Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are You Local?

"So are you local, or SA? Mozambique?"

I started babbling mid-question because I knew what the answer would be, and I didn't really want to hear it.

"Local." Thoba said it with a long-suffering grin. He twisted off the bottlecap on a Foundry Cider and slid it across the bar. "But my dream is to go to the States. Get a good job, make some money —" another grin, this time more Oceans Eleven " — change it into rand. I come back and I'll be driving a BMW."

Thoba is a bigger man than most Swazis I've met in the town of Mbabane. He dresses in striped sweaters when he tends bar. His bar, though, is too small to hold his bulk most nights: when I met him, he'd barely handed out beers before he invited a Finnish friend and I to a game of pool. He's showed me the town the last two nights I've been here. We've talked trash, rugby, travel, politics, and women*. But his personal story, his dream for the future, is something we both steered away from after that first conversation. It makes him uncomfortable, I think, because his dream is not dissimilar from my life. Or maybe it's me: it makes me uncomfortable because I've heard that dream from almost everyone I've talked to. If I had a rand for everyone who's told me they'll go to America someday, I'd quit school, move to SA and bribe Oxford for an honorary diploma to hang in my new Dutch mansion.

The conversation, at its most direct, runs something like this:

"Uhlala eStates? When are you going back?"
"Going back? Sometime in May, I guess."
"You should take me with you."

This is what people say word-for-word, often as not. All the most enterprising people I've met in Africa just want to get out.

It's depressing, mostly. I don't know how to react to it. What do you tell someone? Words of encouragement are hard to muster, and it's not something you can brush off. They know full well how great the place is just from seeing you. Some people bring up their country's problems, as if to make the point that life is hard there too. What American problems are you going to talk about, though? Obesity? Affirmative action?

When I'm sitting outside an ancestor house with malnourished village kids while my boss tells their sick grandmother how to take her tuberculosis tablets, I know that I'm not the one with problems.

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