A woman stands, arms at her sides, looking at the camera. Her sleeveless blouse sags on her skinny frame. Around her waist is a capulana, on her head a kerchief. Her feet are in flip flops. It’s late afternoon and the light casts a long thin shadow to her left and casts a warm glow on the two mud houses behind her. One house has a thatched roof topped with an old tire and a corrugated metal door painted with words you can’t make out. The words say “Puff Daddy.” I was hoping to capture this incongruity when the woman appeared. She spoke only Changana so I indicated that I wanted to take her picture. She posed as such and I took it and brought it to show her. Normally people are satisfied with seeing themselves in the screen but this woman wanted something. She began talking urgently, with me not understanding a word. Her unknown demand became more and more forceful and finally I excused myself and jogged off.
The mystery woman lives in the mud hut village behind our school. I call it the Riverside because it sounds classy. Really it’s quite beautiful. The houses are made of mud but the yards are tidy and swept and planted with flowers and shrubs. The space between yards is filled up with corn and pumpkins, chickens and goats. The worn footpath winds along the Limpopo River, a million-dollar view.
I used to take that path during my runs. People would wave and say “hi” and neighborhood kids would drop their games and start running with me. By the end of the neighborhood I would have quit a gang of followers. I would run backwards, do grapevines and high knees and laugh as they tried to copy me. At the last house they’d turn back and I’d go on running in peace.
After the photo incident I began having anxiety about running through Riverside. The same woman, if she saw me coming, would run out and block my way in the path, yelling at me in Changana. It happened a few times and I finally stopped going that way.
When I printed some photos for my REDES group, I put hers in the lineup too, thinking I’d mend things by bringing it to her. I never got around to it before the break but on Sunday I decided to do it. It was a hot sunny day, 100% humidity after all the rain and I was dripping with sweat. I appeared in her compound and walked over to the shade where she was sitting on a straw mat. There were children beside her sucking on mangos and a younger man in a chair.
“I’m here to talk to the grandmother,” I said.
He smiled and gave me his chair. I sat down and greeted her in Changana.
“Hello. How are you?”
She smiled, “I’m fine and you?”
“I’m fine. It’s hot!” She responded with something in Changana. I nodded goofily then pointed at the corn, tall and green after the rain.
“Food! Well. Eat.” She said something I didn’t understand then I turned to the man and said, in Portuguese, “I have a gift for her.” He translated and I handed her the photo. She took it, ran her finger over it, looked up at me, then back at the photo. After a minute she burst into a grin and took my hand, squeezing it and chattering.
“You did well!” translated the man. They analyzed the picture and figured out where she was standing when it was taken. She said something about the school.
“I am teacher! I teach!” I explained in Changana, pointing at the school. Her face changed as if she finally understood why a strange white girl appeared at her house in the first place. She grabbed my hand again.
“Friend, my friend.” I said. She smiled and nodded.
“I go,” I said, “see you later.” They offered me mangos but I declined politely. As I walked home in the hot sun, I felt light as a feather. That is likely the only photo she’s ever had of herself. Now I have a new friend and can once again go running through Riverside.