Xenophobia & A Tale of Two Countries

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The neighborhood of Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Alek Shybut)

An hour before my bus departs, I’m sitting in a small restaurant in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, with a Coke and my phone open to sites about Cape Town. The television on the wall turns to the evening news, and the opening story is about the ongoing violence due to xenophobia near the area of Durban in South Africa.

I switch sites and do a quick Google search of xenophobia in South Africa. The definition is the first thing to pop up: “…the unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. Xenophobia can manifest in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an ingroup towards an outgroup, including a fear of losing identity, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity” (Wikipedia).

Under the news tab, articles are listed describing the political response to the xenophobic violence occurring throughout the country. Some deny its existence while others swear to battle to end the ongoing turbulence. Mozambicans are listed among the groups being attacked and sent back to their host country. Immediately I feel slighted. Members of the Frelimo party, the national party of Mozambique, are on the television decrying the violence.

Being a foreigner in a still new land, I find myself wondering in which group I am living: the ingroup or the outgroup. While I am not Mozambican, I often tell members of my community that I am in order to earn their trust. Often they laugh, but I know they understand my intentions. I am most certainly not South African, so that leaves American. However, with all the horrific events occurring within our country since leaving for Africa, it’s hard to relate to the political climate. I sit in silence in the restaurant, tangled in thought.

———————————

The bus is larger than I had thought with seats that completely recline in order to sleep during the first leg of my overnight trip from Maputo to Johannesburg. I find myself sitting on the second level of the bus in the very front with a large windshield in front of me, displaying the city lights of Maputo. My own personal observation deck.

“Excuse me,” a soft voice comes from behind, “but is anyone sitting next to you?”

A Mozambican man stands near to me, and I gesture toward the seat, welcoming him. We introduce ourselves, and I learn he is originally from Mozambican but has been living in Johannesburg for the majority of the past 10 years. He talks fondly about Mozambique and how it has changed over the course of its young 40-year history as an independent country.

We exchange notes on the different parts of the country, our favorite areas to visit, and the areas that still need the most help. We agree that Maputo has become somewhat of an urban sprawl, complete with western chains and South African product. He mentions the tea fields of Gurue. I mention the Portuguese architecture and untouched nature of Ilha de Moçambique. We laugh in our shared knowledge of quirks, mainly in the form of the national transportation. We stretch our legs toward the viewing window, laughing as we describe how it’s the complete opposite of traveling by chapa (small mini-buses).

Deep into the overnight trip following a few failed attempts at sleeping, he asks me if I’m Christian. I explain to him my experiences with faith, and he opens up to me about his own personal walk with his faith. He opens his phone and shares a book written by his favorite pastor. He promises to send me an e-mail with more information on the man, who he says is one of the wisest men he’s ever known. I’m grateful for his kindness.

The bus stops at a series of bright lights and small buildings blocking the highway. “Come on,” my friend says to me. “Let’s go.” The bus starts to empty, and I realize we’ve made it to the border of South Africa, and we are required to exit the bus, walk through the immigration process, and proceed to the other side by foot. It’s 3:00 a.m. and pitch black.

Passport in hand, I follow side by side with my friend and the other passengers of the sleeper bus. Immigration involves queuing for a while, speaking with a border patrol agent about our visit to the country, and a quick stamping of the passport, but the complex is extensive, confusing. I quickly become separated from my friend and am swallowed into the group.

When I come out on the other side, I’m unsure of where to go. I scan the room and find a familiar face, my friend, waving me toward an exit near the back of the first building. He had waited for me to finish to continue to the next building. We pass armed guards without any hassle, and we eventually find our way back to the bus to finish our journey.

Upon arriving at the bus station in Johannesburg, I explain to my friend that I’ll be staying at the bus station until my next bus leaves 8 hours later. He offers his house as a place to sleep for a while before heading back to the station to catch my bus. I thank him for his kindness but decide to stay at the station until my next bus leaves. We shake hands, and he walks toward his car to return home to his family.

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With my backpack and small bag thrown over my shoulder, I walk around Cape Town taking in the scenery: Table Mountain is seen in the distance with its flat top and a small cable car station dotted at the far end. Small restaurants and shop fill the streets, and families walk in groups with ice cream or bags of food in their hands. A small art market is tucked in a small central square area with vendors of locally crafted goods.

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The neighborhood of Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Alek Shybut)

A couple days before when I first arrived in Cape Town after my second bus trip, I explored the city with a friend from the states. We visited the colorful district of Bo-Kaap before sitting on a small step of a park and people watching our way through the rest of the day. That night we met locals at a busy bar on Long Street, even taking a photo with a man who resembles almost exactly my former roommate in Atlanta. When the photo was posted on Facebook, both of my former roommates were shocked at the likeness.

Today, I am alone in my exploration of the city. The tour bus I take drops me at the base of Table Mountain. I ride the cable car to the top with camera-ready tourists, and together we take in breathtaking glimpses of the city below and ocean beyond. At the top of the mountain, my phone dies. My sorrow is soon replaced with access to a free recharging station available for all visitors to the mountain. I smile at the coincidence.

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View from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Alek Shybut)

Later we visit a few local vineyards, and while the winter season has turned most of the plants brown, the wine is still in abundance, and I find myself sitting with the vineyards in the distance enjoying a white wine. A little buzzy from the three glasses of chardonnay, I find my way back to the bus and we continue to explore, visiting the beaches of Camps Bay, the ferris wheel at V&A Waterfront, and finally ending up back in the city by evening.

The art market all shut down, the square is now quiet with streetlights guiding the way to my hotel. I walk along the brick street breathing in the day’s air and thinking back to my site in Mozambique. I wonder how my colleagues are doing. I think ahead to helping with the new health volunteers’ training. I try to live in the moment, but the moment is instead living in me, re-motivating me, re-energizing me to return home.

I enter the small, street-side door of the Tudor Hotel on Longmarket street. Described as the oldest hotel in Cape Town, visitors are greeted by a tall staircase, a bar area to the left, and a vintage restaurant with wooden tables. Just beyond the restaurant is reception, and a robust woman greets me as I enter. She finds my reservation, explains the details of the stay, and gives me the key to my room. She helps me to find the room.

As she drops me off at the room, she asks me what I think of Cape Town. I tell her it’s gorgeous and that I’ve already decided I want to spend the rest of my life within its borders. We both laugh. She finishes by asking where I’m coming from.

As I open the door, drop my bags inside, I look back and tell her, “I’m from Mozambique.”

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One thought on “Xenophobia & A Tale of Two Countries

  1. Judite says:

    Wow, Alek. What a great writer you are. Also, loved the photos. Glad to have you back. Vamos eliminar Malaria em nossa casa, mocambique!

    Like

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