Friday, January 18, 2008

Afternoon Portrait

Anticipating what might happen with the warehouse, I was motivated to start writing about some of the things that I will miss the most...

Twice a week, when the company trucks would cross the border and enter Mozambique with fresh produce deliveries, I would shut down my computer early and go downstairs to the warehouse to keep Ahmed and Paulo company. It was their responsibility to watch the trucks being unloaded to ensure there was no theft or damage to the sacks of potatoes and onions imported from South Africa. We would sit on warehouse dock in the late afternoon heat, the sky hazy with particles belched out of the nearby cement plant, the toxic dust making the sun glow fiery orange.

It was a slow job, each truck taking around 3 hours to unload, as the company did not own a forklift to efficiently move the product. Instead, everything was done manually. A crew of local boys hired for a half-day’s work would form a line inside the belly of the trailer to unload the produce, heaving sack after sack into the next waiting pair of sweaty hands, and finally into stacks on pallets on the loading dock.

One boy in the crew was a hunchback, his shoulder blades twisted at such an angle they looked like the back legs of a grasshopper, tensed and waiting to spring. He walked with a limp, laboriously dragging a misshapen foot against the floor, but nonetheless helped unload the truck. His job was to ensure that the sacks of produce were stacked properly on the pallets outside the truck, adjusting and rearranging when necessary until there were 100 sacks neatly piled high. Ahmed nicknamed the boy Notre Dame, and would call for him in this manner, his startlingly loud voice echoing off the warehouse walls.

In the US we are taught to be blind to physical handicaps. We are supposed to speak to the man with a deformed arm as if we didn’t notice the missing fingers or lumps of scar tissue, for it is rude to stare. We are meant to carry on a conversation with the person in a wheelchair without any mention of whatever accident or medical condition caused paralysis of the limbs, lest we cause the person embarrassment. Only after sufficient intimacy do the unspoken social rules allow that we ask what happened, and even then any reference to the handicap is shrouded in political correctness.

Here, however, it seems that physical handicaps – among other things – are acknowledged with a bluntness that seems to be a trait of many an ex-Portuguese colony. (I am reminded of Brazil, where people casually comment to your face, “You’ve really put on some weight since the last time we met, haven’t you? You’ve gained, what, 4 kilos?” or “Is that a zit? Wow, it’s gigantic! You should stop eating so much chocolate!”) Or perhaps, sadly, it is the vestige of years of civil war, where land mines made physical deformities commonplace.

Whatever the reasons, in Mozambique, you might find the vegetable lady on the corner who is cross-eyed is called just that – Neusa vesga; the vendor who hobbles around on a crooked foot at the car parts store might be known as José manco, literally José-who-limps. The nicknames don’t seem to be taken with offense; rather, the handicap seems to be accepted as a descriptive quality, much like one might talk about a girl with green eyes.

One day, Ahmed asked the hunchbacked boy if he knew what Notre Dame was. He shook his head ‘no’, and Ahmed promised he’d bring him the book the next week.

I shot Ahmed a sideways glance, for not only was the boy likely illiterate, Ahmed himself wasn’t exactly the type to appreciate the classics of literature.

“Have you even read ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’?” I asked.

“No, no!” Ahmed laughed at my question. “I saw the movie!”

“The cartoon, you mean?”

“Of course.”

While unloading the trucks, the boys in the work crew would go shirtless, with the exception of Notre Dame. He always kept on a torn and stained t-shirt while he worked, faded red letters proclaiming the FUN TIMES! that were had in Tampa, Florida at the JAMESON FAMILY REUNION, 2002. Clearly this was a charity shirt, one of the thousands hawked at used clothes markets all over Africa. I could only imagine the trajectory such a shirt must have followed, from a church donation bin in the Southern US to a crowded stall in Xipamanine, the largest popular market in Maputo.

The boys in the crew would sing as they worked, the rhythmic melodies helping them keep up the pace of unloading the produce, one sack thrown down the line of muscular arms for each beat of the song. Each sack had its own unique markings – not just the logo of the farm where the potatoes or onions had been grown, but full color geometric designs. At the top of each paper bag, the name of the product inside was written in 3 different languages: English, Afrikaans and Zulu.

The name for ‘potato’ in Afrikaans particularly caught my eye, and I would whisper the name repeatedly under my breath, trying to imitate the pronunciation of my South African colleagues in the administrative sector upstairs. “Aart appel. Aart appel. Aart appel.” Each time I would accentuate a different part of the word, trying out all of the variations I could imagine. Unexpectedly, one day what had before been meaningless trills and vowels were suddenly words I recognized. Earth apple! Of course - the same root as the French name for a potato.

I would sit with Ahmed and Paulo until the truck was empty and the warehouse had neat, colored bags of produce covering the floor. All of the sacks would be accounted for, including those that had ripped open during transport, or that contained rotten potatoes and had to be disposed of before fouling up the entire building. The work crew would then be paid for the afternoon's labor - $2 per head, plus a loaf of bread. Sometimes Ahmed would let the boys take home the loose potatoes and onions that had spilled out of the sacks in the truck, or those that were salvageable amongst a bag of otherwise rotten product.

I would keep Ahmed and Paulo company while the warehouse was swept, the paperwork for the load filled out, and the truck sent back to the farm. Many times, this meant I would be at the office for several hours after my workday was meant to end. I didn't care. On some level, I already knew that those afternoons spent chatting with my warehouse friends and watching the workers unload a truck full of produce would be one of the things I'd miss the most about my time in Mozambique. The humid air, the work crew's harmonies, the earthy smell of the produce, the subtle process of establishing a friendship across cultures. I would recline in my chair on the loading dock and take everything in, occasionally becoming overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for something that hadn't yet ceased to exist.


Amber said...

This is the kind of post I can ONLY find here. So well writen, it reads like part of a novel. So out of the norm and thoughtful.
Excellent. And I could just see you there, too!

ox to you


Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Beautiful post.

I have to say something about the physical handicap nicknames though. They TOTALLY do that in India too! My parents will casually toss around names like "One-eye" from their youth, etc.

"We used to call him Ekakash Hrishikesh" or something like that.

stacie said...

Crap...I know that this is going to be painful for you if it really happens...I have enjoyed your stories about these guys....hope it doesn't happen...

Linda said...

I've been enjoying reading about your life in your work place. I hope those young guys will be found another job there.

Ali la Loca said...

~Amber - I need you on my cheerleading team when I finally get up the courage to write something to be edited and considered for publication! Thank you. :)

~Monkey - Somehow, I'm not at all surprised they do it in India as well. You see the nicknames in Brazil, too...

~Stacie - Oh, tell me about it! I'm sure there will still be stories, regardless of what happens, but I'd grown fond of our little work routines together.

~Linda - That's what I'm hoping, too. I should find out more info early next week.

_+*A.Elite in Paris & Montpellier*+_ said...

Tell me, is there something inyour life, (apart being married) that you havent done? :)

Beijo meu,

A Elite

joyfish said...

Ali - when is your book coming out? You write wonderfully and lyrically and descriptively. You make me miss being an expat. Though I suppose I kind of am, living in LA for the past 2 years.

--jenna said...


wanted to let you know how much i enjoyed seeing you two last week...thanks for squeezing a lunch date in!!!

and your post? lindo, como sempre...leitura para um dia de chuva, em frente da janela, sonhando em viagens, outros paises, aventuras...:)
bjs, jenna

Ali la Loca said...

~Elite - Oh, the list is long, my friend. :) Mas adorei o comentário, it made me smile.

~Joyfish - I think living in LA *definitely* qualifies as an expat experience! After all, isn't culture shock (and/or adaptation, depending on how much one is inclined to integrate) one of the main characteristics of living in a society that is not your own?

~Jenna - Adorei te ver também, e foi muito legal conhecer a sua irmã. I hope you enjoyed the rest of her stay with you. I look forward to eating that delicious palmito pupunha salad with you again the next time we are in Rio.