For the first two weeks in Cape Town, my study abroad group had a private
security guard. He sat outside our house in his leather jacket and kept watch
over us bewildered Americans.
When we met, I was surprised by how
young he looked. Admittedly, I had pictured a grizzled (white) policeman with a
gun. But our security guard was neither grizzled nor white, and he carried nothing but his cellphone to fill the long, boring hours he spent sitting in our yard.
Sometimes I would sit outside and
keep him company. I told him about living in Chicago and California, and he
told me about how he had left his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo to find work in South Africa.
I was filled with admiration when he told me that he was saving money so he
could go to college.
Through mundane conversation, I became
more comfortable. As days went by, I almost forgot that he was not part of our study
abroad family, but a few days after classes started, I got a rude awakening. I was
sitting outside with him reading a satire piece, and I kept on chuckling to
myself. When I looked up, he was watching me curiously.
“Want to see what we’re reading for
class?” I asked him, and held out the paper without thinking twice. It was what
I would have done with any of my friends at Pomona College, in Chicago, or even in the
very house that he guarded.
The piece was called “How to Write About Africa.” Written by a Kenyan activist, it contained every stereotypical
view of Africans ever used in Western writing, exaggerated to the point of
“They are all tall and starving,” the paper asserted confidently. “No,
wait, they are all short and eat primates. Oh, well, never mind—the specifics
But when he reached out to take the
paper, I was suddenly flooded with doubts. French was his first language, not
English. What if he couldn’t read English well, and I was embarrassing him? What
if he thought the writer was sincere in all the awful things he said?
Frantic, I tried to backpedal. “It’s
a satire,” I said. “Have you ever read one?”
He shook his head.
I desperately tried to explain. “Satire
is when the author criticizes people who have a certain opinion by exaggerating
it a lot to make their opinion seem crazy. Here, he writes about how
non-Africans see Africans, and he’s making fun of their attitude so that people
will realize how ridiculous it is.”
He started reading out loud, and as
he read, he furrowed his brows. I watched him with a pit in my stomach. Every
so often, he let out a soft, “Ach!”
After a page, he stopped. “I know
this is supposed to be funny,” he said quietly. “But it also makes me feel pain.
What he says, the guns and starving people, it is true. This is really Africa.”
“I’m sorry,” I managed to stammer.
I took the paper back, horrified. Who was I to laugh at satirical exaggerations
of suffering that he had probably seen firsthand? He didn’t understand why it
was funny, and with his experience so different from mine, he never would.
“This is what you read in class?”
“Yes, to show us what not to think,” I said emphatically.
He seemed to accept this, and I retreated
to hide my shame behind my sunglasses and textbook. How could I think that growing
up surrounded by radical liberals would prevent me from blundering around in
Africa like any other American brat? How could I think that my goodwill alone could entirely dissolve the towering boundaries that stood between us?
In the following days, he seemed to
forget about the conversation, but I didn’t, and I never let my guard down again.
The thing about being abroad is
that it brings us so close to situations we would never otherwise encounter.
Close enough to think, arrogantly, that we understand everything. Close enough
to do damage. In another time and place, perhaps he and I could be real
friends, but I had forgotten that here he could only be our security guard. Although
he would look through the window and knock on the door to ask for food or water,
he was never allowed to enter our house.
And when the two weeks were up and
he left for the last time, he did not say goodbye.
Robin Xu PO ’15 is studying environmental analysis and politics. She enjoys going on day hikes, fighting climate
change, thrift shopping, and writing.