Ms. Gamona from the Ministry of Education arrives unannounced at my school one day. I’m called from class.
“Bontle. Take me to your house.”
We drive the quarter mile to my house and then enter so Ms. Gamona can prace through the rooms raving wilding. At this point I have scant furniture, no water and only half the house is wired with electricity.
“It’s gorgeous Bontle! So cute!”
“Huh. This room is what?”
“Well, it’s nothing now. I’m waiting for furniture and it should be a sitting room eventually.”
“Yes. They should give you furniture for here. Tell them.”
In the months that pass the following items arrive in this order:
a tin roof
a metal door
Bit by bit the house comes together. The empty room waits patiently on promises of coffee tables and cushioned chairs. It accepts its temporary roles as an exercise room, storage room, and laundry-hanging room. Guests sit on my bed or lean against my gas cylinder sipping tea. I tape a couple of post cards to the grey cement walls in a vain attempt to create hospitable warmth.
Two months after requesting furniture the supplies supervisor tells me she’s managed to dig out a coffee table and chair for me from the school’s storage room. I suppress the urge to embrace her in a Bear Hug and make my way to her office.
The table looks chewed and stained but sturdy enough to support a decorative plant and a candle or two. The chair’s untorn cushion inspires so much of my joy it shocks me.
So how will you get them home?
Don’t you have a truck?
The label “volunteer” will never trump the label “American”. I will always be the object of pula-requests, the vision of western-excess and the image of superficial-wealth. I live in three tiny rooms and take long combi rides to buy groceries each week but, yes, let me just go grab that truck I’ve been hiding away for a day like this.
In the end Tumelong, Khumo and Retabile (all school cleaners) are told to help me carry my furniture home. They glare at me for a minute but when I promise to thank them in choppies (gum) they are quickly convinced.
We begin the trek in midday heat. I’m pouring sweat 10 minutes into the walk. Khumo is equally uncomfortable at the other end of the coffee table and I swear I can feel her glares resurfacing.
As we stop to rest a donkey cart comes skidding up beside us. The driver stops and there is a brief exchange of words and gestures. I, of course, am deaf without the Setswana but within seconds understand that the request has been granted.
The donkey cart whisks away carrying my furniture and three little neighborhood boys who say they know where I live. (I swear I’ve never seen these boys before)
The cleaners eagerly accept their choppies and, by the time I get home, the furniture has been perched safely at my gate and the donkey cart and boys have vanished. A teenage neighbor stands patiently by the door waiting to deliver the pieces inside. He is also thanked in choppies.
I close the door and get to work:
candles (because still no electricity)
The following night I throw my first mini-dinner party and sink through one more layer of village settling and community integration.
Donkey cart driver, village boys, school cleaners, the teenage neighbor… a pleasant twist to America’s Welcome-To-The-Neighborhood-Cookies.
And far more filling.