On the side of the highway, Mozambique 2004.
On the side of the highway, Mozambique 2004.

The Kindness of Strangers

Not every unknown man on the side of the road wants to kill you.

On the side of the highway, Mozambique 2004.

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Not long after we began a year-long stint in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, our ten-year-old daughter, Molly, began pressuring us to visit the South African town of Nelspruit, just across the border. It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive. She wanted to go to the mall.

Mozambique. Mozambique.

My husband, Peter, adamantly refused.

“We didn’t come to Africa to go to a mall!”

But I caved. This upscale mall was a regular shopping stop for her classmates in her international school in Maputo. I knew it was important for her to fit in.

We’d quickly gotten the picture about ground travel from Maputo’s foreign community. In Mozambique, lock your doors when you’re in your car, so that when you stop at a city light, people don’t reach in and pull your purse—or you—out. Out of town, travel in convoys. Travel in the daytime. And don’t break down, especially if you go to South Africa.

“There they don’t just rob you.”

So I started asking around the school, looking for a convoy headed to Nelspruit. No one was going. Now what? How risky was it really? Well…. There had been that guy in the white Land Cruiser on the sand road to the beach resort at Ponto d’Oro, who’d flagged us down to tell us a man had randomly appeared out of the woods with an AK47 and shot out two of his tires and put holes in his passenger door. And sure enough—as our six-year-old son Skyler quickly verified—there were bullet holes in the door. But maybe that was an anomaly. Let’s get a grip on the statistics; confront this amorphous fear. How many people have really been hijacked on the road? I asked around the school community again. No one knew. Knowing how easily fear can take hold without much actual grounding, the fact that there were no statistics and few personal stories was enough for me to decide that perhaps this fear was overblown. 

The claptrap Suzuki jeep we’d bought from a Pakistani used-car salesman was already in the garage for repairs. (By the end of the year it would spend more time in the shop than out.) In the meantime, we’d been given a loaner. I decided to go for it.

Early on a Saturday morning, Molly and I backed through our gate in our borrowed white sedan, passports and a reservation for a recommended guesthouse in hand. We buzzed along, windows rolled down to dispel the heat, the countryside flat and brown. No random police popped out by the side of the road to shake us down for money. I was feeling lucky. The land began to roll and an hour later we were at the hilltop border crossing, an unassuming, clapboard building. Inside, passport control was its usual confusing jumble of people pressing forward to get the required stamps, but we made it through. So far, things were going smoothly.

We began the descent into South Africa. The countryside was bucolic—rolling hills with orange orchards, rock outcroppings, and trout streams—immediately more lush than dry, hardscrabble Mozambique. But I was on the alert.

And then it happened. The steering wheel jerked. The rubber slapped. I swerved to the side of the road. We had a flat tire.

I jumped out, realizing I’d never checked to see if there was a spare and a jack. Within a minute a white pickup truck with two black men pulled over in front of us.

“Molly, get out of the car!” I shouted as I raced around to the back. I wanted her to have a chance to run.

I was screened by the raised trunk. Should I pick up the crowbar lying in front of me and brandish it?

And then the man appeared next to me.

“May we help you?” he asked.

Before I could answer, they were fishing out tools. In less than five minutes they had the tire changed. It turned out one was an English-speaking South African. They were returning from a visit to the home and family of the other, a Mozambican man, and were headed back to their jobs in a South African toilet paper factory. Before I could offer to pay them for their help, they’d got back into their truck, where they waited for us to take off, then followed for a spell to be sure we were all right.

So much for getting killed by the side of the road.

I felt chagrined at my susceptibility to prejudice; and relieved to be reminded of the real goodness of most people. Constant distrust is exhausting, but it’s so easy to fall prey to fear especially if the safety of one’s children could be at stake.

We deal with this every day. Should we let our children walk home from school alone? Should we let them go out at night with older kids? There’s always that possibility that that statistically insignificant, unlikely, but terrible thing could happen. Then how could we forgive ourselves?

I wonder about this a lot. On the other hand, most of those really terrible things (kidnapping by total strangers, paralysis, murder) are statistically insignificant, especially compared to the number of times we have personally experienced incredible generosity and compassion and aid from people we don’t even know, especially when traveling. So rather than shape our lives around the worst-case scenario, we try to take those leaps of faith and remind ourselves to trust in the basic kindness of our family of man. After all, which world would we rather have our kids believe in?