Hazardous Silent Treatment

Hello! I haven’t written in a looong time and I’ve lost a step or two. Here begins my blogging road to recovery…

She’s hurt and she wants to talk about it. He’s angry and he doesn’t want to talk about it. She talks to him, but he remains silent and tries to avoid all conversation with her. She starts getting frustrated. He gets angrier and resolves to keep ignoring her. And so the silent treatment builds.

Researchers have found that the person giving the silent treatment and the person receiving it should….

Wait, you really thought I was going to write about relationships? A gigantic NO!

There’s a blind curve adjacent to Pretoria Portland Cement’s Bulawayo factory, just over 10 kilometres east of the Bulawayo city centre. In the past few years, there have been four or five buses involved in fatal accidents at the curve. The most recent one occurred just a week ago. The curve is notorious for causing fatal accidents, most of them involving single vehicles skidding off the road before crashing or overturning. Contrary to what you would expect, that section of the road has not been changed by a bit.

Local residents of Cement Siding, fed up with the accidents, took to the curve a few years ago. With the help of the police, who barricaded a section of the curve, they held a prayer service there. It is normal for locals to engage in ‘cleansing’ rituals when they feel that unforeseen, similar deaths occur at the same spot repeatedly. In this case, it was Christians who took up the task. And they had the support of the police department.

There was a quiet period following that prayer session – right up until last week, when another bus overshot the curve and crashed, killing at least one person on the spot. The blind-curve-accident had struck again. At least one more death. Yet again – for the umpteenth time – the curve had caused an accident, but what seemed to be on most people’s mouths was the question, “Did you go see it.” The answer was almost always, “No, have you?” Not many people seemed to be talking about the underlying problem, and that it had to be solved. The responsible authorities, as always, did not say a word or take any action. They just came by to clean up the scene. And then…silence.

I wonder why the roads authority and even the district authority haven’t identified this recurrent tragedy as a serious issue and attempted to rectify it. Not even a lazy gigantic sign reading “CAUTION. DANGEROUS CURVE AHEAD” has been erected. And having guard rails built along the curve seems like a pipe dream. Nothing has been done beyond the accident clean-ups. But, at the very least, they could begin by acknowledge the problem. Perhaps a dialogue with interested parties could set things in motion, and the situation could be ultimately rectified. But the silent treatment is all there is.

The residents who once took the matter into their hands, by taking it up to the Lord, have virtually given up. I am not sure if any of them is willing to engage the police again, or some administrator or politician about the accidents. They’ve given up on the dialogue, and now they perhaps feel that it is not their concern anyway. And so the fatal accident count will continue rising for that blind curve on the Bulawayo-Harare Highway, just over 10 kilometres east of the Bulawayo city centre. And the authorities will keep silent about it.

Researchers have found that the person giving the silent treatment and the person receiving it should both take some responsibility.

Zimbabwean Armed Robbers: What A Joke!

Every “Armed Robbers Strike” headline is almost always immediately followed by another “Armed Robbers Caught” headline in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean police need a pat on the shoulder for their magnificent work. Or do they?

If you consider the situation a little more, you will find that the police do not really need to be at their best to catch these misfits. No. These armed robbers simply hand themselves in. I don’t mean it literally, but it’s so close to literal it’s appalling.

No, I am not on their side, but they are Zimbabwean armed robbers. In whatever capacity, they kind of have that ZIMBABWEAN label on them. Watch crime series in the US and learn about the methods that the armed robbers there use (let us only refer to the ones that do not actually harm anybody). I once watched an episode about a guy who at some point had robbed nearly 20 banks! And  how was he caught? He robbed a bank that had tracking devices hidden in some of the cash he stole. (And this after he had evaded something worse –  he had previously stolen a bunch of cash that exploded on him and sent flares all over).

Now compare: how were a bunch of armed robbers recently caught in Zimbabwe? Well, three of them robbed an “Agribank” and I think they made off with about $80,000 in cash – well, made off temporarily. One of the robbers (incidentally the one who was carrying the only gun that had been used in the heist), was caught an hour or so later. He was found counting the bills under a bridge, not too far away from the bank he had just robbed. As the story usually pans out, he led the police to his two friends. This, my friends, does not belong to a crime series TV show. It belongs to a Funny Videos kind of show.

I am not kidding you. Four other robbers – in Bulawayo this time – decided to rob a Baker’s Inn. The (Zimbabwean robber) logic here is that, when you want to get a lot of money from an armed robbery, you have to hit a bakery.. Hit a bakery big time!This is how it went…(I know how it went because one of the robbers probably narrated the whole story after getting caught).

They went to a bakery at night. Lo and behold, the place was locked! What were they to do about this unforeseen obstacle? Believe it – they were witty enough to scale the wall and jump onto the roof, break through the roof and land into an office – a bakery office full of cash. In a few – eh several- minutes they had hurled in a whopping $1! That is before they got startled by some noises coming from within the building. They all quickly hid under the tables – even the guy with the gun.

When that little scare passed, they made a run for it – up through the roof. There was honour among this bunch though, because they helped each other up through the roof. Except there’s the one guy who remained behind because nobody could help him up through the roof. His three friends had already gone. He was therefore left behind – just like that. He was the first one to get caught, and again he was the one who had the gun (it’s always the one with the gun!)

By now, you should be asking: what is up with Zimbabwean robbers!?

I don’t know! It must be poor planning or something. Think about it, poor planning runs in the blood of many in our population. What then do we expect from the robbers in our number? It makes sense: they cannot even plan an intricate enough robbery for the police to get some excitement. Imagine this for a report: “Ah, Chef, we just found him here outside the bank counting the money. We’ll bring him in now, but we’ll buy some soft drinks on our way.”

The situation is really not too bad, because we do get to have these robbers off our streets, and we also do get a laugh out of it in the process. Regardless, it still bugs me! Imagine all those international onlookers reading about our armed robbers. They must think we’re all idiots because we can’t even plan a decent armed robbery.

To save face, perhaps we should include the occasional great-ending robbery stories next to the funny ones. I think those ones would better showcase the actual effectiveness of our police force when it comes to dealing with these kinds of issues. For starters, I have heard about one where the police used a local phone network provider to track down an armed robber. Now that is more like it!

Zimbabwe Republic Police, keep it up with the apprehension of armed robbers. Armed robbers, just stop.

America 6: “I Would Like Some Fried Chicken.”

This is the 6th article in my America series. The series would probably be incomplete if I didn’t write about race. I should state that I am in no way an expert on race – I didn’t even study anything race-related at school. My only qualification is that I am a human being, albeit one with quite a bit of melanin on his skin.

In Zimbabwe, I had grown up with black people only. Racism was virtually non-existent to me. I only knew it from high school history classes, apartheid being the epitome. The only thing I noticed about white people when I did meet them, is that we gave them the utmost respect – revering them, really. They were the gold standard. When I set out for the US, that is what I expected – more of the inferiority complex. I didn’t expect any outright racism, to be honest. Of course, what I experienced was nothing like I anticipated.

Foremost, the inferiority complex wasn’t present. Everyone was at Stanford partly because they’d all excelled during their high school years. If they could do it, I thought, and I could do it too, then there was no difference between me and them – just the melanin content. Many people felt like that. They seemed oblivious of our respective races. We were all just students studying together. Just students. It was that environment that helped me effortlessly become color blind. It was all thanks to the Stanford Bubble, as we called this Utopian island of young adult students.

It was in the Bubble where I asked a friend from a Christian fellowship to teach me a bit of the ‘Southern’ accent. She was from Dallas, Texas – she had the Texas flag, cowboy boots and a big truck. She was very excited to get to teach me the accent, and she immediately picked the one sentence I would learn: “Ah-woold-lahk-som’-frah-I-d-chick’n.” At the time, I did not even pick up any hint of a stereotype. All I knew was that Diana* was teaching me a bit of the Southern accent. I was glad when she told me my accent was good, and I’d gladly oblige whenever she asked me to repeat the phrase to everyone else. “I would like some fried chicken,” I would say, with a wide smile. They’d erupt in laughter.

And it was all good in the Bubble.

But then the United States of America came in and re-framed things. Once I found out that black-people-love-fried-chicken was a common stereotype, I was taken aback. It was a fact that I love(d) fried chicken. But then here it was a stereotype. But what’s a stereotype anyway? Still, why did Diana choose that particular phrase for me to recite in a Southern accent? At this point, all the laughter I’d drawn by proclaiming my love for fried chicken took a whole new meaning. The Bubble had burst right into my eyes.

Little by little, I began to pick up on more of these racially non-neutral statements. While I was doing an internship in California, outside the Bubble, a mentor said this to me: “you should apply for that scholarship from the Corrosion Institute. Do put your picture – it will give you an edge. Put your picture – it will give you an edge,” he repeated for emphasis. He actually thought I didn’t get it, but I did. My melanin-rich face would do the trick. On another time, I walked into a fast food place with three of my (black) friends. A white gentleman greeted us, before asking, rather loudly, “What sports do you play at Stanford?” He had seen our Stanford T-shirts, but the melanin gave us away. It gave me away. It passed me off as a 5 foot 7, 135 pound football player on a sports scholarship at Stanford University.

For a neutral reader, some of the things I have taken exception to may seem childish. If we love fried chicken, so what? If many black students get great sports scholarships from universities, so what? The reality is that America adds a whole dimension to it. Everything has a meaning, albeit a different one for each person. That is why fried chicken stereotypes may be simple observation to some people; but those same stereotypes may have dark, racist connotations for some people. It is all in the context.

You may wonder if I was offended by these things…

I’d say I always brushed them off – until they actually did hit home. It wasn’t the melanin that did the trick. It was Africa that did. Once I began to routinely hear “…the starving kids of Africa,” the “…misogynistic African men,” “…the failed African states” and the “…African tribal wars,” I knew the stereotype bug had hit too close to home. I’d seen the starving kids, I’d seen misogynistic men, I came from a failed state and I’d seen tribal tension – but that wasn’t what Africa was/is. Suddenly, I was defensive. Of course I was because I was offended!

The biggest surprise of it all was that some of these things came from African Americans/Black Americans. And then I really knew that it wasn’t just the skin color – at least for me. Being from Africa trumped being black. That realization rocked my boat. Because, while I walked as a human being on earth, I also walked as a black man in America, and also as an African in the world…it was a struggle, a confusing experience.

What did/do I make of it all?

I don’t know, but when I flew back into “Africa, the motherland” – I lost it all somehow. Somewhere in the middle of failed states, of tribal tension, of misogyny, and of inhumane suffering, I enjoyed a piece of fried chicken in peace.


America 5: “We’ve Got Your Favorite!”

The one thing I never got used to in the US was the food. Tasteless chicken, tasteless beef, all-fat pork, syrupy pan-cakes, cheese, sweet maize (corn), lobster, raw spinach, rubbery hot-dogs, tofu and broccoli were some of the things I had to deal with. While at Stanford, I developed my own ‘default’ menu. If ever I walked into the dining hall and found that lasagna was the main dish, I’d head straight to the burger/hot-dog food station. At least I ate those quickly and immediately erased their memory with soft drinks.

But it wasn’t just dining hall food. I bought a $20 full chicken at a farmer’s market once. I’d heard of ‘full chicken’ before, but had never seen what it actually was. When I tried to slice this one, a reddish fluid seeped out. I lost all appetite threw the chicken out. And then I went to an all-Asian church and tried their rice-and-seedlings-swimming-deep-in-watery-soup. I never went back to the church. Seaweed turned out to be a bad idea too. Raw fish didn’t make the cut either, even when seasoned with wasabi. It was mostly bad, but I did have the occasional good meal – Italian meatballs and spaghetti, Chinese dumplings, and Mongolian beef and rice, to mention a lot. Still, undercooked but charred beef with cheese in a burger roll was the staple. With coke.

“Always try new food,” they said. That was my attitude when I one day visited Esther’s* grandparents during a Christmas break. She was a good friend and had invited me over for dinner. There, I had the horror of witnessing a crab boil to death in a large open pot while I got taught how to use crab-forks – small, double-toothed forks for exploring every fleshy part of a crab. When the monster was finally served, I failed to hide my dislike for it. “Add some mayonnaise,” they urged. I did, but it didn’t change anything. So they offered me cabbage. You see, even in Zimbabwe, I absolutely hate cabbage. But I ate it all night trying to avoid the crab. They were very impressed by my affinity for cabbage, but let-down a bit because I hadn’t eaten the crab. “You won’t like it,” they never said.

I vowed never to eat crab again, and turned down all subsequent offers. Moreover, I stopped trying any new food, instead opting for the tried and tested default menu – burgers, hot-dogs and soda. I was getting thin though (because I wasn’t eating much of the default food either). (I was so thin that, when I asked this girl if I could join her on her routine jogs, she stared at me from toe to head contemplatively before declaring, “No, I think you’re already fine.”) And so I ate more and more burgers, and hot-dogs, and pizza, and boiled eggs, and rice. I began to thoroughly detest dining hall food, and meals became unpleasant experience for me. How I missed Zimbabwean food! And how I craved non-dining hall food!

So, when Esther invited me to her grandparents’ home for a meal again, I leapt at the opportunity. They were great people, and I was genuinely excited to see them again. But one of the reasons I was excited was because I would get to eat something other than dining hall food. They seemed to know that because, when I got there, they were very excited to announce what they had on the menu. “We’ve got your favorite!” grandma exclaimed with a wide smile.

No, she wasn’t carrying a live crab. She was carrying the biggest head of cabbage I had ever seen.

Bon Appetit!


America 4: “I Design iPod Covers at Apple”

This is the 4th article in my “America” series. This one has got a pretty serious theme. I hope you make it through it :-)

We were told everyone at Stanford had had straight A’s in high school. That everyone had been a prominent leader at their school. That everyone had won some science or writing competition. That everyone had achieved stellar scores in standardized university entrance tests. That everyone would become an entrepreneur, a political leader, the next Bill Gates or something of that sort. What happens when you throw so many highly decorated (or so it is claimed) high school students into one university?

The competition is frightening, fueled by an unrelenting superiority complex that inevitably creates a superiority pyramid among students. Science and engineering students are better than arts/humanities students; engineering students are better than science students; electrical engineering students are better than civil engineering students; computer science students are better than engineering students; computer science students who are also entrepreneurs are better than all the other students. This is not an invisible superiority pyramid – it’s reinforced in everyday conversation.

So it was that, when I sat down with a diasporan graduate, I was reminded of my place in the pyramid. He asked me why I had chosen civil engineering. Why on earth did you choose civil engineering!!? is what he meant. It was evening and he was a little tipsy, but I judged that he would still understand me. I explained that it had been a difficult choice between civil and mechanical engineering, and that I’d finally settled on civil engineering. That seemed to puzzle him more. “Really!? Why?” he probed. He meant: “Are you insane? Why would you do that?” I told him that I loved working on physically larger projects, stressing the word physically.

With the most self-satisfied smirk I have ever seen, he declared, “Well, I’m a mechanical engineer and I design iPod covers for Apple.” Our table erupted with laughter – they’d been people sitting with us. They thought Mr. iPod Covers had put me in my place. What could be bigger than designing iPod covers for the most valuable company on this earth? Designing foot-bridges over water canals? Ha! I tried to explain that I’d meant physically larger projects; as in, a bridge is much larger than an iPod cover. But the laughter drowned out my voice. Nobody wanted anything to perturbe the popular elite school narrative – that some people are better than others because of what they do.

I will not poke fun at the irony of it all. That here was a young, overworked guy inflating himself because he (was part of a team that) designed iPod covers at Apple. How big!

I knew a girl called Morielle. One day I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation. “I want to teach Physics in high school,” she responded, without so much as a pause. She did not say it in a “I-know-what-you-are-thinking-Go-on-and-say-it” way. She just said it plainly like that. She just had a passion for it and she had the conviction to do it. She wasn’t apologetic about it, as were many Stanford students that I’d heard saying, “…but you’re the cool guy – you do engineering/computer science/physics.” She wanted to be a high school Physics teacher because she had a passion for it. And no aspiring engineer or iPod cover designer would take that away from her.

I learned from her. When a Harvard student laughed at me for wanting to do civil engineering, I wasn’t fazed much. “You’re going to work for BCC,” he had quipped. You see, I knew fully well what he meant by BCC (Bulawayo City Council) because BCC is associated with the ‘garbage people.’ Expectedly, he didn’t give me a chance to respond, but I felt ever more determined to become a civil engineer. He had no clue about my passion, but I did. I do.

And he is not going to take that away from me. And neither is the conceited guy who designs iPod covers for Apple.

America 3: A Sir Among Dudes

Hello. This is the 3rd article in my ‘America’ series. I apologize it’s not a funny one, but I hope you like it as much as the last.

“Yes, I am going to the office to enquire.”

“To what?”

“To enquire.”

“No, Lesley. Ask. You say I went to ask. What’s with your English?”

And that is how I got introduced to the less formal English. It took some learning because I came from a high school where you could say, in casual conversation, “…his statement is subtly reinforcing our misconstrued attitudes towards immigrants in this country.” You just couldn’t say, “…what he said makes immigrants look bad to us.”

But that is how I had to say it at Stanford. I didn’t like it at all at first, but I got used to it. However, I promised myself that, no matter how informal I got, I would never use the word, “dude.”
You can imagine my excitement when I stepped onto the intramural soccer field as a referee and everyone referred to me as ‘Sir.’ They said ‘dude’ to their teammates – including ladies – but they said ‘Sir’ to me. Never “dude.” And I loved it.

To this day, I don’t know where Americans learned to address a soccer referee with “Sir.” It didn’t matter what they were talking about. It could be: “Sir, how much time do we have left?” Or it could be: “But Sir, that’s our [expletive] ball! It’s [expletive] going this way, Sir. You’ve got to be [expletive] kidding me Sir.” Somebody could be cussing out like that, but they still felt obligated to say “Sir.” I still do not know why, but I still loved it.

One day, my title was put to the test. I was a referee in a co-ed match (with guys and girls – you know, dudes). This girl went hard into a tackle and fell. When she fell, she let out a very loud wail. She was about graduate-student age, but she wailed like a little child. I immediately stopped play, and rushed towards her.

The stage was set. All the Stanford feminists were watching me, to see if I would patronize her. Everyone else was watching to see whether I’d irk the feminists. I wanted to make sure she was okay, but at the same time taking care not to give her more attention than I would a male player. Still, I had to be gentlemanly about it. Oh being an intramural soccer referee at Stanford! (Or, is it being Lesley?)

“Are you okay?” I asked her, after she stopped crying. “Yeah I am,” she said impatiently, sounding surprisingly collected. She hadn’t gotten up yet and so I stood there waiting for her. At last, she did get up and, to my surprise, she did not show the slightest sign that she was/had been hurt. All that crying and it turned out to be nothing? That’s crazy. And funny! I thought.

“Sir, is she fine?” someone asked.

“Dude, she’s fine. I wonder what all that crying was about. Let’s play ball she’s cool,” is what I was thinking.

“Yes, she’s fine. Let’s resume playing,” is what I actually said.

I had to be a Sir about it.


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