A conspicuous friendship

How do you bridge differences in ways that let you call a foreign place home? 

Melanie Stetson Freeman
A mother carries her daughter on her back in the traditional style as she navigates the central market in Bujumbura, Burundi.

I slide into a seat next to a trendily dressed young woman, her scarf tied tight against the Zimbabwean winter. Her daughter, hair twisted into spiky sunbursts, stretches out a tentative hand to my 2-year-old’s yellow curls.

The woman leans over. “I was 10 when I first saw a white person,” she whispers. “I was shocked. Please don’t think I’m racist” – I shake my head “no” and smile – “but I wanted to know what do they wash in, for them to be white like that? What do they eat?”

My plan to slip into this party unnoticed has failed.

I’d arrived late to my friend Shantelle’s baby welcome party. Her living room was already full of guests on rented plastic chairs. Heads turned to look at me. Shantelle – whose new baby, Kelly, we are welcoming – had warned me that most of the women would be from her church in this eastern Zimbabwean city. They had driven, taken taxis, and walked to her house on this cold Saturday afternoon, the smell of wood smoke hanging heavy in the air, to celebrate her baby’s arrival.

They hadn’t expected to see a white woman here.

To live as a white in Zimbabwe is often to invite stares. Whites and “illegal Western sanctions” are blamed by Robert Mugabe’s government for more than 10 years of economic crisis. In gatherings like this, I am wary of offending, eager to blend in. I came here 13 years ago, fresh from Paris, to marry my bush-loving husband. Through the shortages, rising prices, and political tensions of the ensuing years, I have wrestled with this question: How do you bridge differences and build the kind of friendships that allow you to call a foreign place home?

Kelly’s welcome party is nothing like Western-style baby showers I’ve been to. The guests follow Bible readings on their tablets and smart phones. When someone hands over a gift, she’s expected to offer advice to Shantelle as well. When it’s my turn, I murmur something about Shantelle needing to remember her husband in the busyness of child rearing. Other guests, classy and confident, wax lyrical on the need to lay out the children’s clothes every night before bed. They offer tips on time management and preparing healthy meals, slipping easily between Zimbabwe’s main ethnic Shona language to English. “Do not give your baby many soft drinks. Make her eat her spinach,” says one woman in a crisp white suit. I’m fascinated – and a little overawed.

My daughter slides off my knee. She joins hands with Clare, the baby with the sunbursts. The pair of them toddle toward the door and the flower beds beyond: two little girls beginning life in Africa, gripping each other for all they are worth.

Clare’s mother nudges me into the food queue. Shantelle and her caterers have prepared a traditional meal: baked cornmeal porridge, coleslaw, chicken legs, and potato wedges. I hesitate. Can I say I want more pumpkin? Should I take a separate plate for my child? And if I ask these things, will people think, “It’s because she’s English”?

I crouch next to Shantelle on a blanket on the floor. The mountain on her coffee table – of pink rompers, booties, and diapers – grows. Then a guest breaks into an old church song: “Makanaka” (“You are good”), she sings. Others take up the refrain. My heart lifts. This melody is one I know well. Many evenings it floats down from the hill behind my house, where the members of an outdoor church often gather. I sing, too.

Shantelle takes the floor. She speaks of her joy at this longed-for second child. “Words fail me,” she says. “There are so many people who love me.” Then she holds out her hand to me. “You have all noticed my friend Kate?” she says. “I am sure you have seen her.” Laughter ripples across the room. “Kate has encouraged me. She has told me: ‘Your party will be a success.’ ”

I had not thought that what I’d said to Shantelle in phone and text conversations mattered. She carries on talking, but I am thinking now that Shantelle is giving me an answer to my 13-year-old question. She has not tried to hide our differences. In fact, she has embraced them. And she has cherished a friendship that stretches across race and culture and can defy state propaganda and decades of misunderstanding.

The new baby stirs in her blankets.

As the sun sinks behind the Mutarandanda Hills, I say goodbye to the other guests. I hug the Shona way, patting on the shoulders. Then I buckle Cassia into her car seat and drive across town, minding the speed humps, potholes, and an occasional stray dog. From the back seat, I can hear my daughter singing softly. We are nearly home, my little one. Nearly home. 

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