the west isn’t greedy and gluttonous, doesn’t push weary travelers aside to get a pastry. Like Americans, Mozambicans aren’t all warm. Some are rude, conniving, dishonest, just like some Americans. When I go, I’m well received because I’m visiting churches, and as an American, especially traveling with my bishop, I’m a dignitary. If I went certain other places, I might also be robbed, cheated or even ignored, just like back home. Mozambique is a developing nation, barely forty years into independence, with lots of needs. It’s neither perfect nor entirely flawed. It’s people neither all saints nor all sinners. The U.S. is a developed country with more than 200 more years of independence than Mozambique, and, while the wealth has further developed, it’s people are also a constant mix of saint and sinner.
The Mozambicans I know aren’t children. They are thoughtful, smart and shrewd in a host of areas. Ezy’s just one example. He has a degree in agronomy and a Master’s in translation studies. He’s very smart and knows multiple cultures as well as I know my own. I know several others, men and women, who are exceptionally gifted at their jobs and working with them, even when we disagree, is exciting, sometimes difficult, but always satisfying.
I’m just tired of seeing and hearing Americans simplify people in sub-Saharan Africa into artificial types. I’m tired of doing it myself. Travel transforms us because we must do it among and with other human beings, all their own unique mix of gifts and flaws. To treat or think of a people otherwise, positively or negatively, as monsters or as innocent children, is to miss their humanity and to absolutely prohibit real relationship, to curb any hope of any positive transformation. When we make that mistake, we lose the most critical blessings of unity created when we actually engage with real people in real places.
Let’s just be honest: while it’s always improving, Mozambique is a hard, gritty, exhausting place. Very recently, its government has apparently misappropriated $2 billion of money from the International Monetary Fund. After its struggle for independence it ripped itself apart in civil war, and while foreign powers definitely played a role, it took actual Mozambicans fighting with other Mozambicans to fuel the war for almost two decades. Malaria is still endemic, as are other illnesses. Roads can be horrendous, axle-breaking dirt paths. And, the water still isn’t clean enough to drink, at least in most of the country.
Even my friends there, while I absolutely treasure them, they aren’t perfect. They can’t be. To treat them as if they are would be to rob them of what makes them so special: they are all unique people, capable of exceptional acts of kindness, of exuding warmth and hospitality, who sing amazingly well (much better than Americans), even as they hurt, grieve, get too proud and sin. That must be true or they couldn’t be my friends. If that’s not true, then we aren’t even close to being equals, to being real partners, serving each other, taking care of each other. Let’s just be honest about the world, about people and maybe most importantly, ourselves. We are all flawed and because of that we all need each other. Because of that, we have the capacity to actually engage with each other. And, when we find each other, when we treat each other as real people, we are truly blessed in the relationship.
If I’m honest, and really think about it, sometimes Ezy, like the rest of his country, and many in mine, drives wildly. I’m sure he’s flawed in other ways too. But, he’s one of a very few people anywhere in the world in whose hands I entrust my life and well-being. For that matter, he’s one of a very few people, Mozambican or American, who I count as a true friend. Imperfect or not, he has my highest respect and regard as a colleague and person. What else could I say? After all, he’s saved my life more than once, metaphorically and quite literally. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.