Thursday, February 5, 2009

The North Widows

My house is a little cement block lodged between The Haves and the Have-Nots.

When I first came to Kumakwane I only saw the Haves. I had been living in a desperately poor part of Molepolole that made Kumakwane look like Rodeo Drive in comparison. People had houses… real houses. With colored paint on the outside and even TV satellite dishes. There were rose bushes and doorbells. Some of the kids had bicycles and all of the neighborhood dogs looked like they were being fed (in Molepolole the dogs were emaciated and frail).

I remember thinking how tragic it was that I had been sent to such an affluent village when there were hundreds of impoverished communities all over this country. At one point I even asked the Peace Corps Country Director about this and, although she assured me that need was a factor for placement, I still had my doubts.

Over time the color on those houses began to fade. If you weren’t looking for it you’d never have noticed. But it was happening. And as those colors faded I started to see the shape and size of things I could not see before.

The first thing I noticed was the size of the neighborhood kids.

My landlady lives in an enormous pink house and has her daughter’s hair plaited in a different style each week. Every Saturday Arebile’s hair gets her 100-pula-updo. Her brother, Soma, is six years old but to look at him you’d guess ten. Soma’s shoes have lights in them that flash when he races his bicycle around the house. I have timed him once in a running contest and it took him 1 minute and 13 seconds to round the house. Quite a circumference.

Omosa and Arebile’s house can be seen out of my bedroom windows. My livingroom windows look to a very different scene.

If I look out my north windows I see a tiny roudeval hut. The hut is made of mud and straw and inside that hut there is a mother and her five children: Tebogo (17), Thato (13), Aleboga (11), Enob (6) and Meba (5). This family has no electricity and no pit latrine. They get their water from a pump on the edge of their property. They cook their meals on an outside fire.

Arebile is 9 years old and stands 7 inches taller than Thato at 13. Soma is 6 and stands a full foot taller than Meba at 5. Arebile’s name means “Praise the Lord” and Omosa’s name means “Gift”. Aleboga has two lazy eyes, one of which was half closed at birth. Her name means, simply, “She sees.”

There are other neighborhood kids that live in roudeval huts and come into the landlady’s yard to play after school. Tsiamo is nine years old. Her arms and legs are bone and her school uniform hangs off her tiny waist—three sizes too big. Tsiamo has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen—even with both eyes full of conjunctivitis. Every afternoon Tsiamo’s caretaker goes to work and leaves her in charge of watching her two sisters: Loratile (3) and Bakanya (2).

On Saturday morning the kids in the pink house get up early to play in the yard. Arebile cries when Soma won’t play with her. Soma gets bored with his bike and knocks on my door for sweets. Sometimes they go inside the big house to watch TV.

On Saturday mornings the kids in the roudeval hut get up to do chores. Their mother goes to work as a cleaner in Gaborone and the kids spend the day tending their garden and washing dishes and sweeping the hut. As they work they sing. Quite loudly. So loudly, in fact, that sometimes it gives me a headache. One time I stood up with my book clenched in a fist and prepared to slam my window With Significance… but Meba was playing in the dirt and Thato was scrubbing clothes and Enob was patting the dog and I suddenly looked ridiculous in my angry defense of sustained silence.

There are other shapes and sizes I have begun to see in my village. Some of the most profound have come on my 5:00 runs… that black and white hour of dusk. That prelude to the waking of a world. Just the outlines. But vivid now. So shockingly apparent that’s its hard to remember a time when they didn’t move me. When the village was all color and I was just barely awake.

- From a string of huts I hear a woman shouting to her children. Within seconds of her summoning a barefoot, half naked child comes tearing out into the road. The child chases a single goat across the shrubs and thorns and up and down a muddy hill. I marvel at his ambition and the goat eventually succumbs and trots off to join the rest of his herd. The boy stumbles down the hill and passes me. His eyes are still half shut with sleep. He is smiling.

- Beyond the damn there is a long road. Up and down makes one mile—perfect detour when you need to extend a run. At the end of this road there are a cluster of shanty houses with torn roofs and rusty water pumps. I have only run there once because the scent of human waste was enough to make me desperately nauseous. There were people everywhere. Living and breathing That. Maybe hundreds of them.

- A little girl drops the weight of her wheelbarrow and stops to watch me run by. She cannot be more than 7 and is wearing bare feet and a white dress, ripped at the sleeve. I don’t know how far she is going but she looks incredibly tired already. She is carting two enormous barrels of water. It is 5:30 in the morning. It is still quite cold.

- The man corrals 30+ cows into a pen made of tree branches. The cows bellow and trot fretfully. They know long before I do. The shot startles me as the beast drops and two young boys approach to start the cleaning.

- Lovers walk home in the last drops of 5:00 dark. Perhaps lover is the wrong word. The girls look tiny. Like babies. Or dolls.

Vision is such an illusion. Those things I saw in June. Those things I see now. What will I see in a year? What shapes would appear in a decade? What lines in a lifetime?

It’s pitch dark at 5:00. Grey at 5:30. But I can hardly see a thing by 6:00.

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