Saturday, October 25, 2008

What Goes Around

Hands Down the most terrifying and nauseating experience of my life. Hands Down.

I will preface this tale by saying I am really, truly not afraid of bugs. I’m a hero when it comes to killing cockroaches, trapping spiders and spraying mosquitoes. Last night I killed what appeared to be a scorpion and preserved the carcass for further inspection. I am “girly” about a number of things but with bugs I should earn a Bravery Medal.

That said, it is now 8:46 on Friday night and I am camped out under my mosquito net with all the edges pinned down by books and pillows. Hiding. Literally.

It all began about an hour ago when I was sitting in my living room and heard what sounded like raindrops. Botswana’s rainy season started last night with a thunder and lightning storm so fierce it knocked out my District’s water and electricity for a full 30 hours.

But the noise I hear tonight was not rain.

Insects of a certain size and strength make a “clip” sound when they hit against cement walls-- like someone kissing the air. If that noise happens rapidly it sounds like rain. If that noise happens thousands of times a minute it sounds like a downpour.

By the time I make it to the bathroom the flying termites have encompassed the sink, windows, toilet and all four wall. Each termite is over an inch long and flies with the zest and enthusiasm of an angry dragon fly. I shut the bathroom door and grab my broom. My knuckles turn white around the plastic handle of the improvised weapon.

Now. This is how my thought process goes:

- If I can confine them in the bathroom I’ll be fine for the night
- How can I confine them?
- I’ll seal the cracks in the door with newspaper

After wedging in the newspaper I look out to kitchen window to see a dense cloud of termites swarming and smashing into the glass. The same scene is at my bedroom windows and again in the living room. I can feel a panic rising to my throat.

- Okay, theres one in the kitchen and two in the bedroom
- Got em. got em. guuuu-- got em!
- Shit, there are two more.
- Where are they coming from?

I’m stuffing paper into doorframes and widows but with every second more and more terminates pour into the house. In flustered terror I start hurdling my broom against the bugs who splatter green oil down my walls and over my floors. The ones I miss land on my hair and collect in my hood and I start to sweat and whimper involuntarily. Eventually I’m paralyzed by a lack of strategy and escape options. I stand in the center of the kitchen gripping the broom and my cell phone. I

- Alright, maybe I can call the Peace Corps medical officer and ask for advice
- Or should I call the safety and security officer?
- Should I bolt for the neighbor’s house and risk being engulfed in the swarm?

The cell phone beeps and it’s my landlord writing: “Bontle, turn off the lights, you’re attracting bugs.” I text back “There are hundreds in my house. I’m freaking out.”

The landlord knocks on my door 30 seconds later with two kids, the groundsman and the maid in tow. I am clearly in a state of panic and this is appears to be a source of great amusement for all five of them. They laugh and console me with the following comments:

- Don’t worry, the bugs wont hurt you.
- Look, you can just grab them by their wings like this and they die in your hand
- Yes, we get these after the rains. It’s not uncommon. They’ll be here for months.
- Just put out buckets of water and shut off the lights and they’ll all die eventually
- In Zimbabwe we rip off the wings and make a meal of these

They stay for 20 minutes helping me sweep out carcasses and fill bowls of water. When they head towards the door I swallow a plead for them to stay.

Last week Kris was running around my house smashing cockroaches and squirting Raid with terrified gusto. It’s possible I rolled my eyes at him once or twice. It’s possible I told him I had killed a spider and when he couldn’t find the carcass he scowled at me and knew I had lied. It’s possible I teased him about being more of a girl than me.

Welp. He wins. Kharma levels the playing field.

Still, was it really necessary to blanket my house in wings and corpses and green guts…?
The scope seems slightly excessive.


rush hour combi crowd crushing me home. someone closes the blinds so the colors go and I spend the ride staring at the ripped chair back and the flowered print of a woman’s dress. the man collecting our fare shouts out my stop and I make a wobbly exit under a 50 pound backpack.

the walk home is 15 minutes in sneakers but 20 with the pack. I brace myself for the longest stretch of the day and I check my watch. he’s boarding the plane now. I say a little prayer that they’ve given him a window and to see the blaze of one last African sunset.

orange twilight drapes the village as I start my trek.

five minutes into the walk I’m passing the school. the dismissal bell rings as the students pour out from the courtyard to the road. they smile and wave. they tell me they’ve missed me. two teachers come out of their houses to welcome me back. mr. sile waits to walk me halfway home. ms. meki meet us on the way and stops to tell me about her week and ask about my trip.

as I approach my yard I see that the landlady’s groundsman has come back after a 2 month stay at the hospital. he looks thin and sick but smiles in a way that draws light onto his face and makes me happy. we struggle through a botched-Setswana-sign-language dialogue where I tell him I’m happy he’s feeling better and he asks where I’ve been traveling and I tell him about zambia and tells me he’s worried about the wind blowing the roof tiles of my house off and I say I’ll talk to the landlady and he says goodnight and we smile awkwardly and I go inside.

sweatpants. water. sweep out the cockroach carcasses. flush the spider that’s died in the toilet. curse the water for being out again. flop on the couch.

knock knock. Oletum smiling at my door confirming our Sunday study date and where has kris gone to? and whens he coming back? and the landlady’s dog pokes her nose in for a pat and yes, I’ll be at morning assembly tomorrow. and see you tomorrow teacher.

when I close the door deep dusk marks the end of todays social scenes. I stand in my kitchen sipping water and listening to the neighbors prepare dinner over the outdoor fire. the rooster releases its classic erroneous crow and this feels alright.

and this feels right.


there is a pond behind the hotel where we sit and watch the monkeys play and snap the last of a thousand photos. a clock beats loud and long in the background and at 3:50 we surrender and shuffle back to the lobby.

in boston it was him. this time it’s me. somehow the one being left always takes it harder.

the shuttle driver beckons to me. he’ll let me ride into the airport and bring me back to the hotel. I thank him and shake my head. I have to get back to my village before dark.

kris waves out the window and I water blink water blink back and then hes gone and its over. just like that.

I stand on the sidewalk with the heat and the air and the space and I feel like a very small stain on a large dark planet. irrelevant and obvious.

the shuttle has been out of site for several seconds when the concierge approaches. he’s witnessed the good-bye scene and makes an effort to console me with gentle questions and polite conversation. after a minute the porter joins and they make me laugh and I start breathing normal again. we three stand there on the sidewalk and I marvel at this humane and gregarious gesture. and I remember this country and I remember this people and I fall in love all over again.

distance and proximity have such power on affection. the moment of remembering can nourish well.


two driving safaris. two boat safaris. jet boat on the Zambezi river. canoe trip with private guide. swim at the top of Victoria falls. falls rainbow. falls double rainbow. night swimming. sunset dinners. live music.

there is no way I can do these things justice through words. even hundreds of pictures couldn’t capture a fragment of this reality. suffice to say that southern Africa is paradise and for five days I got to bask in it.

A few footnotes to assist memory and inspire imagination:

- Zoo proximity pales in comparison to safari reality. put an animal in a cage and you lose their motion, energy, interaction and expanse. cage yourself instead. far more fascinating. frightening. humbling.

- Keep asking questions. You might discover that your canoe guide is a member of Zimbabwe’s democratic revolution movement. You might find he and three of his fellow revolutionaries were kidnapped and tortured by Mugabe’s military in 2003. you might find that he was amongst the two that survived. you might find he has some enlightening insight into Mugabe’s political strategies. Keep asking questions.

- Flying through mountainous gorges of the Zambezi river in a highspeed jet boat is exhilarating and fun and very wet. this particular activity is significantly more fun when those in the jetboat are the only people on the river. said activity becomes slightly less entertaining when one spots two very young children fishing on the banks of the Zambezi in ripped clothes with homemade fishing rods. Those children wave at you without smiling and this stayed with you for a long time.

- Elephants shower themselves with mud for sunscreen and sand for bug repellent. Female elephants are dominant and males submissive (at least one species got it right). Elephants have the strength and size to destroy local villages but are greatly limited by poor their eyesight. Villagers who gather on the side of the road to watch visiting elephants always remove their brightly colored shirts so as not to draw the elephants attention. They also stand nearly a quarter mile away from the visiting herd. Respect and humility.

- Zambians who want to visit to the UK pay a 150 pound visa fee. In retaliation Zambia charges both European and American citizens $150 for entry into their country. Africans cross the border for free but, even so, the truck queue for entry can take as long as 2 weeks to pass through. Most trucks are carrying goods through from Botswana and South Africa to supplement the DRC’s deprived economy.

- When you sign up to swim at the top of Vic Falls this is what it actually means: four guides take you and your fellow swim-suited-tourists to the top of the waterfall. they then beckon you into the “pool” where you perform a frantic dog paddle until one of the guides grabs you by the arm and pulls you towards the edge of the foamy cliff. at this point a strategically perched photographer snaps 35 photos of you terrified, flailing and, oddly enough, smiling. After that they take you to a lower ledge where you can see the exact height and fierce power of the cliff you’ve just been dangling off. it is here where your heart stops beating for a minute and you know why this particular site made it to the World’s 7 Wonders List.

- The best way to enjoy night pool swimming with its candlelight – live music garnish is to float on your back and watch the stars beside someone you love very much. Trust me.

- While it is true that Zambia holds more vivid poverty and more tiny villages and more tattered children and more classic culture and more obvious need – these images can not undermine the crisis or the need or your place in Botswana. Every developing country on this planet has the ability to shatter you to a new shape. there is no hierarchy of pain. Break into a million pieces for Zambia but then pick up every one and put them back together and go home to Botswana and do your job.

- Do not leave peanuts unattended in northern Botswana or southern Zambia. Do not leave your half eaten plate of breakfast on the table while you go up to the buffet for an oj refill. If you happen to make either (or both) of these mistakes snap pictures wildly while the monkeys scavenge your grub with gangly limbs and devious smiles.


It’s 6:06 on the evening of my birthday. Kris is finishing my present in the room and I’m watching the sunset over tall reeds and soft breeze on Chobe River. The pools reflect pink and yellow clouds and a safari cruise boat glides down the river front. Birds are flying in kaleidoscope patterns overhead and three Batswana are filling the air with the music of two drums and a xylophone.

I feel as though every color and sound and movement was designed for this moment and for me. I get to be alive. For 29 years.

And for today.

I have everything.


He’s across the airport. I’m calling his name but he can’t hear. pace quickens to a jog and then a run and then I’m laughing and he turn and he sees me and

just like that

my World’s collide.

Jess!!! There’s another one!

I kill 11 flying cockroaches and three spiders before Kris suggests a hotel in Gaborone. He’s survived thorny mountain climbing, sweltering combi rides, gamey village beef, cumbersome bucket baths, a slew of school introductions, and four nights under the mosquito net. He has also persevered through 30 hours of water-outage and a broken fan which he wrestled into submission with duck tape and willpower. He flashes me a smile I’ve craved for 6 long months and our browns meet and I sink into his t-shirt and consent.

It’s already 4:00 so the race is on to make it to Gabs before dark. We stuff backpacks, empty the trash, seal the gas and click off the fan. 4:45. I call to make sure the lodge has rooms. Kaleview is full. Kris is closing curtains in the sitting room when I call the second lodge. He’s washing his hands in the kitchen when I call the third. After hanging up for the 10th time I let out an exasperated sigh which catches his attention. We sit under the mosquito net with the guide book and phone directory making frantic calls. After being rejected by 20 lodges we walk to the school and use their directory to call ten more. All are full.

Kris puts his arm around me and squeezes my shoulder and says “Wasn’t there another tuck shop you wanted to show me? Let’s go get dinner. We’ll do Gabs tomorrow.”


On the 5th night we manage to book the last room at the Crystal Palace. Upon arrival they inform us that Gabs is booked everywhere because of a Ladies Detective Agency filming this week. We are impressed an annoyed. We spend a sleepless night in the Palace batting off mosquitoes and cursing the broken AC. I miss my village until morning when I shuffle into a hot standing shower and it all feels worth it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Preserving Color

The village is bursting with color. Who would have thought springtime in the desert would include sprays of yellow flowers under bright purple trees and pink rose bushes. Even dried flowers hold the shape of globes and fans and I collect these to replace house plants I’ve lost to the heat.

Most days I disdain the thought of being seen as a tourist and make it a point to speak as much Setswana as possible and make lists of names to memorize. But next week I will reach the six month anniversary of my arrival and I’m starting to marvel (and fret) at how quickly time passes here. I see myself easing into that common human tendency to grasp and preserve everything we fall in love with.

On the hour-trek out to the primary school the village throbs loud with color and beauty. I make it half way to the school before I surrender and pull out my camera to capture fragments of a brilliance I will never be able to describe in words.

The path to the schoolyard is framed by blue and yellow rocks with children’s handprints pressed into the paint. The kid’s excited hum greets me in the courtyard where teachers who don’t fit in classrooms hold their lessons under thick trees. With 800 kids and just 10 classroom this leaves close to 150 students whispering and pointing as I approach. I slip into my Faux-Celebrity-Mode and wave back to their shouts and pretend I’m a hot movie star and not a weird-looking-white-girl. (Hey, we all have survival strategies)

Ahh, Bontle. Come in come in.

Mma Aogkel smiles and ushers me into a classroom where her and the other Guidance Counselor will hold our meeting. We idle awkwardly while Mma Etsile attempts to find us chairs and eventually resigns herself to the two and makes the third of her desk top.

Library project, fundraising, typing lessons and drama presentations. I’ve brought an agenda that we work our way through to the tune of 60 animated first-graders buzzing and giggling at out backs.

Alright, so the PACT kids are presenting on Secondary School Preparedness for the Standard 7s. There are over 15 kids signed up for this so I think its going to be great. Now, do you want Standard 1 – 6 presentations as well?

Yes, yes, dramas. That helps keep their attention. HIV/AIDS for the 1 – 3s… protection that’s what they need the most.

Uh-huh, great. Perfect—we can do this. HIV is focus of secondary Lifeskills too so this will be good learning for everyone. And the 4 – 6s?

There is a pause where Mma Aogkel removes her glasses and wipes the sweat off her face. She exchanges a look with Mma Etsile that turns the room white and silent. She replaces her glasses and looks at her hands for a moment before speaking.

This is when they start to be abused.

I have seen compassion from teachers in this country but Mma Aogkel’s face reads something very different.

Old men. Old men take them into their homes and then the girls tell me its love.

She is shattering.

Who does this? These men are sick. Sick.

She scowls and her voice gets louder.

So many of them, Bontle. So many have told me. They’re like sex slaves but they don’t even know. They think it’s a relationship. The men tell them it’s a relationship. They give them presents and sweets and tell them it’s … Something.

I put my hand on her arm and nod at her and we sit like that until the color comes back and we can hear the kids again.

Mma Etsile is being transferred at the end of the term and Mma Aogkel will be the sole guidance counselor to all 800 students. We make a plan to have PACT presentations on protection from abuse and we schedule a mandatory training on sexual abuse counseling for the entire school staff. The Ministry will be contacted to urge that they fill Mma Etsile’s position before the start of January term.

Not solutions. Not even solace. But a start.

When I walk back through the school courtyard the children have been dismissed. A group of girls gathers around me in an animated circle where they practice their English and touch my hair and giggle in that way that makes me able to breathe again.