Monday, September 3, 2001, Moatize, near Tete, Mozambique
It is so hot here the highway melts everyday. Vehicles flattening it to oily, gleaming blacktop. I am sitting at a plastic table on a hot concrete step at the Pensao Montes Namuli, watching the road, drinking a dark, malty domestic beer called Manica. The bottle is cool and slippery in my hand. The air smells of tar. The earth simmers in the brown heat, even as dusk approaches. Guy reckons it’s 35 degrees centigrade. I smoke another cigarette. The sun sinks towards the dust-hazed horizon.
And at last, as the dusk draws down the night, the trucks pull in. They are massive sixteen-wheelers, built for long distances and huge cargos, and they lumber towards us, heads down, like bulls. We have to shout over the sounds of them growling and snorting to a halt, the hiss and screech of their brakes, the clatter of uncoupling containers. Then the truckers emerge. They are brawny men wearing European football club T-shirts, bright tennis shoes, sharp haircuts, watches flashing from their wrists, and American cigarettes bulking out their jean pockets. They swagger into the bar. Beers pop and finally the girls appear.
There are eight of them; I guess their ages range between fifteen and twenty-five. They stand close together, chattering, giggling and playing with one another’s hair as girls do. And throwing hot glances at the motoristas.
A burly Zimbabwean driver struts over to them and slides his hand inside the biggest girl’s shirt, squeezing each of her breasts. Then he feels her thighs, strokes her back, and gets a good handful of her bum and gives that a good pinch too. He does it as swiftly, precisely, and confidently as a farmer checking out an animal for sale.
I glance at Guy. This is what we’re here for, but he hasn’t lifted his camera. It lies in his lap, his fingers loosely curled around it. And he watches. His assignment is to photograph a bunch of Mozambican filmmakers documenting the lives of the prostitutes who work at this truck stop. I came along for the ride.
There are places like this Resto all over Africa. By day it’s a shabby looking roadside stop. By night it’s the center of an encampment of sometimes dozens of sixteen-wheelers, their drivers making fires and cooking supper by the roadside and partying it up in the bar before they turn in to sleep on the bunks in the cabs of their trucks. In this part of the world you don’t want to find yourself alone on the road with an expensive cargo after dark. And so the truckers stop at places like this one, where there is light and company and sex if they want it.
Tete is a significant terminus on the routes to and from the Indian Ocean port of Beira. The town is located in the thumb of Mozambique that juts out westward and presses up against Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. During the apartheid era, when white-ruled South Africa controlled the harbor at Durban, the routes in and out of Beira were crucial trading lifelines for the majority-ruled central and southern African states. When it opened, the Beira Corridor was hailed as o corredor do futuro—the corridor to the future. Now it’s known grimly as o corredor da morte—the corridor of death, because of the disease that is spread along its length.
It’s well known that truckers spread AIDS along the routes they drive and that the women they sleep with along the way make their livings from selling their bodies. The motoristas and the prostitutes are constantly informed by posters and radio ads and educational workers all over the subcontinent that unprotected sex can be fatal. Condoms are available for sale here at the bar of the Montes Namuli and also for free from international and local health care organizations in the area. And yet the UN estimates that one in four people in this area is HIV positive. No specific stats are available because there has been little or no testing. Testing is not widely available, but even if it were, there is little incentive for people to know their status when there’s no treatment available to follow up a negative result.
At our table we order more beers and light up more cigarettes. It’s dark now. Licinio, the director of the documentary, goes over to the girls and greets them warmly with a kiss on each cheek. There’s a little flirting, lots of big smiles and rather bright eyes from the rest of the crew. The girls get paid for every night that they work on the film, much more than they earn from selling their bodies, and the deal is that on the nights they are performing they don’t sleep with the truckers. Licinio is talking with the “chef” as he calls her, the leader of the band of girls. Louisa is wearing a tight orange vest that only just covers her breasts and a turquoise patterned kapulana wrapped around her legs. She’s a striking woman with strong features and I’d say she’s in her mid-twenties. She flings her braided, beaded hair over her shoulders and tilts her chin up as she looks over at Guy and me through eyes narrowed to slits. Licinio is explaining that filming will begin in a few days time.
A minute or two later he brings her over to join us. Licinio is originally from Brazil, and his first language is Portuguese. Guy and I are English-speaking South Africans who can probably get by in Afrikaans, German, and French. Licinio says he learned all his languages from women and that his French lover didn’t last long. But it was long enough for us to have one language in common. Louisa is Shangaan. She communicates with Licinio in Portuguese, and he translates for us into French.
Licinio explains that Louisa came to Moatize from Beira a couple of years back when she married a man from this area. She gave him three kids, though one of them died recently—from diarrhea—shortly after her husband left her for another woman. For a while she had a job as a waitress in the baraccas, but the money wasn’t enough to feed and clothe her family. Now she makes enough to look after them all, her father and brother included. The truckers pay the equivalent of a $1.50 for sex for the night, or $3 for sex without a condom.
Licinio says that Louisa says she always uses a condom, because she’s afraid of AIDS. She nods, listening to Licinio translate, then she leans forward to add something. What she fears most is that a trucker will cut off her head in the night and take it away with him.
We are joined by Margarita, who, like the others is wearing a kapulana tied around her waist and a T-shirt on top, but unlike the others she is very pregnant, her distended belly button sticks out from under the muted colors of the sarong. Margarita claims to be fifteen. Licinio says that’s what they all say, because the truckers think that younger girls are less likely to be diseased. I ask who the father of her child is, and she says it was a motorista, a man she knew and trusted. “What was his name?” She shakes her head, she doesn’t know; “I trust many men.” Why did she not use a condom on that occasion? “Because I trust him.”
Margarita’s sister Odette also works here. They live with their mother in a compound nearby. When I ask Margarita why she does this for a living she shrugs and smiles shyly, looking away. Her response is spoken in a whisper: “Poverty.” Margarita has been working this truck stop for almost two years. She has an open, innocent face with full lips painted a gaudy purply-pink and a sweet, trusting smile.
Sex is currency here and for women who have very little else, the sale of their bodies allows them to survive. In her article “The Hidden Cause of AIDS,” Helen Epstein likens the spread of HIV in Mozambique today to the spread of STDs in Victorian times, “in that it was driven partly by economic changes that created legions of impoverished women with few alternatives besides prostitution, and prevailing attitudes that let men get away with adultery but punished women for it.”
More girls gather. Lily and Rosa are sisters too. Antonia lurches up, sucking on a can of milk stout and snaking an arm around Licinio’s neck. She’s the oldest of the girls and has been working the Moatize truck stop for nine years. The youngest is Claudino, a sweet-faced girl with a defiant glower. There’s an attractive, arrogant strength in the tilt of her chin as she scans the table, her gaze settling on Guy and me. She is wearing an especially colorful kapulana, her belly is bare, and her firm young breasts point from underneath a small halter-top, which is bulky on one side with disc shaped objects concealed against her skin. Condoms. Claudino is definitely the prettiest of the girls, but Cinda is the most beautiful. Cinda is tall and strong with almond eyes and skin that gleams like polished ebony. She looks away with a scowl when I greet her. Licinio says that clients have thrown Cinda out of trucks because she refuses to have sex with protection. Or at least I think that’s what Licinio’s saying, but it’s late and our French is straining and I’m not sure how much is lost in all this translation.
Guy and I talk about the women on the drive back to Tete. I don’t know what I feel about what we’ve seen tonight. Is it okay to sell your body if you choose freely to do so? These women don’t seem desperate, degraded, or humiliated. They’re vital and joyous and appear very much in charge of their lives.
Tuesday, September 4, 2001
I’m back at the Montes Namuli with Licinio and his crew, though they are still not filming. Tonight the cameraman, Fon Cho, is practicing pre-lighting the areas he expects to shoot in. Gita has arrived from Luanda to record sound. He’s a tall, slender man with a big smile and a gleaming gold hoop in one earlobe. Gita positively jiggles with energy, always cracking jokes, making us all laugh. Licinio warned me about him last night and then turned immediately to Guy and warned him too, as if we are together. But Gita seems cool; tonight he’s also scouting the place out, figuring out what will work where.
I’m at a table in the courtyard with my journal, my smokes, and my Manica. Through the bar I can see Guy, perched on the edge of the step, camera slung across his chest, his hand holding a bottle of beer. He has the capacity to sit very still, until you forget that he’s there. As far as I know he still hasn’t taken any pictures. For some reason this makes me anxious.
Gino, the man who works the front of house here, has a badly deformed foot. He walks on what looks like the stump of a wrist, with his big toe sticking out like the thumb of a hitchhiker looking for a ride. Gino scrapes a living from helping people, like he’s helping now—a trucker who needs someone to dial home for him at the pay phone outside, just by the door to the bar. “Allo! Allo! Wait, please!” He shouts into the handset, and then he passes the phone to the man who is leaning over the railings towards him. For this he gets a couple of cigarettes. For a few more Gino might hook the driver up with one of the girls.
The girls mock Gino, mimicking his limp and teasing him sexually, but he’s part of their safety net here. He keeps an eye on them as much as they watch over one another. Licinio tells me that if a trucker refuses to pay then the girls get together and steal a blanket or something else from his cabin as compensation.
When we arrived tonight there were three truckers sitting around a meal of pap and stew cooked on a camp stove at the roadside. I sat with them awhile, and they let me buy them a round of beers. I asked them about the girls. At first they shook their heads, calling the women pests. But after another round of drinks one of them said, “Yes, we sleep with them. It’s because we’re away from home so long and then we find one of the girls in our truck and they want it, so what can we do?” And do you use condoms? They laugh and shake their heads. I’m not sure if that means they do or they don’t, but they don’t feel the need to clarify for me.
I walked on down the alleys created between the parked trucks, greeting the men, some of whom greeted me. One guy, a Zimbabwean who introduced himself as George, was bent over a small fire. “Come join us,” he said. He was with Patrick—a skinny man with dramatically protruding buckteeth and a jumpy demeanor. George was cooking a stew of beef and vegetables on a fire he’d made in an old oilcan, coals glowing red through the holes punched in the tin. He offered me a taste of the beef, and I took a spoonful. It was delicious. George is on his way from Harare to Blantyre in Malawi, where he’ll drop off a load, pick another one up, and take that to Johannesburg. He’s been driving for the same company for ten years. Gets paid 18,000 Zimbabwean dollars a month. I asked how much that is in American dollars, and he pulled out a calculator from the leather bag, propped against the box he was sitting on, and did the numbers for me. Fifty-one American dollars per month, he said. “It’s nothing,” he smiled, holding up his hands and dropping them to slap down against his thighs. He has a wife and two kids in Harare. He was about to tell me about the kids when Louisa and the girls appeared, walking toward their compound. “Shew! Where do those girls come from?” he said, riveted. “They live over there,” I replied. He frowned. “Hmm. Nightgirls.”
George showed me the inside of his cab. I stepped up into the passenger seat, while he climbed up into the driver’s position behind the controls. A console of dials and meters curved around him. A built in tray held a roll of pink toilet paper and an empty Tupperware container. In the cabin behind us was a bed covered in a brown leatherette dustsheet, and a blue cooler box sat on top of that. “My fridge,” he said, patting it fondly.
Back at the fire I ask Patrick and George if they ever sleep with the nightgirls. George shook his head—no, he’s a one-woman man. He has his wife in Harare. Patrick was squirmier—“No way,” he insisted. I teased him, saying I didn’t believe him. So he shrugged and admitted, “Sometimes I do. Sometimes a man must satisfy his needs.” George adds that “there are some men who hate to sleep alone and so they have a girl every night at every stop. There are girls all along the road. Not so many in Mozambique and Botswana and Malawi, but in Zambia—once you get north of Lusaka—shew! There are so many. And in the DRC—it’s crazy—they flock to the trucks.” After a silent shaking of heads Patrick asks anxiously, “How can you tell if someone is HIV-positive?” I say that you can’t tell—not until they already have AIDS and are sick with some other illness like TB. Both men were looking down into fire and nodding gravely.
Wednesday, September 5, 2001
Almost four. Arrived here at the Montes Namuli a few minutes ago. The girls were waiting for us, dressed to the nines and positively fizzing with anticipation. The filming starts tonight, and they are all wearing the costumes bought for them by Licinio—new shoes, short dresses, wigs and extensions braided into their hair, and tons of makeup. They barely resemble themselves. Louisa is wearing a shimmering violet flapper dress and tottering around on very high-heeled purple plastic shoes. I look at Guy and he looks at me and we both shake our heads in puzzlement. I guess we expected to be observing the making of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Instead we seem to be watching the creation of a kind of docudrama in which the real characters play versions of themselves in scenes taken from their lives.
The filming begins with the usual scurry of anxiety as equipment problems and other glitches are discovered. For some reason Fon Cho has no plate with which to attach the camera to the tripod, so tonight he has to shoot handheld. Fon Cho is half Japanese and half Mozambican, a small, but very straight man with a deep, soft voice. His skin is tan and leathery, and his long salt and pepper hair is caught up in a ponytail. He wears the obligatory cameraman’s vest over his shirt: pale grey with UNHCR embroidered on the right breast next to which he has pinned a beaded white badge with the red ribbon emblem of AIDS awareness on it. He is set up on the road with Gita, plugged in and crouched behind him. They are waiting for a sunset shot of the trucks arriving and the light is almost perfect and the blood red sun is sinking fast toward the hills in a gorgeous, dirty pink haze . . . but there are no trucks! They do not arrive until the colors in the sky have dimmed and the crew have relocated to the front step where they shoot a scene with two of the girls.
Guy and I watch from the bar. Most of the population of the surrounding villages is watching too. By eight o’clock Gino has organized the children into an orderly seated line along the edge of the blacktop. Hundreds of people, all silent.
Under the lights, Lily and Claudino are seated facing one another at a table on the step. The camera is rolling, but Licinio’s voice can be heard barking out directions during the take. The girls take his notes and adjust very smoothly as they speak the words that have been scripted for them.
The others who are not in the scene sit nearby. As usual they are very affectionate and very gentle with one another. They play with their braids all the time, twisting a plaited strand, pulling at bunches. During a break Louisa comes to the bar and orders a glass of water for herself and a plastic bottle of UHT milk for Margarita and the baby in her belly. She’s the calm one tonight amid the giggling girls, but she laughs a lot too and she’s beautiful when she does.
I’m fascinated now. I really want to know who these women are, but I don’t have the sense that I’m going to get to know them through this film. And Guy has still not taken any pictures. We drive back to Tete in silence.
Back at the crew apartment in Tete, a chicken soup had been simmering on the stove since morning. Licinio and Abdul put together a salad out of whatever could be found—cheese, tinned peas, cucumber and tomato. I make garlic croutons from stale bread fried in olive oil. Gita films us joking around while we prepare the food. Our supper is served with an awareness of the pleasure to be taken from the ritual of sitting down with others to eat. We drink cold beers and talk in all our languages and we laugh a lot. I like these men. I like their camaraderie, their evident affection for one another and their capacity to create warmth and beauty in the plainest of circumstances. After dinner we clear the plates and Abdul puts a monitor on the table, Fon Cho kills the lights and we watch the rushes from the evening’s filming. I do not much like what I see on the screen. I don’t generally like staged re-enactments or docudrama as a form, but I’m not sure that I understand what it is that Licinio is aiming for. When the lights come back up I don’t say anything. Nor does Guy. There follows a heated discussion between the director and the director of photography. It’s in Portuguese, so I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s over very quickly. Gita brings out a bottle of cold wine and Guy asks Licinio to tell us more about the film.
Licinio explains that all his films involve a period of research where he spends time getting to know his subjects and their stories. Then he writes a script based around what he has learned of them and their situation. This film involves the eight girls re-enacting scenes from their lives and it is shot as if the incidents take place over the course of one night at the truckstop. Louisa meets the man with the giant penis, Cinda gets thrown out of a truck after a fight over wearing a condom, Claudino falls in love with a motorista and is sweet talked into believing he’ll take her with him to a better life, but in the morning she arrives with her suitcase to find him gone. And so on. In the morning all the girls are completely detruite (destroyed).
I ask about the man with the giant penis. Licinio pours himself a glass of wine. There’s this one trucker, he begins, who comes to the Resto and overnights from time to time. The girls don’t know his name and, because he always arrives in darkness, are never sure of who he is. All they know is that he drives a truck with a white cab. Licinio ignores me when I point out that this could make him one of hundreds of truckers. The story goes that when this man is erect his penis reaches his chin. The girls who have slept with him have been terribly hurt and upset by the experience. They can’t walk the next day.
One night Louisa was naked in the front seat with a trucker who was lying down on his bed behind the driver’s compartment. He was covered—to his chin—in a blanket. She was suspicious and insisted that he take off the blanket so she could see him underneath. But he resisted, saying he wanted her to come over and join him first. Finally, to tease her, he reached out with one hand to squeeze the red and pink satin, heart-shaped cushion on the passenger seat beside her and as a tune began to tinkle from the toy she grabbed the edge of the blanket, whipped it off him, and saw this massive erection—all the way to his throat! She jumped out of the cab and fled. Unfortunately Claudino, the youngest—who’d been working in another truck during this incident—wasn’t aware of the presence of the man with the giant penis in Moatize that night. Unsuspecting she went with him to his truck and according to Licinio she was completement detruite in the morning.
“Is that really true?” I ask. “Yes!” Licinio asserts emphatically that it is. But I wonder if that’s how Louisa would tell the story.
Thursday, September 6, 2001
This morning Guy declared that he has had enough. We need our own translator and our own vehicle. Abdul, the production manager, says he will make some enquiries for us.
After breakfast we walk down to the river. We pass hawkers on the roadside, as listless as the beggar women who cradle their tiny babies in their arms as they feed them; their dresses open so passers by can see their slack, flattened breasts. We pass abandoned buildings streaked with rust and moisture and faded peels of mint green and pale orange and pink paint. There’s a lovely art deco ruin with letters affixed to its façade: “Direcao Provincial de Educacao.” Bougainvillea covers all in clouds of orange and cerise. On the street there is little traffic, mostly souped-up old cars and jerry-rigged contraptions of vans made from motorbikes. I’ve seen many arm pedalled three-wheeler bikes for the amputees who are leftovers from the landmines left over from the war. In the parking lot of the Resto are several international aid organization vehicles, gleaming white land cruisers, their interiors screened from the sun and prying eyes by tinted glass.
By the time we sit down I am drenched in sweat, sticking my shirt to my back between my shoulder blades and darkening the cotton under my arms. The river offers no respite from the heat. The water of the Zambezi glistens, glassy and sluggish in the heat. Children splash in the shallows, fling themselves in cartwheels of flying limbs.
At the table next to us is a blonde girl, obviously English. She introduces herself as Amanda and joins us for our fly-infested lunch. We talk about short stories and Tete and her work here. She’s on a two-year posting with VSO and she explains that Tete is not just the HIV capital of Mozambique it’s also the prostitution center of this region. So far there have been few studies, no HIV testing and no serious research to document the problems, but a friend of hers, a doctor from MSF, thinks there are around a million Mozambicans living with HIV. More than half of those are women. The number of people who have died from AIDS in Mozambique this year alone is probably around 100,000.
After lunch Guy and I retreat to the relative cool of our room. There’s sweat clamming on my thighs and in my armpits. My skin feels sticky even after another cold shower. Guy reads aloud from the notes he made on his last assignment, in Sierra Leone. “Loneliness and time—without whose company the journey would mean nothing.” It’s a quote from Lawrence Durrell’s journal. We are bored of reading and writing and we’ve told each other all our jokes. We get merry on beer bought from the shop downstairs and make up limericks.
A man and a woman in Tete
Stuck in a room to let
They ran out of jokes
And subsisted on smokes
It was a time they both hoped to forget
Friday, September 7, 2001
Morning. Sitting at a Resto some distance from the river, a place we have not been before. Guy is reading some pointers on Portuguese grammar that someone copied into his notebook—a school composition book with a battered green cover. There’s a television in the corner of this empty patio, emitting a soft buzz of Portuguese soap. The swimming pool that’s advertised on the hoarding outside is empty, but for a layer of green slime at the bottom. The tennis court has grass growing through the tar. A comfortably rounded woman sits at a desk counting money. We’re the only people here and we’ve declined food so the waiters are leaning on the bar. Waiting.
Abdul didn’t have any luck with finding a car and a translator for us yesterday. So we’re both a bit edgy today. Guy decides to follow up a lead on another project, which involves photographing child soldiers and former child combatants.
Licinio picks us up in the late morning and drives us across the bridge out of Tete to the SOS children’s home, which is guarded at its entrance by a massive, mythical baobab tree. We are taken into the administration office and met by an extremely helpful and friendly staff member who is under the impression that Guy has come to photograph their children in the grounds of the orphanage. Things clarify with the arrival of Lunga, the SOS center’s sports director. Lunga must be in his twenties. He is good looking, tall and slim, with an excellent command of English. Later, as we are leaving, Guy asks him to come and work with us and he agrees.
Evening at the Montes Namuli. There’s a dust storm covering the area. The sun is orange and the light is brittle and glaring. I’m irritable tonight. No interviews and no pictures.
Saturday, September 8, 2001
Lunga has arrived and he’s organized for us to rent his boss’s twin cab bakkie. At last we are mobile and translatable. The three of us drive out to the compound where the girls live.
When we arrive Louisa’s brother and father are sitting on the step of her hut eating from heaped plates—sadza, tomatoes, lettuce and a stew that looked like fish. Louisa has cooked for them and is now cleaning the yard. Ducklings waddle around followed by their ugly mother who has tattered white and black feathers and a knobbly red crown. A goat bleats and skitters around. Luis, Louisa’s brother lobs a stone at it every time it goes near him.
The girls gather outside Louisa’s place, slipping off green flip-flops and sitting down together on the reed mat. They pat a space for me and I sit down too. Louisa shows us her photo album—a much-thumbed blue folder with plastic slip-in pages cracked from heat and age. A heart-shaped cut out on the cover frames a picture of a tall tower block in Beira with a lush garden and a sparkling pool in the grounds. It’s a place she would like to live she says. Most of the pictures are of Louisa with former boyfriends, all of them muscled, glowering beefcakes. The others giggle and point at the men and tease her. Their nickname for her is suja, which means dirt. I ask why they call her that and she shakes her head as if to say—does it matter?
When I asked if we could talk about their work Louisa got up and went to the water tap where she clattered loudly through the dirty dishes from lunch. Lunga translated the comment she tossed over her shoulder “what will you pay us?” I said I’d buy cool drinks. After a moment or two’s silence Louisa said in that case it would be better to go inside.
Inside her hut Louisa spread a mat on the floor and we all sat down in a circle, tight up against the walls of the little room. For decoration, net curtains are draped against the mud plaster, some hanging in the shape of window edging. Her home has two rooms, the bedroom, and the living room where we are sitting. There is a stack of plastic bowls for cooking, a tiered basket containing vegetables, and several plastic five-gallon cans that look like they hold juice. Cinda and Odette sat down on a can each and Louisa immediately chased them off; Lunga explained that she didn’t want them to sink into her salsa, which is stored inside.
Louisa tells us that after she came to live in the area she made friends with some of the girls who worked the truckers at the Resto. One night, not long after her husband left her, she went down there to the Montes Namuli and hung out. It was on her fourth visit that a trucker offered to pay her to sleep with him. She says she was scared that he’d hurt her or cut her in the truck, but he didn’t. “After that it was okay, it’s just the game,” she said.
Claudino says she was in love with a guy who didn’t look after her well. She had no money. It was on her third or fourth visit to the Resto that she went into a truck. I asked how she felt before she did it. She replies that she had to find the courage. But not with drink, she didn’t drink. She just found the courage and she went. And afterwards? Was she upset? Was she elated? She shakes her head. No, she felt fine except he didn’t give her enough money. “But after that it was okay, it’s always the same.” Claudino doesn’t mind going with the ugly or dirty ones. “Sometimes the ugly ones pay more.” Gales of laughter erupt at that comment. Cinda giggles behind her hand, shaking her head. Shew! She had one, he was SO dirty. And his truck was disgusting, she felt dirty when she came out next morning. She’s laughing all the time she says this because he paid well. “Fifty thousand!”
The girls get called puta—prostitute—and many other insulting names. They tell me they don’t have a name for themselves. “What about the name the truckers give you—Nightgirls?” Margarita nodded, “Yes, that name is okay.” Cinda shakes her beautiful head. No, she doesn’t like that name at all. Margarita and Claudino laugh. “Why not? Why don’t you like the name when that’s what you are?” Cinda just shakes her head again and then she looks at me and tells me it’s bad to smoke. “You shouldn’t smoke so much Janny.”
Rosa appears. She’s so quiet I don’t notice her approach. She is standing in the doorway. Doesn’t smile, doesn’t greet like the others, but she answers my questions. Rosa says she doesn’t mind what she does as long as she is working and the money is okay. I ask if she ever hates her job. She pauses a long time, twiddling the cigarette between her fingers. She is so quiet that I think she hasn’t heard me. Her eyes are down and her curly lashes are quivering against her cheek. When at last she answers it is in the quietest mumble. Yes, she likes her work.
Lunga shakes his head at this. He asks the girls why they can’t save and get some money together to start a small business. Louisa chuckles and says there’s no money to spare at the end of the month. “Then why can’t the government do something?” Lunga asks Guy, exasperated. Guy responds wryly, “What? Like a sewing project?” Lunga shrugs, he is upset by the lives these girls live, yet he does not judge them and so they are at ease with him.
When the question of size comes up again, it elicits much giggling and grimacing and expressive gesturing. Louisa makes a fist, a mischievous smile parting her lips as she points her littlest finger and wriggles it limply to indicate the little dicks. “No problem,” she says in her gravelly voice. Then she frees her middle finger from the fist she has made and points it upwards to describe the normal penises. “No problem,” she repeats. Then there is laughter as she closes her hand completely and lifts her forearm, pointing with her other hand from her elbow to the tip of her fist. “Big problem!” She cries and melts with laughter “We can’t do those. You do those and you end up in hospital.” So she always checks first and she does this by closing her hand around the man’s balls while they are still in his pants and tests the “weight” of the thing. If it’s too large she excuses herself and disappears. Sometimes she’ll ask him for money to buy drinks and make a hasty escape with the cash. So is Licinio’s story of the man with the giant penis a true one? No, it’s not. Not literally, but it stands for something they all fear and some have experienced.
On the subject of periods they are matter of fact. If it’s someone you know and who knows you and doesn’t mind, then you go ahead, it’s not a problem. At the Montes Namuli it has never been a problem for a girl to say—no, it’s my time of the month, or everything’s not all right with me.
When I asked if they ever get infections or STDs they all said no. Then Margarita pointed at Cinda. “Ey! You’ve had!” Cinda laughed and looked away. Then Louisa says; “the most painful thing about gonorrhea is the injection you get to make it right.” Squeals of recognition come from the rest of the girls.
I feel tired. I stand up and walk outside where I see Guy across the yard, reloading his camera. He’s shot several rolls of film this afternoon.
Much later, after the film crew has gone, we are sitting at the bar, still quiet. The girls disappeared when they finished filming and we’re not sure they’re coming back. Then Lily staggers up, a can of Castle in hand. She’s poes dronk. She says the other girls are across the road. We decide to go there. On the way we pass a man who has fallen asleep balanced very delicately on the front fender of his truck, his head lolling back against the grill.
The other bar is shabby with very little stock. Next to a poster advocating the use of condoms is a shelf with a single bottle of gin. On the patio Antonia is swaying drunkenly to a Latino cover of a Whitney Houston song. A woman came up to the bar and orders two bottles of Dois-M. She’s attractive in a solid sort of way. After exchanging a few words with Lunga she takes the beers and goes outside. Lunga tells us that she’s the Zimbabwean hooker who, the girls say, has been taking their business while they’ve been filming. The woman told Lunga she had a room in the yard of the bar and she had come to fetch drinks for the trucker she had staying there with her.
We sit outside on the step, smoking, drinking, and watching in silence. The heat is very close. My skin feels slimy and gritty with sweat and dust. I am ready to leave. And then we see Cinda in the distance. She is standing with her legs firmly planted apart, her arms akimbo, her green wraparound dress flutters around her knees, transparent in the light from the other bar. She has her back to us. Her proud head is swivelling this way and that on her long neck. She looks magnificent, statuesque. We call out to her and she turns and becomes a girl, skipping towards us as if we are old friends. She arrives breathless and lit up, explaining that she was waiting for her boyfriend. She saw him arriving earlier, but she hadn’t found him yet amidst all the other trucks.
Many of the girls will repeatedly see the same man because he’ll always come to them when he’s stopped at Moatize. And they call these drivers their boyfriends. Sometimes the truckers make promises of marriage or dupe the girls into being faithful. Problems arise when two guys with the same special girl arrive on the same night. There’s generally a fight and it is not the men who get hurt.
We stroll back to the Montes Namuli with Cinda and on the way we pass the man who is asleep on the bumper of the truck. Cinda walks up to him and slaps him hard across his face. He falls forward, but stops himself before he hits the ground, crashing into consciousness. Cinda’s laugh tinkles on the air and she skips off. We follow. What was that? That was her boyfriend.
Back at the Montes Namuli two burly truckers in ironed olive green shirts and black peg-top pants emerge from the dining room, skirting us closely at the bar. They smell of cheap aftershave. Lily and Cinda throw sizzling looks in their direction. Then Cinda gets giggly, her shoulders are up near her ears, her fingers fiddling with her skirt—her mouth open in a gorgeous smile—white, white teeth against that dark chocolate skin. She skips out after the men. Lily staggers after her and the two disappear, arms curled around one another’s waists, behind the hulking trucks.
A few days ago I had a picture of these women as vital and in charge of their lives. Not degraded or humiliated or unhappy. Except for the depressed Rosa. Now they seem like wrecks. Eyes bloodshot, lids drooping, mouths open in cackled laughter they are falling about in a crazy, boozed-up way. What kind of decision can anyone make in such a state. Would they even know how to open a condom, let alone make sure it goes on?
Sunday Morning, September 9, 2001
Gita and Fon Cho were already up when I went to their apartment this morning. A Dire Straits album, of all things, was distorting from their music system. They were standing at the kitchen counter in their boxers squeezing oranges for juice. “You guys really know how to live,” I said. “We try.” Gita smiled. So they made us glasses of fresh orange juice and we made rolls with canned jam and sweet cheeses. Outside it was sunny and the sky was clear, with no remnants of yesterday’s dust storm.
Dusk and we’ve just arrived at the Montes Namuli. Sitting in the courtyard at a table with Licinio. He’s reading over notes. Outside the crew are shooting cutaways of the trucks and the truckers. The sun is a fiery red ball in the sky.
Eight-fifteen. The night is hot. I’ve bought a round of beers and opened a new packet of Camels and am sitting with Lunga and several of the girls. Lily lights her cigarette off mine. “What’s it like to have sex with a man you don’t know and don’t love?” I ask. She jumps up, shouting, “there’s no such thing as love. It’s business!” “So do you never feel bad inside or cry afterwards?” I ask. They all shake their heads. No, they don’t cry. “Not even the first time?” Margarita laughs as if at a funny joke. “Yes,” she says, she did cry the first time, but never again. “And at first I used to feel pain, but now I feel nothing. I think about nothing. I just wait for it to be finished so I can take what is mine.” Odette repeats the refrain, “this is for money. It feels real nice having cash in my hand.” Then Antonia erupts, pouting and puffing, “what are you talking about love for? I don’t care about love! I don’t care who he is! I don’t feel his taste, I don’t know his smell and I don’t want to. I just want his money.”
This provokes Lily who has by now finished her Manica. She says that when a man puts his penis into her sex she feels nice, “I hold him nice and I kiss him.” And as she speaks she puts her hands between her legs and she moves her hips, thrusting and swinging. Then she laughs suddenly and uproariously and holds her hand up for a high five. I say I think she is trying to sound brave. Odette looks affronted. “It’s true!” she shouts. Then she opens another beer—a milk stout that she shares with her sister. And now Antonia stands up to do a little dance, opening and closing her legs so we can see her knickers above the hemline of her tiny dress, “fucka fucka is niiiiiice,” she purrs.
I look to Louisa who shrugs and says quietly in her deep voice that there are also times when she feels excited during sex with a client. “Always?” I ask. “No, not always.” “And when you don’t?” “Then I just lie back, I don’t move my body, I don’t hold them, I don’t kiss them. I just think about the money that’s coming.” Does she ever wish that she had a different life? She glares at me sulkily now. “What kind of life?” “One where you don’t have to have sex for money?” She twirls a string of braids, not meeting my eye and after a while she answers quietly, “Yes, I would prefer that. I would prefer to have a man looking after me.” I say I’m surprised to hear that, what does she want a man for? “You look after yourselves so well and men have only brought you trouble.” Lunga translates this to them very slowly and the girls look at me with pity. Lunga explains, “Only a man can offer the kind of income and acceptability that would save them from this.”
Monday, September 10, 2001
We have lunch at the Pemba Resto by the Zambezi River in Tete and we talk about this story and this kind of work. A couple of weeks back Guy was in Sierra Leone and before that Angola. We joke that he’s becoming a connoisseur of post-conflict zones. I ask him if he thinks people like us are living off the deaths of our subjects. And he says the answer is no and yes. He always feels conflicted entering worlds of poverty and despair with his camera and his comfortable shoes. We fly in, fresh from the First World, so evidently well fed and well equipped and we spend just enough time to extract the stories of those who have so little. But Guy says he thinks there is a difference between what we’re doing and the bombast and arrogance of the news network reporters who transmit desensitizing two-minute packages of horror and war to the comfortable living rooms of America and Europe. We’re trying to do something more complex, although fewer people will see it. Is that not simply self-justifying, I ask? No and yes, he says again. And of course I understand what he’s saying. I believe that what we’re doing matters. But I also know that I’m not doing this selflessly, I am here for the adventure and the experience of doing it too.
At the truckstop again, around six in the evening. We are talking about the future and Louisa is the realist I expect her to be. She tries not to think ahead, she says, because it’s pointless, but when she does it is to dream of owning a small business. “But if I think too much then I get thin and people will think I have AIDS and I will lose all my customers.” So she gets up every day, cleans herself and her house, goes to work, drinks some beers, and goes home to sleep. And then life is okay.
Lily tells us she dreams of owning and running a bar in the baraccas. So is she saving money to open her business? She leans forward, uncrossing her legs, and stamps her foot, her mouth open, braids falling forward across her face. “Who will give me the money to save? You?” she demands of Lunga and me. She shakes her head again, laughing harshly now. “I don’t get enough to save.”
“I don’t think of the future,” says Antonia. “I’m just waiting to die.” Does that mean she doesn’t like being alive? “No, I like being alive,” she responds gloomily. She’s still hungover from last night and looks trashed behind those orange shades and underneath her Naomi Campbell wig. Doesn’t she dream of a husband, a house, kids? Nope, she’s tried marriage. Twice. And that was enough. Marriage is for the younger ones she says.
And Margarita? What about a future for her child? If she finds a man who will marry her and support her then it will be great. But if she doesn’t find a man then who knows what will happen? She looks away, looks angry after she says this. I ask Lunga to ask her if she minds me asking all these questions. After a while she looks back at him and says no, she doesn’t mind.
Odette is lounging in a green plastic patio chair, her dark legs sprawled, arms resting on her knees, long hair extensions tumbling down her shoulders and onto her breasts. Her huge lips are painted red, like her short cotton shirt. Odette says dismissively that she thinks nothing of the future. Lunga tries to draw her out on this. He explains how important it is to have a dream, a goal to aim for, because even if it seems impossible now if you start to work for it then you just might achieve it, otherwise you are just waiting to die and then what’s the point of living? Cinda plays with Odette’s hair while Lunga talks. Odette jiggles her leg and looks bored. When he has finished she says disinterestedly, “Mmmm. I’m hungry now. Go buy me a milk stout.”
Lily’s answer is breathtakingly blunt. “How can I think about the future when I have nothing in my pocket today? And sooner or later I’m going to die of AIDS. I might have it now. So why worry about tomorrow?” She throws up her hands, smiles, and takes another sip of beer. “Why do you do it if you know it’s going to kill you?” I ask. Her face hardens and she leans forward, speaking very fast. “What am I going to eat? I have no mother, I have no father, I have no husband. What am I going to eat if I don’t work?” I have no response for that. But she doesn’t pause long. “Listen! Everyday I fucka, fucka with condoms.” She balls up her fist and pumps it in a thrusting action to illustrate. “Sometimes they burst; sometimes they break, especially if you only use one. So sooner or later I’m going to get AIDS and of course I’m scared. I’m scared all the time, but what’s the point? I need these people. So what’s the point in being scared? It’s the same if I’m scared or not.”
Cinda says she knows that she will die of AIDS. I say she’s too beautiful to die so young and so horribly. “When death comes for you,” she says, “it doesn’t care if you are beautiful or ugly, or old or young.”
Louisa tells Lily to close her legs; she’s showing her knickers with her legs spread like that. Lily obeys. We ask Louisa what she thinks of Lily’s fatalism. Her eyes are huge; she lets her head loll sideways onto her shoulder as she looks at Lunga. “No&rdquo, she says, pursing her lips. “No, I don’t think like that. I know I’m always careful. If I protect myself I’ll be okay. I believe I’m going to be okay.”
I get up from the table and walk around, feeling drained. I want Louisa to live and am terrified that she will not.
A quarter to ten. The crew has wrapped and the girls are dancing crazily. Gino is swaying from a pole on the step, too drunk to be of help to anyone tonight. Louisa calls to her brother Luis who ambles over sullenly. She gives him a wad of money and tells him to take it home and make it safe.
Lily came up to me just now, demanding a beer. When I said I didn’t have any money left she slapped her belly and shouted, “But I need more beer!” I gave her the dregs of mine. She drained the bottle and then she looked at me and said, “How old you are Janny?” I laugh and ask how old she thinks I am. She says she thinks I am much younger than her, maybe twenty-two? I laugh some more. “Older?” she asks. I nod. I tell her I’m thirty-six and her mouth falls open in surprise. “Aah,” she says, “white people don’t have difficult lives, they don’t grow old so fast.”
As she dances Odette sticks her bum out and with one hand she makes a flicking action over her pelvis. Louisa rubs her ass against Gita’s crotch. Lily reaches between her legs pulling up her skirt and sometimes she lifts her shirt to show a glimpse of bra. Antonia is filling her cup from all the empty bottles on the table. She asks me to buy her another beer. I say no.
I watch the tableau of the Zimbabwean hooker across the road, inside the lit-up interior of another trucker’s cab. She’s working hard for her money, laughing, talking, touching. After a long time with little response she sits with her elbow on the wheel, beer in her hand, pout on her lips, staring out through the windscreen. After a long silence he offers her another beer and then she’s chatting again. A short while later the light is out and I can’t see her anymore.
I’m the first into the car. This place depresses me tonight. The music is too loud, the heat too close, and the girls are doomed.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
Talking with Licinio over a beer in the baraccas in the late morning. He mentions that today is the anniversary of Salvador Allende’s death in 1973. He was a young journalist then, straining to hear news from Chile on his tinny radio. He felt so angry that day, he said. “After that I felt it was more important than ever to commit my life to fighting for the downtrodden people of the world.”
It’s five in the evening now and the truckers are arriving at the Montes Namuli. Suddenly weird news is brought by Licinio. Plane crashes in New York and Washington in the same hour.
Twenty to seven and the phone here is broken and the one up the road won’t make long distance calls. Don’t really understand what’s going on. I look around and realize I’m not the only one who can’t grasp this. The crew are gathered around the car listening to the radio. The broadcast is in rapid fire Portuguese. The tone of the announcer says enough, something truly awful has happened. Lunga translates in bursts. The World Trade Center towers are gone, the Pentagon is half collapsed, parts of Washington and downtown Manhattan have been evacuated.
The girls are subdued, watching us from the bar. They don’t understand why we’ve suddenly lost interest in them and why we’re so upset about something that is happening on the other side of the world. “What is World Trade Center?” asks Antonia.
We load into the bakkie and drive back to Tete to find a place with a satellite so we can watch the news networks and be sure that we know the very latest thing and have seen the very latest image of the disaster. We invade Abdul’s brother’s house, crowding the living room and drinking all his whisky and beer. The atmosphere in the room is edgy and weird. Gita puts his arms around me and starts kissing me. I burst out laughing. Then I stand up and go to sit on the other side of the room. And the news networks continue to play the pictures over and over. Incredible, indigestible, unthinkable images. The plane hitting the second tower. Fire and smoke billowing from the buildings. Cameramen running while tape rolls. Chaos and confusion. Dust and rubble covering everything. The most upsetting scenes are those of people hanging out of the top floors of the building, waving for help. Doomed.
And I think of the girls back at the Montes Namuli tonight. Going to work on the corridor of death. And I think I understand the depth and desperation of their disaster when I realize I am never going to watch it live on CNN.
Copyright © by Jann Turner