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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Two Worlds Collide

The black man wakes up just after dawn, puts on his sandals on quietly outside his shed, stares out at the crimson sky, grabs two plastic jerry cans and walks down the slope to get his daily ration of water. The ground is wet and muddy from a heavy rain during the night. Nearby, an ibis pecks at the worms beneath the blades of lime green grass, wary of the black man’s advances. The black man has planted maize around the entire periphery of the compound, the white man’s compound, and has watched it grow during this season’s violent downpours. In a month’s time, he will harvest it, feed himself and his daughter, and sell the remaining stalks to neighbors and friends for pocket money. He will go to bed each night with his stomach full, from his own toil and sweat. This lifestyle is the only way it has ever been for him. It is what he knows.

Next door to the black man, the white man awakens to the sounds of forest kingfishers and chickens fluttering above and around the compound’s bottlebrush tree. He removes his eye mask and condemns the noise with a single expletive, rising to remove the mosquito netting on his double bed as he reaches for his pair of slippers. He boils water for his morning coffee and pulls the drapes open to stare out the burgeoning sun. He can see the black man walking purposefully up the muddy slope carrying two jerry cans full of fresh water. Thank God I don’t have to do that, the white man thinks, as he hears the snap of the boiler, and the bubbling water coming to the surface of the plastic ewer. The white man looks through his fridge for something to eat. He has bought goods at local supermarkets, pre-packaged and sealed with price tags that the black man would not believe. The white man peruses the shelves: a dozen eggs, a cellophane package of bacon, a box of milk, hamburger meat, and O.J. He pulls out the cereal and milk, cleans off an aluminum bowl, and eats his breakfast in silence. 

The black man begins whacking the shrubs at a quarter past seven, after he has finished brushing his teeth with water from what is left over in his small jerry can, rinsing his mouth in the adjacent garden next to a dilapidated blue Volkswagon, idly parked in the wet mud.

The white man is staring off at the sunrise fifty yards away, watching a pair of blue turacos bob up and down on a neighboring tree. The whacks from the black man’s blade soon pull him from his torpor. So much for the peaceful morning, he says to himself dryly. The daily ritual of the black man’s work has begun to annoy him. Why does he have to insist on doing all his work when I’m waking up?

After a couple hours, the white man returns from his office to find the black man hoeing the garden, furiously digging a patch of black earth with a primitive wooden handle and rusty metal face. The sun is hot and the black man, dressed in a blue work uniform, is sweating profusely. They nod to each other in recognition and then continue with their individual morning routines.

The white man retreats inside his three-bedroom home, boils more of his running water, rinses out his favorite mug, and begins brewing another round of coffee. As he waits, he pulls the shades and turns on the lights in his sitting room. He stares outside at the beckoning charcoal skies, booming thunder, and imminent precipitation. It’s a good morning to get some work done.
But within minutes he hears the sloshing of a mop outside his front door. Annoyed, he puts down his teaching notes and stands up in frustration. Now what? The black man is shirtless, with a white bath towel draped around his waist, scrubbing the patio cement clean. A red basin full of soapy water sits to his right. The black man is working quickly, sensing the rain drops only minutes from arrival. The white man opens the door and crack and leans outside to face his neighbor. “What are you doing? I’m trying to work.”
“Yes, sir. I am cleaning, sir. I thought you were inside. It’s very dirty.” To the white man it looks like one could eat salmon off the cement. Cleaning the patio four times a week is a little more than overkill. It’s ridiculous. The white man privately thinks the black man is doing it just to spite him, interrupt his morning, and get his attention. See how clean I can make it? Now give me money.
“This is my patio. I am inside working. Please only clean when I have asked you to do so. You interrupt me with all your noise.”

They stare at each other for a brief moment, the white man with petty vitriol, the black man with confused fear. “Anyway, just try to keep it down and finish up.”
“Yes, sir. I am finishing now, sir.”

The black man continues mopping robotically until the task is complete. Inside, the white man shakes his head and tries to get back to his reading. But he cannot. The white man's rebukes never seem to change a thing. The black man won’t change. He can’t change. And it’s bugging the white man even though he knows deep down it shouldn’t.

Later in the day, after the rains, the black man sees the white man outside, lying in a hammock reading a novel. The white man glimpses the black man out of the corner of his eye, noticing his tenuous approach. He knows instantly what is about to happen. He puts the bookmark inside the binding, closes the pages, and waits.
“Yes, sir.” The black man begins.
“Yes, how are you?”
“Yes, sir, not very good, sir. You know I am working very hard for this place. The estates people…they don’t give me anything for money, sir. Not even for food, sir.”
“Mmmm,” the white man is all too familiar with this sob story.
“You know, last night I even didn’t have anything for food, sir. It is not good.”
“What about the maize and the peas in the garden?”
“The food from the garden. I saw you cooking last night.”
The black man makes no response. Instead, he gazes out at a rotten mango, dripping with pulp and juice at the base of the mango tree. He scans the shrubs he has slashed and grass he has cut. He waits silently, fidgeting with his hands down by his sides.
“We have talked about this before. I am not your benefactor. I am here to work. I am not here to pay you for your services. That is not my job. You need to talk to the universi-”
“You know, the woman who was here before, from your side, she paid me to wash her clothes. She sends me money when I need help.”
“So why do you keep asking me then!? I don’t have money for this.”
“I am very sorry, sir. Very sorry.”
The white man looks at the black man, half with contempt, half with pity, wondering why it was he was put here. It rubs him the wrong way, yet he retreats back to the house for a few small notes from his wallet, hands it to the black man, who extends his arms in front of him, bending slowly forward, clasping the wrinkled, green bill politely, before it disappears inside his brown mitts.
“When I am outside, in the morning, working…” The white begins. “I need it quiet. I work from home…” his voice trails off and he loses heart, realizing how petty he sounds. It doesn't matter. The black man has already starting walking away from him. He has got what he came for. The black man retreats back inside his cement hut. He slips his blue sandals off before entering, shuts the door behind him and is gone from sight.

In the evening, the white man is done with his work and again is sitting out on the patio, watching the sun go down, pondering his choices for evening entertainment (a DVD at home, a drink in town, Italian food somewhere nearby). As he considers these options, two hornbills are squawking nearby and he runs to go get his camera. When he returns, he sees garbage billowing up in smoke behind the stalks of maize in the adjacent compound. A man in blue overalls is stoking the pile, and the black man is standing idly chatting with a neighbor and laughing. Are they laughing at me, the white man wonders. He goes right for the black man.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Sir?” the black man’s smile has quickly faded and his visage burns with concern and fear. He has seen the face of the white man like this before and he knows what it means.
“The burning?! I told you to tell them to stop the burning. What the hell?! I told you when someone is burning to make them stop. How can you even breathe when it’s like this? That smoke is toxic!”
“Sir, the problem is…”
“I don’t want to hear about problems. Tell them to put it out!”
The white man walks off in a huff, slamming the door inside his smoke-filled sitting room. The black man watches him disappear. His face has lost all its life, all its vigor from before the incident. He shakes his head and excuses himself to go discuss the matter with the man who is stoking the blaze.

His house is untenable, so the white man grabs his laptop, phone and charger, and leaves quickly and resolutely. As he strides past the burning rubbish, he stares indignantly at the black man, leaning against a shovel handle and talking quietly with the worker. Something about the black man startles the white man. He looks statuesque in the night sky, staring off into grey ashes and orange embers flickering about the compound. Fuck this place, the white man mutters.

After the incident, the black man sits alone on his bed, lost amid a sea of thoughts. The power has gone out and the fire has been extinguished. His hut is lit by a single paraffin lamp. He can still smell the acrid smoke floating above him but has put it out of his mind. All he can think about is the white man. “What have I done to him to make him hate me? God only knows…”

In his office two hundred yards away the white man cannot concentrate either. It isn’t the noise of the gospel choir that is bothering him. Nor is it the incessant buzzing of the pestilent mosquitoes attacking his ankles and feet. It is the black man. It is their relationship. How can he not know what makes me angry? Why does he keep doing it? And then he has the nerve to ask me for more money.

These two men are separated by class, by education, by language, and by culture. They are separated by virtually every category one could identify. They live different lives and run in different circles. They always will. They try to understand each other but fail miserably. They try talking to each other but nothing changes. The white man knows this situation is temporary. One day, he will leave the black man behind. The black man will never leave. The black man has nowhere else to go. He has no one else to bother. He has no other choice. He doesn’t know any better. And deep down, despite his anger, despite his exasperation, the white man knows it. And he wishes he didn’t feel the way he does. 

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