In the center of my village lies a shallow dam where water pools in the rainy season. Three gardens surround this little dam selling spinach, onions, and beets. In America we score the shelves for non-pesticide, non-genetically-modified produce. In Africa I find these luxuries at every corner. Not, of course, without the occasional grains making their way into my stirfry… and the notorious Batswana onions that nearly melt my contacts with their potent and juicy vapors. Even so, I’m spoiled on these vegetarian delicacies in my village. Many days I have to remind myself to eat protein. Among the heap of things I’ll miss from Africa, sunsets and produce are high on the list.
Savid is buried inside yellow flowers and spinach blossoms when we first meet. He greets me in English and flashes a white smile that traps the sunlight and wrinkles his face deep with ebony. Savid dons stained trousers and a purple button-up shirt that holds a long tear, exposing his shoulder. These will be the same clothes I see him in every day of our impending friendship. He is the first Zimbabwean I meet in Africa.
In the beginning, Savid gave me giant fans of spinach and refused to accept payment. Over time I came to compensate this generosity with baked goods and photographs from America. One day Savid told me he loved to sing and wished he could record his voice that echoed so well in his empty little house. I loaned Savid a small recorder which he received with such joy and enthusiasm that it almost made me sad.
On Valentine’s Day the village kids were over baking and making cards for their parents when Sivad knocked on my door. I opened it to his whites and a nervous laugh as he handed me a vase filled with plastic flowers. The kids peeked out behind me as I shoveled oatmeal cookies into a plastic bag and thanked him for his visit and the gift.
Last week Sivad sent me a message saying that his wife and son were visiting from Zimbabwe and he’d be very happy if I’d come to meet them. I set to work baking treats and polished off my spinach, knowing Savid would shower me with veggies when I met him at the garden.
The sun was beginning its decent when I arrived at the gate and used the Setswana words for knocking: “Ko ko!” Sivad’ youngest son, Yule, was playing alone beneath the gate. He greeted me shyly before spearing the fence with a long twig. I’d never seen Yule before but he smiled with Savid’s shape and so I asked for his father. Yule paused his fence-assault and pointed the stick to the garden’s edge where Savid waved and headed towards us, whites blazing.
Normally, the process of learning another person stretches between years and events and conversations. Occasionally, however, there are moments when the act of experiencing another person is pressed into a very small space. All at once the blinds raise and the colors cascade and you are left with a profound sense of awe and guilt.
Sivad greets me and introduces Yule before swinging the boy onto his back. It’s late in the day so Sivad locks the garden and we head off to meet his wife.
On the way to Kris’ family gatherings I have him quiz me on names and occupations so I can make polite conversation with his relatives. As we walk to Sivad’ house I slip into this strategy. Sivad obliges and answers my questions with a frown.
Maybe I’ve missed some social taboo, I think while glancing at his clouded face. I become silent and Sivad sighs. That breath breaks off a little piece of him that tumbles out and stands between us. I wait.
“Her name is Rotiat and she is a primary school teacher. We… um… She lives 40 kilometers north of Harare. With our four children. Two boys and two girls.”
I smile and ask the names of his children. Savid sulks out four long and beautiful names. I repeat them to savor the stretched syllables and rhythmic sounds. I tell him that these names are lovely and he nods. In the year I have known Savid, I have never seen him without a smile. It’s his trademark. It’s his charm.
I also have never heard him mention a wife. Or children.
“You know, Jessica.” He sighs, looking away from me. “You know I left them six years ago. In 2003 I left them because of That Man. Since then I have seen them one time in 2005 and one other time: now.”
Yule bounces on Davis’ back and giggles, still swaying his wooden sword.
“I have suffered, Jessica. I cannot return because That Man… he hates refugees. When there is a problem he will kill us first. He will blame us. And these little ones” he squeeze Yule’s legs, “These ones are wiped out. Like nothing. Just destroyed… I cannot put them in that danger. And so I am here.”
Savid’s pace grows slower and more labored with each sentence. I “tsk” and shake my head from side to side and reach up to smooth the back of Yule’s shirt. Savid swallows.
“Last month my wife sent me a message and told me our oldest daughter is pregnant. My baby girl. I did not believe her until she came here and told me in person. You have not seen me this past week, Jessica. But I have been bad. So bad.”
As we approach the compound I see three very small stone houses, turned into one another to form a square. The fourth edge is a rusty bar-front with the windows boarded up. Teenage girls stand in the house’s doorframes, holding their brooms and staring out at me. I greet them and they watch me in silence. Blinking and blank. My presence confusing them.
Savid’s house is one very small, dark cement room. It is smaller than my parent’s bathroom in America. In the corner there sit two small pots and a shelf that holds tea and flour and a jar of peanut butter. The single window drops light onto a chair and a thin sofa where Rotiart sits folding blankets and beckoning me to come inside.
As Yule crawls onto her lap Rotiart and I begin to make small talk and become comfortable with one another. When we have discussed the children and her job and my family and the weather I ask her how she and the children are doing with the situation in Zimbabwe. I ask her I she feels safe.
Rotiart sighs and exchanges a glance with Savid.
“We are not very safe there, you know. We hear things. They are close to us… even now. And we have heard that He wants to reintroduce the Zimbabwean currency, can you imagine? How can we live? There is no economy.”
“The Rand,” says Savid. “The Rand is strong. That should be where we move but That Man is just terrible. He will give us nothing.”
Rotiart’s eyes sparkle with rage and fear. “You see that there?” she says pointing to the peanut butter jar. “How much do you think that costs there?... two dollars!” she exclaims holding up her fingers, “Can you imagine!? For one jar.”
I look at my bag from the garden overflowing with spinach and onions and carrots. I have spent 8 Pula or $1.10 to buy enough vegetables for an entire week. Half a jar of peanut butter in neighboring Zimbabwe.
“That’s all they know is dollars,” says Savid. “There are no coins so everything is a dollar… a piece of fruit… a loaf of bread… all one dollar.”
We continue to discuss Zimbabwe’s shattered economy and political leadership. Savid and Rotiart swing from enraged to despondent and back again. When the conversation lulls, Rotiart offers me paleche which I know I should accept to be polite. But I look at that peanut butter jar and shake my head and apologize.
“Next time, Rotiart. I should be going. It’s getting dark.”
Out on the road Savid and I walk in silence and I look at him out of the corner of my eye. The last arc of orange has slipped behind the treeline and the twilight turns him grey. Whites stay hidden behind his lips.
“They go on Sunday, can you believe it? She tells me Yule has school starting on Tuesday and they must go.”
Savid’s visit with his wife and son will be 9 days long. One and a half days for each year he’s been away from them.
“I am thinking this must change. They must come to me or we all must go or…” his voice trails off in the narrowness of options.
When we reach the road’s end I persuade him to leave me and return to them. He nods and touches my arm lightly. Before turning he flashes his whites and I see a glimmer of the man I knew before, inside the darkness of the person I know now.
It is hard to touch people here. It is harder to be touched. Language and culture and wealth form walls that I climb but cannot cross.
Until today, Savid was the garden-guy. The Valentine smile. The bloke singing himself to sleep.
Those whites are distracting.
Produce and sunsets. And Savid. I’ll miss Savid. The outside he always donning and the inside he opened today.
On my walk home I pass nurses from the clinic and students from my school and the tuck shop owner and the neighborhood kids and my landlady. I know their names and their jobs and the way their eyes sparkle when they smile. I know their houses and their hair-dos and their voices.
I know nothing.