What Can We Do


nonfiction by Niels R. Rinehart


Part I

I was returning to my wife in Quelimane, Mozambique after two months working in Kenya, and en route I spent a night in Blantyre, Malawi. I arrived in Blantyre late in the afternoon and made my way to Doogles, a lodge with a taste of alternative exclusivity tucked away in the middle of the busy city. Two black men in blue suits stood guard at the gates to the compound. The gates, painted with the name ‘Doogles Lodge Blantyre’ in great big letters, towered over me as I entered and I walked into a lush green world surrounded by high ivy-covered walls that muffled the world outside. There was an outdoor bar and restaurant, a small campground in a little grove of trees, a large room with bunk beds and showers, a beautiful clear blue pool with colored tiles, and several little private house-suites. The music at the bar was loud and I remember thinking how predictable that it was Bob Marley. The crowd of young white adventurers included folks from South Africa and Zimbabwe, Australians, Brits, and other Europeans, as well as one or two Americans. Safe in our compound and behind the great guarded gates, the only reminder that we were in Malawi were the Kwacha we used to pay for drinks and food, each imprinted with the image of President-for-life Hastings Banda.

I stayed late at the bar after eating my dinner and the guests talked long into the night about their various adventures. There were rafting trips down the Zambezi or bungi-jumping off of Vic Falls – treacherous travels through the bush and mystery meats bravely eaten, each story tinged with exciting near-misses, dangerous maybes straying too far into dark unknowns and holding on perhaps too long to that seemingly unpredictable and exotic crazy world outside the safety of Doogles – yet they always made it and we all laughed. Sitting there at the bar, I thought maybe I had some adventures to share as well; maybe I could be an old-hand too. My wife was an anthropologist conducting research in Mozambique and I was an archaeologist returning after two months of surveying sites throughout Tsavo National Park in Kenya. But it was more of a telling crowd and less of a listening crowd. Sub-Saharan Africa was an amusement park land for us, a land full of adventure and we talked, drank, flirted, laughed, and swam in the pool until the wee hours, the city of Blantyre forgotten behind the high walls of Doogles. Here we were in safety with a view of only the clear night sky and the bright stars above waiting for our next expedition into the safari world of Africa.

I left the bar and walked the grounds of Doogles, looking for my bunk. Lauren and I had agreed that each night I was away in Kenya, we’d look up at the sky and find the Southern Cross among the stars. We’d look at the Southern Cross before we went to bed and know that both of us were looking at it. I found my bunk and lay down, checking and re-checking my alarm clock set for 4 AM. I slept for a couple hours and then woke to exit through the great doors of Doogles into the dark and humid night of the city. I walked to the bus station, found my bus and paid for the ticket. I found a seat and propping my head against my backpack, I went back to sleep.

When I awoke, the sun was rising and we had arrived at the border crossing between Malawi and Mozambique. I went through one end of a small brick building at the border, produced my passport and Mozambique residency permit, and was released out the other end. There was about a mile between the border control office and the town of Milange, and there at the door were several young men on bikes asking if I wanted to sit on the back of their bike and they would bring me to my destination in town. I had plenty of time and could have made the walk, but I knew the cyclists would have hounded me all the way and anyway, I always felt the obligation to support such entrepreneurship. I balanced myself and my backpack on a baggage rack and held on to the young man riding the bike. He swayed a bit; I was probably heavier than his usual load. The baggage rack bit through my shorts with each bump along the ragged dirt road. We were soon in Milange and a teenage boy ran alongside us as we came near the center of the small town. The bicyclist asked for 100,000 Metacais and the teenager yelled, “This is highway robbery!” in English. “Highway robbery!” he repeated. The bicyclist said something to him in Portuguese that I didn’t catch. I had the money, but eight dollars was an absurd sum for a short bike ride in a country that paid school teachers $72 a month. So, we haggled. The teenager again yelled that this was robbery. I turned my back to the teenager and paid the bicyclist 50,000 mets. He looked at me, I paused, and then gave him another 10,000 and he rode off.

I found a group of large pick-up trucks and walked up to each truck asking if they were driving to Mocuba. One driver said yes and I jumped in back. The truck was filled to the lip of the bed with bails of something but I didn’t know what, perhaps tea since we were at the border of Malawi – I’d been told the Queen’s favorite tea came from Malawi and the tea fields stretched for miles and miles. The bails were strapped down tight with ropes and on top, several boxes and other assorted materials were tied down. I was the first one there so I sat myself with my back against the rear window, stretched out my legs, and dozed off for a bit while I waited. Before the pickup was full, a portly man of maybe fifty came up to the driver. He was bald with graying hairand a mustache. He looked Portuguese and white. He got in the cab next to the driver. Within an hour the truck’s bed was full, all men, and I was sitting on my backpack with my knees pulled up close to my chest. More than two dozen men were perched around me, many with legs dangling over the edge and their hands secured beneath the straps and ropes holding down the bails. We sat together packed tightly on the bails that filled the bed of the truck, with our backs and knees against each other’s backs, our heads resting on our neighbor’s heads and shoulders. Several men sat on the roof above the cab, their feet gently knocking about my head. The driver drove slowly through the town, as though trying to understand the weight his truck was carrying. Several people stopped along the town’s streets and pointed at me, laughing and yelling “Look! A white man!” (“Branco!”) I looked through the cab window behind me and saw the plump mustached man sitting up front.

We drove out of town and the green of the bush enveloped us. The truck rolled and lurched in and out of great holes in the muddy red dirt road. Our heads and bodies swayed in unison with the truck like tall sea grass swaying beneath the surface of the ocean, all the blades together, gently moving back and forth with the waves. As the truck lumbered along, the sun rose higher and hotter and we talked and joked. I went in and out of sleep all morning, shifting about to rest on the shoulder or back of one neighbor and then another. I’d wake and find that I’d pushed my neighbor a bit to one side or the other and once someone woke me to say my boots were digging into another man’s back. Later my neighbors woke me, laughing, telling me I was about to kick some people off the edge of the truck.

Part II

When Lauren and I first arrived in Quelimane almost a year before, we stayed for a week with a young man from the capital, Maputo, named Emancio. He was a man of some means who worked for the national radio station in town and very much regretted being sent from Maputo to such a lowly outpost as Quelimane. An older man named Arnaldo prepared his meals and cleaned his house. Arnaldo was a small man from a little Lomwe village far off in the province. According to Emancio, he’d come to Quelimane to make his fortune, buy a bicycle, and then return to his village a rich man and a celebrity. Arnaldo was quiet but always smiled and often laughed. One morning he took Lauren and me to his favorite palm wine shack next to the market, a dark little shack with several women peddling the white bubbly palm wine out of broken bottles, where everybody drank, talked, and laughed loudly.

I remember seeing him take his seat and eat his lunch out back on the deck of Emancio’s house after feeding us. He sat there on a reed mat rolled out across the open floor of the deck, his feet outstretched in front of him and a plate lying across his legs, eating the little fried fish and cassava with his fingers. As I watched him, I remembered Fats Whaller playing Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child as he brings the organ down low and says “I wonder what the poor people are doing, I’d love to be doing it with them.” For weeks after seeing Arnaldo sitting there, eating his fried fish and cassava, I’d watch the people of Quelimane and I’d hear Fats’ gravelly voice: “I wonder what the poor people are doing, I’d love to be doing it with them.”

Lauren had spent three years in Africa with the Peace Corps and she told me several times that when walking about at night, you must use a flashlight. On our second night in town, we were walking in a large crowd of people and I asked her to please turn the flashlight off. I told her it made me feel taller and whiter than I did by daylight. She obliged, but no sooner was the light off than I fell into a deep hole. My right foot buckled beneath me, something went, snapped, and I cursed loudly not simply from pain but from the knowledge of what had just happened and how stupid I had been. I tried to walk it off but only got a few feet before I fell down. I took off my boot and in seconds my ankle ballooned to the size of a football. I cursed profusely but saw the gathering crowd and a man standing among them who had lost his arm. The man without the arm calmly asked me if I was all right and I felt ashamed for all my cursing and lack of acceptance.

The next day I went to the hospital, a small place with pealing plaster and a rusting metal roof lucky enough to have a couple Cuban doctors. There were already dozens of people waiting and many of the sick and injured had walked miles from the outlying villages to get there. I remember an elderly man at the front of the line with his head terribly swollen looking up at me as I was ushered in front of him and in front of everyone else standing in line, taken in through the doors to see the doctors first. It all happened so quickly. Lauren then left me there alone with the dozen or so Portuguese words I had learned so far to go about town and look for a house for us to rent. The doctors wanted to put a cast on, explaining I had torn ligaments, but I refused since my ankle was still swelling. I sat there waiting for Lauren explaining “minha esposa volta” (“my wife returns”).

When Lauren came back we left the hospital. I hobbled back to where we were staying and we soon moved to our new home. I spent two weeks in bed watching the geckos run about on the wall waiting for the swelling to die down. There were no crutches at the hospital but somebody we’d just met produced a pair for me. I asked where they came from but was told not to worry, just give him 25,000 Metacais (about $ 2.00) when I was through with them. I was able to phone the doctor at the US Embassy in Maputo and then to our insurance company. The insurance company said I was under no circumstances to seek medical attention in Mozambique. The medical care was not suitable but they would fly me to Johannesburg more than 1,000 miles away. I remember the insurance representative on the phone:

“Are you really calling from Africa? You mean like lions, tigers, and bears Africa?” He asked.

“Well we got lions. But I’m in a small city, so they’re none here. I’m safe.”

I wondered how I could explain my sudden flight to Johannesburg to our new neighbors. How I could I be just another resident but say that their doctors weren’t good enough to treat my foot? How could I explain that I was connected to a system that would fly me to a hospital 1,000 miles away where the medical care was sufficient, and that somehow I didn’t have to pay for any of it? And yet we should discuss this as though it was all assumed. The doctors in Johannesburg found I had broken a bone and torn lots of ligaments. They put me in a cast and shook their heads when I said I wanted to go back to Mozambique. They spoke of my returning as if I wanted to find Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I came back to Quelimane after five days in South Africa.

I spent many mornings in our house on Avenida Julius Nyere in Quelimane, sitting on the front porch propping my broken foot on a stool and watching the busy rush of life flow up and down the street. A thick strong fence built of rebar encased our porch in a protective cage from floor-to-roof. As a white man I could only look at the people of Quelimane, just watching like a ghost from within our cage. I possessed wealth unimaginable to almost everyone in that city — or in the whole country. But it wasn’t the wealth alone that made me feel so impermanent and different, it was my ability to call on far-flung powers and move seemingly anywhere, as if I could radio-in magical choppers and be flown away at a moment’s notice. I wondered what the poor people were doing and I wanted to be doing it with them. When I had watched Arnaldo on the back porch eating his lunch, I watched how he seemed to relish his fried fish and cassava and I wanted to taste it.

Part III

We made slow time, driving to Mocuba, and the sun grew hotter and the air more humid. Clouds gathered as the afternoon wore on and we sat there in the bed of the open truck, looking up at the sky, hoping the rain would hold. I was thirsty and dug out my water bottle from my bag. I took a long drink, wiped off the top and then passed it around to the other passengers. The bottle came back with a third left but something in me knew I’d taken a deep drink before I passed the bottle around because I wouldn’t be drinking from it again. And perhaps I felt a little guilty for knowing that.

After an hour perched tightly on top the pick-up truck, my legs were numb. Within a couple hours they were so numb I could no longer move them. I sat there remembering the story of St. Francis Xavier. To repent for his sins while a student in Paris, he tightly tied metal cords around his arms, cutting off the circulation. His friends begged him to remove the cords but he said no. They warned him that his arms would die and he would lose them, but St. Francis Xavier refused any assistance. He remained in his rooms at the University of Paris, praying for forgiveness with the metal cords wrapped tightly about his arms. Needless to say, as the story goes, when the cords were removed, he experienced a complete recovery and his arms were fine. Lacking the saintly capacity of Xavier I feared for my legs, worrying that if I did not move them and get the blood flowing, I would not experience his miraculous recovery and my legs would die. When I dozed off one last time and awoke in the early afternoon, some of the men laughed and joked, commenting on my need for sleep. Finally, the driver stopped the truck and we all leaped off, ran into the thick bush, and each of us turned his back to the truck and urinated. My legs were fine, though stiff.

We drove through small towns, down the main street and through the gentle smell of the many charcoal fires. Children ran alongside the truck, yelling and laughing, selling apples, oranges, hard-boiled eggs, and pieces of grilled chicken. Several of us in the truck bought pieces of chicken and ate as we drove, tossing the bones, picked-clean, into the passing trees. I was hungry but after almost a year in Africa I had learned not to eat on the road. My great fear was being struck with a sick belly and having no place to find relief. This pick-up truck was no place for a sick belly.

At one town, one of the men bought a live chicken and as we left the town, he sat with the chicken puttering about between his feet. “You bought a chicken!” said a fellow passenger. The man with the chicken was young and he laughed saying “Sim, eu tenho uma criança!” (“Yes, I have a baby!”) and feigned the smile of a beaming young father. We all laughed, admiring his chicken as it pecked at the bails beneath our feet. The slow drive continued and the conversations ebbed and flowed, back and forth among the men. Some of the men asked what I was doing in Mozambique. I hadn’t used what Portuguese I knew for a couple months while in Kenya, so my answers were awkward, but the men were patient. A man sitting along the side of the truck turned around and fleshed out my answers to the other men. I told them about my wife, that she was an anthropologist conducting a study in Quelimane, and that we’d lived there for almost a year. The man along the side of the truck spoke good English and he questioned me further, patiently translating my English answers to everybody in the truck.

We pulled into Macuba by late afternoon. The clouds had darkened and the air was thick with the threat of the oncoming rain. We all leaped from the truck, shook the sleep from our legs, and parting, spread-out in two dozen directions, the chicken under the young man’s arms. I found the loading point for the chapas, the minivans that drove between towns, and waited. Three or four minivans sat parked alongside the road, waiting for passengers. I noticed a man standing a few yards from me on the dirt path among the growing crowd of expectant passengers. He must have been in his thirties. He had a wide smile and bright white eyes with unkempt and nappy hair, long and hanging about his ears. His feet were bare and his toes calloused and splayed like all the other bare feet I’d seen on the streets of Mozambique, feet that had never known shoes and so the toes had spread out like little stubby fingers. He looked at me. Then he laughed and said something in a language I’d never heard. He wore nothing but a tattered pair of shorts, so worn they were reduced to the mere threads that held the holes together. I couldn’t understand how the pants didn’t fall. He danced about, his bare feet kicking up the dirt. I acknowledged him with a nod. Then he knelt down and began drawing shapes in the sand with his finger. After he drew them he looked up at me, smiled, then broke-out in laughter and danced again. Then he returned to his drawings in the sand, carving circles, squares, and lines with his finger. I thought of the Gospel of John when the Pharisees brought the woman caught committing adultery to Jesus. “Shouldn’t she be stoned?” the men asked. And Jesus said nothing but knelt down to draw something in the sand with his finger. I’ve always wondered what he drew. Perhaps some secret script listing the many sins of the accusers that stood before him. Perhaps the man in the tattered shorts knew and was making a fool of me as Jesus made a fool of the Pharisees, and he laughed.

Several minivans were lined-up along the road, all bound for Quelimane, waiting for passengers. No bus left on any schedule.  The buses waited until one was full and then it left. I waited and waited for another truck to arrive from Milange or somewhere else to provide more passengers to bring me to Quelimane. Then the rain began to pour in thick and heavy drops turning the dirt and dust into a thick red slurry of mud. The same rain was at that time drowning the Limpopo Valley, creating great floods that drove a woman into a tree where she gave birth, putting Mozambique briefly on the West’s world map.

Finally, there were enough passengers bound for Quelimane for one minivan to reach a critical mass and we piled-in, four to a seat. My knees dug deeply into the seat in front of me, and I could feel the back of the man up front through the seat’s springs. My knees arched his back. He must have been forty-five and looked to me like one of those local bureaucrats, the numerous small-time officials with delusions of grandeur, clogging the system with pettiness and bribes. Next to him sat his silent teenage girlfriend and I resented him all the more for her youth and docility. But as I saw him shift his back about on the end of my knee, I felt the need to get out my Portuguese dictionary and learn the word for knee. I leaned forward to apologize for “meu joelho.” The man calmy turned around and said, “What can we do? It is life,” as though together we were both the sufferers of the same external, inevitable, and arbitrary source.

The rain was pouring down now in great sheets. The road between Macuba and Quelimane was better than the road from Milange, and the minivan cut through the great puddles at a quick clip, sending up dark sheets of red mud. There was a slight crack open where the sliding door to the minivan failed to close all the way and the mud, like deep rusty red paint, came through in a steady thick spray, covering my legs and canvas bag.

By the time the minivan arrived in Quelimane at the main market, it was evening and the sun was setting. The rain had stopped and cooled everything down. I stepped out into the bustling market,  and it was alive and loud, everyone coming out after the rain. The heavy rains had soaked and swollen the dormant smells in the streets, the piles of rotting fruits, vegetables, and other garbage, bringing it all to life with a rank pungency you could taste. I turned the corner and passed two boys scooping water from a gushing drain pipe, drinking the water from their cupped hands. I knew my way through the streets of the small city I would soon leave and come to miss, and I came quickly to the house and the dinner that Lauren was just then preparing.

Part IV

A month later, I flew back to the U.S. ahead of Lauren to begin a new job, setup a new home and a start a new life for us. I flew in to Newark, rented a car, and headed down to my parents’ house in Washington D.C. By night, I was driving through the outskirts of Baltimore on I-95. As I crested a slight hill, I could see all the lights of the city, all the lights of the harbor, the ships, and all the cranes. It was so immense – not the city but the lights. There were so many lights and I thought about the great power it took to keep all those lights going each day and each night, year after year. Those lights are always on. You don’t realize that the lights are on until you’ve lived in a place where there are no lights. I was alone between the four small lights of my rental car in the sea of lights from Baltimore and the eight lanes of thick traffic on I-95, an infinite stream of red and white lights moving north and south. A song came on the radio. I didn’t know what the song was, but then I remembered sitting in the back of that pick-up truck, me and those two-dozen other men, our bodies swaying back and forth as we rolled over the great holes in the red dirt road from Milange to Mocuba. I remembered all of us, packed together, resting on each other’s backs and laughing with the young man and his little criança of a chicken and the chicken wandering about our tangled legs and feet. I missed them all terribly, their patience and their laughter. Had I actually been there? Or did I only watch from the safety of a safari van, like someone taking in the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of Africa. Or maybe for a few moments, like a single small white puff of a cloud fading into a beautiful deep blue sky, I ceased to be the “Branco! Branco!” that the people pointed to as our truck drove slowly through Milange. Maybe for a moment I had been just another man among two-dozen men, patiently waiting for a long, tedious, and uncomfortable trip to end and wanting to get home to his wife.