I brought a Philip K Dick anthology with me. I have never used hallucinatory drugs, I never felt I needed them. Just good fiction. Instinctively I knew I would need this.
Hitting the six week mark in Maputo, I picked up the volume and began to read “The Man in the High Castle“, a speculative novel about what the world would have been like if the axis had won what Americans call World War Two. In his world, everything is familiar but dislocated, turned inside out or subverted.
Not long after I had plunged headlong into his Pacific world, my mind started sliding off into a tangent. I recalled a number of conversations I have had here, mostly up north, at bars and in the back of pick-up trucks. In a sense, these conversations were the ultimate “speculative” moments.
Much like the characters in The Man in the High Castle, in their daily lives, people here accept the existing order unthinkingly. But there are fleeting moments when they ask why, when they ask “what if”?
For a certain generation here, who still remember colonization, the “what if” relates to the Portuguese. They “colonized” the place until the late 1800s from a small island off of the north coast. They fought with the British to maintain this territory, to demonstrate “effective occupation” in the time of the imperial rush on Africa. This strategy involved periodic military campaigns, allegiances with key indigenous leaders, and the leasing of large parts of territory to the “Halliburtons” of the times.
The Portuguese only moved their headquarters down here in the late 1800s to set up a port for the gold coming out of Johannesburg.
If the British had ruled us… If the British had ruled us… Would we be so corrupt? Would we be so poor? Would so much blood have been spilled? (And I ask them silently: would you have read Chinua Achebe instead of Agostinho Neto?)
Speculation is a form of nostalgia for the unlived.
In contrast, the new generation lives in a permanently mutating present – effervescent, hybrid, fragmented and connected, impatient but indifferent, unapologetic.
Feet squarely in the mud of the broken pavement.
But on these feet, hightops and Converse are kept clean, beneath skinny jeans. Shangana, English, and Portuguese in a texted tower of babel where vowels are dropped and once-taboo k’s abound. Two and three second- and third-hand phones each, a different sim card in each. DJ Cleo playing on these phones alongside a Singaporan mobile chat client. Vendors parading the streets wearing a chainmail of plastic Chinese Raybans. Ubiquitous boxes of small plastic-wrapped Brazilian chickens. A Chinese airport with nice espresso bars and views of the city, abutting areas with “open defecation”.
A couple of weeks ago, one of the operators of those trucks on the runway at Maputo International Airport drove into a South African Airways plane.
The flight was delayed at least 8 hours. In a speculative vein, I wondered –
How many international meetings had been missed because of this small tear in a global fabric?
The man who drove that truck – did he ever wonder why South Africa is so different than Mozambique?
How did he explain the accident to his kids, who know the names of different elite neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg from telenovelas and music video clips?