|Lorraine in her favorite uniform
Yesterday, while shopping with my friend, Lorraine, I was accosted by three men who began shouting at me and threatening me with physical violence. I am amazed it has taken this long for me to have had an experience like this in South Africa.
From what I heard when we moved to Johannesburg, there was a threat of violence daily, mainly prompted by the severe poverty and the wealth juxtaposition. Instead, I found Johannesburg (Jozi) to be friendly and courteous and a collision of cultures forced to live together- resulting in a sweet fragrance of a city.
Yesterday was different.
While we buzzed through CNA (kind of like an Office Max inside of a mall), we were on the hunt for elusive subject notebooks containing lined paper with 72 pages. After the January specials (Schools here begin in January) all of the stores we had checked had no more left. Our last stop was CNA, which is no bargain hut.
“These are R4.29 a piece,” I told Lorraine, after locating a stack of them.
“That’s too much,” she said. Lorraine is a poor domestic worker, who helps us two days a week. I had offered to take her shopping so that she could find books for her children back home in Zimbabwe, who had all just started school.
“How about I’ll buy them?” I offered. Lorraine refused. The price was too high and she saw it as a rip off. Just two days ago they were a whole rand-fifty cheaper.
“Then let’s go ask them if they will give us the January price,” I said. Lorraine and I went to the counter, where the woman working told us that she couldn’t reduce the price because the computers were programmed to charge R 4.29 a few days ago. After a bit of haggling and a whole lot of charm, I realized that there would be no discount, thanked her and started to leave the store.
“Lorraine,” I said, as we exited the line, “why didn’t you let me buy them?”
“Because, Janet,” she whispered. “Christof will be cross with me for paying that price, even if you helped me.”
I smiled. It reminded me of Mario. We were both married to frugal husbands.
As we exited through the narrow aisle, three men were talking loudly among themselves. Looking back, they appeared to be arguing about something, but it was during the time that Lorraine and I were talking.
Since the way was blocked, I said “Excuse me.” The men didn’t hear me, so said it louder, “Excuse me, guys.” One of them spun around and looked at me. The other, looking past him, yelled “Excuse YOU!”
I was startled, but I smiled. It’s kind of a nervous habit of mine, to smile during crisis. Also, I wanted to get by and get out of there.
“What do you mean by shouting at me,” said the guy who spun around. He was unusually close to my face.
Even though I didn’t say anything, he continued. “Are you CRAZY?!” he screamed. I looked into his (heavily bloodshot) eyes for sign of something sinister.
“Are you CRAZY?!” he asked again. I was still blocked as he shouted, “Don’t you ever raise your voice to me again, or I will slap you!” He had his finger in my face by now.
I felt a strange anger raise up in me. I had done nothing except say excuse me and lightly touch his elbow. He acted as if I had yelled it at him in a condescending way. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t scared of him and that he was a pathetic excuse for a man, threatening to slap a woman. Instead, I wised up, and realized that I had stumbled upon a wolf-pack (drunken, to boot) that had to show their misguided sense of manliness to each other.
I kept silent.
Over the aisle I could hear “Alright, Alright!” in an authoritative voice. It was the cleaning lady, coming around with her mop in hand. “There’ll be no fighting in the store!” She was looking squarely at the ring-leader, and I could tell it was a sobering moment for all of them. Here comes the big mama, and it is a shame for a mama to call you out here.
About the same time, a security guard came up behind me and got in between the man and I.
It was then that I could see that there was an “escape route” – and I took it. Lorraine (who was shaking) and I shot outside of the store and into the safety of the mall. As we walked out, I could see more security guards following the men. One man asked me, “What happened?”
“I said excuse me and he exploded,” I said.
He nodded, and sized me up to see if I were alright. Please, I thought, it takes more than drunken idiots to rile me.
I dropped off Lorraine at home, and ran straight to my gym appointment. I was late, and was scheduled to meet Mario there. As soon as I saw his car, I started to cry (think 5-year-old girl seeing her mom after she had been bullied).
By the time Mario saw me, he hugged me and I collapsed into big, fat sobs, holding on to him and letting out my story between sobs.
“What did you do?” Mario asked, probing why the man reacted why he did. Mario knows (as most of you do) that I am not exactly patient with injustice, even if the injustice is bad manners and not moving out of my way. He assumed I was rude or impatient, or that I really did yell.
“I promise,” I said sincerely, “this time I didn’t do ANYTHING!” I felt completely absolved of any wrong-doing...this time.
Mario (a former peace officer) asked “What would I have done?”
“You would have seen them, sized them up and used another aisle to exit,” I said, laughing through my tears.
“Exactly,” he said. He kept stroking my hair, assuring me that I was okay and the whole thing was over.
Back from the gym, and now at home, I saw Loraine (who lives on our property) and asked her what she thought about the whole thing.
“Eish!” she said, shaking her head. “Those Nigerians!”
“Were they Nigerian?” I smiled. Lorraine knows everything.
“Yes!” she said. “Couldn’t you tell? And they were drunk! They always disrespect women as the drink....” She went on to go through every tale of drunken Nigerian activity she had ever witnessed in her life. I think she was trying to make me feel better, so she told me tales and purposely made me giggle.
Last night, before going to bed, I asked Mario to pray for me. The incident was a memorable one, but I didn’t want to have nightmares. He held me close and prayed a prayer of peace. I slept last night, like a baby. And this morning I thought of all of things I could have done differently, from exit strategies to personal insults.