Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Back of the Chapa

In the tumultuous world of Mozambican public transportation, there is one highly coveted refuge: the front seat. Besides the driver, only two people ever sit in the front of a chapa. You have space for your legs, you’re not fighting the bags and babies for space, and the chicken and goats and whatever else is riding with you are all safely behind you.

The front seat is extremely hard to obtain. You have to arrive at just the right time—just as the previous chapa is leaving but before anyone has started to fill up the next one. Whoever gets there first takes it, although even that isn’t always enough—chapa drivers make friends quickly, and chances are the front seat has been “reserved”.

Last weekend, coming home from our mid-service conference in Maputo, I got lucky—or so I thought. Comfortably seated in my front seat, I was excited for a relatively pain-free ride back home. The chapa filled up more or less quickly, and it wouldn’t be long before we were on our way. It turns out I had started basking in front-seat glory too soon, however: ten minutes later the driver came over, opened my door, and told me to get out and move to the back.

The conversation went something like:
Me: Why?
Driver: This man (as he pointed to a man who had just arrived to get on the chapa) wants to sit in the front.
Me: Why?
Driver: Because he wants to.
Me: I was here first.
Driver: He’s a man. You’re a woman. You have to move to the back.
Me: I’m not moving, I’m the same as him.
Driver: No, you’re not. He’s a man. If he wants to sit there he can.

I stared at the driver, absolutely furious. Of course I’ve experienced gender discrimination before, both here and in the States, but never so blatant. And I’ve seen similar things happen to Mozambican women, which is no less maddening, but I guess I’ve usually been exempt, as many people realize that we Americans have “different ideas”. And something about it actually happening to you feels different than watching it.
In retrospect, I probably should have sat there and refused to move.

But in the end, I wasn’t that brave. As my refusals continued and my lecture on discrimination began, the driver raised his voice, I raised mine, and we were starting to create a scene. So instead I told him I wouldn’t travel on his chapa, and demanded my money back. As I stood outside of the chapa, watching the man take the seat that was rightfully his and waiting for it to leave so I could get on the next one, some of the passengers had some good natured fun: “Crazy white girl, now your trip is going to be delayed for hours, come in the back”. The whole thing was crazy—I just wanted to get home.

I could afford to wait. I didn’t have a family to go home and cook for, I didn’t have a cranky baby to hold, I had money to buy cold water, and I didn’t have a husband who would ask me angrily what took so long. It was annoying, but this was the first time I’d actively had to choose between inconvenience and accepting “the way things are”—but what if I had that choice to make every day?

I made it home, and per usual there were kids playing in my yard. Two of the older girls were calling the shots as the other kids, including the boys, followed their instructions. Baby steps.


Claire said...

The Best American Essays 2009?

Tom Bomb! said...

Katie, I stumbled upon your blog last night at work, and am totally floored by the work you have done and all of the obstacles you have overcome. Im in the process of becoming a PCV and am awaiting placement now, reading peoples blogs helps me stay motivated throughout this process and learn a bit about Africa. I was nominated for Science teaching in Southern Africa. If you ever want to chat that would be great. Keep up the good work! I just started one of these blogs so we will see how that goes lol. -Tom from Florida