Friday, May 14, 2010

Once

My village has five wards, eight tuck shops and 11 bars. We have 10 churches and 12 traditional healers. There are two schools, one clinic, a kgotla and a day care center for orphans. The village is flat except for a single, steep hill on the south west side. Thirty precarious minutes will bring you to hill’s peak where you can see all the way to Gaborone in the east and clear to Kanye in the west: a giant green blanket with dips and climbs, like rippled ocean. Beyond this hill there are graveyards and beyond a hundred headstones there is a river dropped into a shallow valley. The river scatters trees and grass and cows along its banks. Local residents avoid this place for fear of snakes and curses. In its abandonment it becomes well suited for picnics and books and solitude.

My village is plain and peaceful. Miles of land dotted with shade. Tiny roudeval huts and make-shift hair salons and a lady selling oranges by the bus stop.


I take endless photographs and spend hours jogging through sunsets, sunrises, dirt roads, people, gardens, children, crops, cattle… trying to hold and articulate some fragment of a place that’s seeped inside of me: now owning little pieces of my history and identity.


You will see me in three weeks and we will catch up and I will fall into rhythm and you will forget that there is another world living inside me. Another home. With shops and churches and schools and rivers and all those people. All that personality. And I will carry them around and you will not be able to see but I will carry them and hope and pray and try to keep them heavy. To feel the weight of these things. Of them. Of once upon a time. When I was here. And this was mine. If only for a space.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Full Circle

We sit in the living room and talk together for the last time. My mother got “saved” last year and now wants to pray for me before I go. Idnil shuts the door so mother can close her eyes and speak for a long time in Setswana. At the end Naillil translates while my host mother sits patting my thigh and wetting her eyes and sighing out those blessings for me.

We do our traditional things together. Pel plays with my hair, Naillil practices her Chinese words, Idnil poses for pictures and Are giggles and climbs onto my lap. The boys aren’t home but mother calls my father at the gold mine in South Africa and we stumble through a Setswana farewell. I leave them with little gifts: American tea bags, dangly earrings, a tie, a deck of cards, a bottle of lotion, crayons and, of course – Scrabble: the miraculous little game that allowed us to bond in those first mute and awkward months of my homestay.

Before leaving I decide to take one more memorable trip to the pit latrine. I walk past the old bicycle holding up the orange tree. The fire pit where I’d stirred rice for my mother at twlight. The low, thorny tree that had once nearly blinded me on a night-time stroll to the latrine. The grass that Odnam and I had cleared with shovels. The stone I’d sat on for hours hand washing clothes. The spicket where I’d fetched water for my morning bath.

On the way back I check my watch and know I need to hurry to catch the first combi back to my village. I round the orange tree and see Pel sitting alone and staring at me with giant sad eyes.

Pel, my little imp. I lean down to kiss her and she wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me back and I marvel at how tall and sweet she has become in just two years. At one time Pel spent many devious hours trying to charm her way into my room and then, once inside, would steal little bits of paper and food and hair elastics to get my attention. She once took a pen and scribbled all over the Scrabble board. When I scowled at her she laughed and laughed.

But here was baby Pel, all grown up to five years old -- and so affectionate now. I kiss her forehead and tell her and I love her and go inside to begin the rest of the goodbyes.


Usually Naillil and Idnil walk me out but Are is crying this time so they stay back to hold and soothe her. I hug everyone at the gate and turn with a big sigh.

The tall bushes hide them after a minute and I stare out across this poor little ward and will myself to remember the roudeval huts and soccer-children and broken trees and branch-fences and cactus plants. I’m deep into this before I realize that Pel has been trailing me down the path. I laugh and squeeze her fingers and she does not smile at me. I say goodbye and I love you again in Setswana but she does not turn back. And so we walk like that. Me in front and Pel behind. All the way down that path. All the way around the bend. All the way to Ame’s house. And there she stops. I’m watering now and she’s waiting and we hug once more. With that Pel and I start walking in different directions. I step three paces and look over my shoulder. She does the same and we wave to each other. I step three more and wave again and she does too. I think we waved ten times before I couldn’t see her anymore. And each time I turned Pel did too. And each time I lifted my fingers, Pel lifted hers back. And with that I said good-bye to Lekwapagne and the Elopmar family. And with that I made peace with little Pel.

A Start

My “yard sale” was really more of a “house sale” since putting things outside would have involved a number of environmental challenges (pecking chickens… hungry dogs… blazing sun… petty theft… sand… bugs…)

So instead I invited the village inside. At first I felt a bit nervous about opening my tiny home to potential throngs of shoppers but after the first few hours I realized I was having fun with it and forgot all about my anxiety. Yes, little things were stolen. A few dishes were broken. Someone stained a shirt. The price tags were jumbled. Sand and dirt and baby drool were scattered all over my floors. Someone left their bra in the t-shirt pile.

But even with all these minor inconveniences it really was just an easy, informal, amusing day. Mostly women came and chit chatted with me for a while and then handed me their babies so they could strip down in the sitting room and try on my clothes. Then there was the ooo-ing and ahhh-ing and butt-slapping and cackling and chattering and laughing while I held the mirror for them.

The kids were equally entertaining – holding up item after item from the One-Pula-Box and saying to me “Ke bo kai?” to which I’d answer “One pula!” and they’d giggle and squeal and fight over who-would-get-to-buy-what-when-mummy-gives-us-a-pula. The American games also caught their attention and led to tiny tornadoes of dice, checkers and jacks being strewn over every available surface. (Travel Yahtzee, as it turns out, is not an easy game to explain in one’s second language)

And my friends came too. With cards and hugs and little presents. With promises to write and visit and open their home to me when I returned. And when would I return? And why exactly was I going? And how long was the trip? And what do you eat on an airplane?

(Air travel is a hot-topic among Batswana… I think they still can’t quite fathom that we’re capable of such a thing. I once invited the Peace Corps African Continent Director to speak with my PACT Club about international health and, instead, the kids grilled him about his airplane trip for 20 minutes. One girl who is nearly 17 even turned to him and asked, in all seriousness: ‘Can you see God from up there?’)

In the end I made less than 100 USD and donated the rest to the village’s orphan center. I also made a little closure—not the deep kind, but a start. The acquaintance-villagers hugging me good-bye. Making little endearments that roughly translated to “it was amusing to watch you for 2 years.”

I also said good-bye to Adlih and Savid today. Two of my closest friends in the village. Adlih traveled an hour from the school she’d been transferred to last month. She hugged me hard and long and laughed at me when my eyes watered.

And Savid. Savid stood in my kitchen and smiled. He was leaving for Zimbabwe on the 12:00 bus. He was buying shirts and games to take home to his children. And he was smiling at me as I broke and broke. So many things I’d wanted to say: Write me. Remember me. Stay safe. Please be safe. But instead I just crumbled all over and into his white t-shirt. And he held me, waiting for it to pass. Tightly. Gently. Pulling me in and in. Right there in my kitchen with the naked women trying on clothes and the teenagers stealing things and the chickens swaking through the door. When it passed he squeezed my arm one last time and flashed his whites and was gone.


It’s hard to feel the significance of a transition while you’re moving through it. It’s hard to know the scope.

But I felt Savid. The depth and the fear. The uncertainty. I felt all of him. And all of this.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reassurance

This morning I participated in running an event for the Kagisano Women’s Shelter. I’ve been part of a team of volunteers working with this organization for over a year. Last year we helped secure a grant to open a second branch of the center. Now Botswana has two shelters for women and children survivors of gender based violence—the original in Gaborone and the new one in the country’s largest village: Molepolole.

In addition to opening the new center, the grant also allowed us to hold a number of community awareness events. Today’s event was a Kweneng District poster contest and debate. Ten schools participated in the event and two in the debate. We had guest speakers, snacks, brochures, media coverage, prizes, a trophy -- all arranged through our ambitious team of Batswana counselors and American volunteers.

Such a powerful day. Somehow it ended up that all the poster finalists were male students and all the debate participants were female. We interviewed the men standing by their graphic, disturbing, enlightening posters. They told us how the images reflected violence they’ve seen in their villages and theories they have on ways to reverse the trends of gender based violence in Botswana. They spoke in soft and articulate English. Humble and strong.

The women were equally powerful but far less reserved. The women debaters stood at the podium shouting at one another and quoting the Bible and shaking their fists. I’ve seen about a hundred passionate student dramas in this country but nothing quite as evocative or poignant as ten teenage women debating the moral and cultural implications of domestic violence reporting. The topic they’d spent two months preparing for read:

“Women who do not speak out about their partner’s abuse and infidelity are showing respect and integrity.”

If I had the time or space I’d go into the points these girls made. The way one side argued that perpetrators of violence deserve love and forgiveness. The way the other side retorted that the GBV is linked to the spread of HIV and teaches children to use violence for problem solving and conflict management. I do not have space. But I have videos. And memories. Ask.


It’s difficult to do the event justice but, suffice to say that this was one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve participated in in two years of service. Not simply because the students and community were so engaged, but also for what happened after:

Sweeping. Stacking chairs. Moving tables. Removing the posters. Emptying the trash. People keep coming up to say good-bye and thank you and what an event and then Lesego comes and I hug her and she says:

“You know, we’ve secured funding to do this again next year. We want it to be an annual event. Can you send us all the templates you used for planning, invitations, judging, scoring and the agenda?”

!!!

This is one of those rare and spectacular moments in an international pubic health career where Things Actually Work. Not for me. Not for the participants. But for the FUTURE.

This is, dare I say it: Sustainable!

And oh irony of ironies: I literally had sat in an the Peace Corps Country Director’s office five days ago, blabbering through my close of service interview and I’d actually said: “Yes, well, I’ve learned quite a lot about capacity building and skills training but I still feel somewhat mystified by sustainability…”

And not that this day revealed any epiphanies about the how-to of sustainability but it DID give me renewed confidence in the idea that it is p o s s i b l e to make changes and advances that continue.

Lesego is a gem. Kagisano is an absolute god-send for this country. I’m sure it is everything about the people and the organization and nothing about me -- but to have p a r t i c i p a t e d. To have been there. To have had something to contribute. Templates. How simple. How trite. How phenomenally reassuring.


In ten days I close my service and return to the U.S. as an international public health professional. I have a Master’s degree, a two year Peace Corps service, an armful of doubt and a pinch of hope. There are so many systematic, bureaucratic, financial, logistical, sustainable problems I see in development work. And then there is a silver lining: when a project works. when people learn. when someone says – “we want to do this again… this time without you.”

How nice to have been needed. And to be unnecessary.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Being White

Close of Service Medical Screening is a 3-day circus of invasive exams, uncomfortable samples and thorough disease testing. On top of these medical-festivities are seemingly endless administrative duties of report writing, financial closings and a paper-work-check-list with a whopping 46 items.

Today I managed to get 28 of those little boxes checked and most of my medical awkwardness sorted. By late afternoon I was finally exiting the dentist office and searching for a combi to begin the 2 hour trek home.

Damn. All that paperwork and dashing between appointments— now I’m confused about how to get back…

Do you need help?

I’m always embarrassed when I look lost in a place I consider “home”. Suddenly I’m a tourist and I feel the need to speak in Setswana or use a cultural hand symbol to prove I belong.

Uh… yeah—I can’t remember which way it is to the combis from here.

The man points me in the right direction. He’s smiling so I do what I always do when I’m far and someone’s being kind: I ask for a ride.

The smiling man can’t, but the guy behind him is going that way and, yes, he can take me—let’s go.

Hitching is Oh So Easy in Botswana. It’s a great way to meet friendly people, save some cash and shave hours off your trip.

So my 30 minute commute to the rank is sliced to 10 and two minutes later I’m launched into the get-to-know-you-banter with my driver. Here are the typical interview questions:

Where are you from?
What are you doing here?
How long have you been here?
When are you going home?
What do you make of our country?
When can you take me to America?
(and, smiling) Why don’t you marry a Motswana guy and stay?

My driver and I make our way through this set and still have 5 minutes to the rank. We slide into post-small-talk silence. Batswana are good at silence and I’ve come to enjoy it here. I begin to rest after a very long day.

We go through two more traffic lights and I can see the rank approaching. At the third light we stop and my driver turns to stare at me. I stare back and wait. He finally says:

What is it like to be a white person in Botswana?

I am so surprised by this question that I laugh. He laughs too. We’re uncomfortable together for a minute.

At the time I think I said something like:

Er... it’s nice… but sometimes hard because everyone notices you. Sometimes I wish I was black.

And he said something like:

Ah—but if you were black I wouldn’t have given you a ride.


And we laughed together because it was terrible and true and we were out of time.



But what a question. ‘What’s it like to be a white person in Botswana?” It’s something I stopped thinking about a while ago and something I think about every day. It’s hard to explain but, since being asked this, I’ve felt a need to articulate it.

Being white in Botswana is luxurious and horrific—almost simultaneously.
Being white in Botswana goes something like this:

- Everyone wants to talk to you and take your phone number
- Everyone wants you to give them money and food and take them to America
- People give you the good seat on the bus
- People rob you on the bus
- Kids want to shake your hand and mimic your voice
- Kids scream at you if they’ve never seen a white face before
- Women younger than you admire your clothes, hair, skin, body, accessories, makeup, music, books, etc.
- Women older than you scrutinize and criticize your clothes, hair, skin, body, accessories, makeup, music, books, etc.
- Hitching drivers rarely charge you for the ride
- Hitching crowds push you to the front so you can hail a ride for the group
- Students feel more comfortable talking with you about sex and problems and emotions
- Students feel more comfortable disrespecting you because they know you wont use corporal punishment
- If you’re thin you “look just like typical white woman” (is this good?)
- You are fat you “look just like a traditional black woman” (is this good?)
- Colleagues come to you for professional help and training and support
- Colleagues assume you’ll do all the work for them once you’re involved
- Strangers like to touch your hair
- Strangers like to touch you – a lot
- Shop and restaurant owners give you special treatment and lots of attention
- Shop and restaurant owners charge you more than other customers
- Taxi drivers are constantly shouting to you and offering a lift
- Taxi drivers are constantly shouting at you for refusing to pay more than the locals
- Men all want to date you, marry you, sleep with you
- Men all want to be seen with the white and not, necessarily, with the woman
- Other white people want to meet you and hear your story and become friends
- Other white people want to bitch about the culture and compare survival-stories and inspire your empathy
- You are never alone
- You are often lonely
- You are constantly learning about cultural differences and traditional norms and Tswana history and relational expectations
- You are constantly learning how little you know

These, of course, are generalizations and not always the case. Still, they are what comes to mind when I think about this question. So much privilege and opportunity mingled with so much frustration and awkwardness. Peace Corps has this cheesy little slogan that says “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love” … but like so many clich├ęs, most days it’s spot on.

Friday, April 30, 2010

After Rain

It’s been pouring for a week. My shoes and trousers caked with wet sand. The clothes I washed 4 days ago still hanging-- wearily waiting to dry.

School opened again this week. Students shiver in damp classrooms. The teachers sip tea and go home early.

Quiet village.
Empty roads.
Sullen cattle.
Lethargy.
Darkness.


I wait too. Hugging a hot water bottle. Bundled in the few clothes and blankets that still remain inside my bare, little house.

and counting. 25… 23…

Today is 18. Two and a half weeks to go. Restless, if not impatient.


At 5:00 tonight the light changes. A golden streak climbs inside the window pane and rests there. Staring at me. Waiting for me to notice.

Grey breaks.

I go outside to see sunrays softening the horizon. The kids playing. Laughter. The neighbor’s humming. A rising moon. Laundry ballet. Donkey cart rattle. Far off bar music. Smoke. Footprints. Crickets. Life leaking back in tiny shards of color and sound.


Will I be still like this? Will I be able to hear? Will the light wait for me? Will I catch it? Any of it?

18 ahead.

744 behind.

What lessons do we take from time and distance and difference and poverty and solitude and quiet and space? What do we leave? Forget?

My most profound moments are wrapped inside interludes. Inarticulable:

the air between people. the background of photos. the aftermath of rain.

and of all the other
irrelevant,
significant
seconds

that have made this so much larger than ‘an experience’.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jazz

She agreed to take home a suitcase for me. Two months ago this seemed like a godsend: I’d be able to travel after service with just my backpack and wouldn’t have to pay exorbitant fees to ship things home.

We had planned The Big Pack for Monday night. We ate dinner and procrastinated.

Two months ago this seemed like a great idea. On Monday night I started to feel unprepared. It seemed rash to be packing already.

Still, I knew I’d decided this months ago. There was no other way. And just like the process of Getting Here, I knew the process of Leaving would sometimes required that I turn off the rest and just put one foot in front of the other.

At 9:00 I finally padded to my room and returned with an armful of clothes. From there I took pictures and posters off my walls. Sorted through jewelry. Wrapped my favorite mug. Labored over the book shelf. Pulled the crayon drawings off my fridge.

It took an hour. Just one hour and my little life was piled right there on the coffee table.

It doesn’t look like much, I said.

And Jenah laughed.
And I laughed.
And I was happy she was there with me in my little house with my little pile of life.

We fit the whole thing into one suitcase. We pre-packed my Kilimanjaro bag. Everything fit there too. With extra space even.

In less than two hours we’d finished. My suitcase and backpack and daypack sat in a line along the orange curtains. I flip flopped through my house. A “final sweep” Dad used to say when we were leaving the summer house. I swept over and over. I paced. Jenah caught me staring at a bare wall where the shadows of my pictures still remained.

Come on. She said. Let’s go outside.



We sit on my porch sipping cocoa beneath the banana tree silhouette and the Milky Way smear and a billion blinking stars.

I say thanks and my voice shakes.

There is a conversation I can’t remember. There is laughter.

After, it feels easier to be inside. I pinch the last bits of tape off my walls and rinse out our mugs and say good night. My room looks like 2008. My luggage like the day I left.

Maybe we have to go back before we can go forward. I lie in bed reminiscing. Playing it over. A song without a chorus. Sad in places and loudfasthigh in others. Frequent crescendos. And the finale -- just now starting to fade.

Ask

Two years ago Ronny sat with both Chacos crossed against floor of his hut dishing me home-brewed beer and spouting cynical, development theory. We talked for hours about his service and I fell into one of those career-crushes where a man’s brain shadows his scraggly, blonde beard and musty, village odor.

In the years since then, Ronny and I have christened many nights with international aid philosophy and sustainability debates. We’ve sat on the bus rank pavement shouting at each other over plates of papa and disturbed the campfire with capacity-building rants. Still, the most profound thing Ronny’s ever said to me was on that cement floor of his hut, the first night we met:

“Ask.”

It seemed easy enough until language and culture and distance and pain start chipping at the edges of seemingly simple relationships. Then it gets hard. People don’t answer or can’t answer or can but haven’t found the space to answer well. And so you learn when you can ask. Where you can ask. And, of course, what you can ask.

And what you can’t.

_________________

Tsang is making jewelry out of magazines in my sitting room. She’s nervous because her friends Lindi and Maikano were meant to come too, but had to go to the Lands to help their families instead. I invite the village kids over to learn the craft and take the pressure off poor Tsang who’s rolling her beads so tightly the wire won’t fit through them anymore.

And so eventually we fall into that soft rhythm of passthescissors helpmewiththisclasp yesthatsperfect banter that comes after an hour of bead making.

Rebat is a village-kid-guest. She’s young and so gets bored with the bead rolling after a while. She wants to talk about church and church spills into traditional worship and worship into healing and the kids are talking and I start asking and Tsang has a story and I ask and ask and ask because the time and place are right and Tsang has A Story.

“I would never go to one of those traditional doctors,” Rebat declares while looking through a bead to admire her toes.
“Well, your mum takes you to church every week, right?”
“Yes, and we don’t go to those traditional ones ever.”
“But a lot of people in the village still do, right?”
“Yes.” Tsang whispers into her pressed ruler.
I turn from Rebat to watch Tsang dotting the evens and then the odds. Preparing for triangles.
“Do you know people who go, Tsang?”
“Yes.” Her pencil glides between the magazine and ruler’s edge.
“Do the traditional doctors help people get better?”
“Sometimes, I think.” Scissor scissor scissor
“Have they helped you get better?”
Dot
“Well…”
Dot Dot Dot
“ …they came for me once.”
Tsang picks a thorn off the table and uses it to guide the roll of her first bead. She glances up to find me waiting.

“It was night time and they took us to a mountain.”
“Us?”
“Five kids.”
“All children?”
“Yes. Girls.”
“You wanted to go?”
“No. My grandmother made me go.”
“Why?”
“The doctor told us we needed to eat a root.”

Rebat’s toes have lost their allure and she is staring at Tsang. The other children are also quiet. Modia, who does not speak English, is staring at our faces for a clue.

“Did it taste bad?”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“Was the doctor angry?”
“No.”
“Why would he have wanted you to eat a root?”
Shrug
Pause
“They said we needed protection.”

Tsang puts down her bead and rests an arm across her knees. She looks timid. Or was it tired? I remember she sighed before she said:

“They told us we were in danger. That someone was trying to hurt us and if we ate the root we’d be protected.”

________________


I have developed a Kumakwane-visitor-repertoire. As the Botswana volunteer famous for the most international guests (11 total) I have fine-tuned the Southern-Botswana Tour Extravaganza! Here are the activities offered to guests at Hotel-Bontle:

Picnic in Thamaga atop the geographically bizarre rock formations
Visit to the traditional home of my host family in Molepolole
Tswana cooking lessons from my Giam (a feast of chakalaka, modombe dumplings and spicy chicken)
Tour of the 2,000 year old rock paintings in Manaya
Swimming and sunbathing at the natural pools inside the Kanye gorge
Walking tour of Kumakwane (at dawn for sunrise and photography enthusiast)
Game drive and camping at the Mokgolodi Park in Gaborone
Souvenir and craft shopping at the Main Mall outdoor market

And my personal favorite: a visit to the art studio of Mochedisi Geneva.

Jenah and I schedule a trip to Mochedisi’s studio just days after she arrives. I had sold her the idea with imagery of a quaint village corner with rounedval huts turned to studios and shops--- one for sculpture and pottery, one for glass and the last: Mochedisi’s studio, a small room stuffed with baskets and tapestries, paintings and iron sculpture, rock jewelry and wooden crafts.

“He’s amazing… and so versatile -- a jack-of-all-trades,” I’d called into her room.

“And his pieces are more unique than anything I’ve seen in Gabs or the pottery studios or even up in the Delta craft shops,” I assured her as we packed lunches.

“And really, Jenah, he’s just such a kind and interesting man. You’re going to love him.”

Poor Jenah didn’t need the convincing. She’s an artist herself and the appeal of quality, African crafts is something she developed long ago in her travels through Egypt and Ethiopia.

Still, I was excited to show her Mochedisi’s amazing work. I was proud to know him and to know of him and to have his number in my phone even.

“My aunt met him back in November and my sister and brother-in-law took his painting lessons when they came for their honeymoon. He helped them make two beautiful tapestries—I’ll show you them sometime. The lesson and the tapestries were my wedding presents to them.

That’s weird, his phone’s not even ringing.”

I find the number of the glass studio that sits adjacent to his shop and call them next.

“Hello, I’m just checking that you’re open today.”
“Yes, we are.”
“And Mochedisi, is he there at his shop today?”

There’s not a pause. There should be, but there’s not.

“Mochedisi’s dead.”
“What?”
Louder
“Dead. He’s dead.”
“What? How? The artist? The artist, Mochedisi Geneva?”
“Yes.”
“But… but when?”
“Aaaahhhh… January…? Yes, end of January, I think.”
“But from what? How?”
“Malaria.”
“Malaria?”
“Malaria.”
“Oh my god.”
“Yes. Very sad.”

Now there is a pause. An enormous hole. I lean against the kitchen table and swallow.

“We’re coming.”

_________________


His studio is locked up tight. We press against the windows. Jenah gasps and points to different pieces. I stare at the table where he worked with Heather and Tim for hours on their tapestries.

I remember he was playing traditional music and singing. I remember he was guiding Heather’s hand and smoothing out the purples. And stopping to re-knot his dreaded pig tails.

It had gotten dark that first day. It had been hours but they still weren’t finished. He laughed at my concerned face and piled us into his truck for a ride home through the dusk. All the way to Kumakwane. And again in the morning. Six hours of painting total. I gave him a tip and he gave me a free tapestry and I fell into one of those creative-crushes where a man’s kindness illuminates his talent and flair.

_______________________

We tiptoe around the glass studio. Crystal drops hang from shelves and walls and sprinkle the tables. Blue and green and white. Billions of glass droplets. Jenah’s holding a bowl and I’m walking in slow circles. Waiting.

When they enter I sadsmile sad and say “I’m so sorry” and it’s awkward and they sadsmile back and we stand between the drops of glass like that for a long time.

Ask.

“So, how did it happen?”
“He’d gone to Zimbabwe to see his family. They think he caught something there.”
“Yes, the man on the phone said malaria.”

The woman looks at the floor and is silent.

Ask.

“So why wasn’t the malaria treated?”
“Oh, he was treated. He knew something was wrong and went right away. As soon as he came back.”
“But then the medicine should have healed him…?”

Someone sighs.

“Well, they thought maybe it was an allergic reaction to the medicine.”
“To malaria medicine? Can that happen?”
“He got red. So red. His skin was even…”

The man holds out his arm and makes a scratching motion over the skin.

“It was an open casket… but just to look at him…” He trails off shaking his head.
“Yes.” She says. “It was very bad. His face was burned with it.”

I am choking on the silence.

Ask.

“But how could malaria medicine do that? Didn’t the doctors see and change it?”
“It was too late.”

The woman drops her chin and whispers: “Some say he was poisoned.”

I meet Jenah’s eyes.

Ask.

“In Zimbabwe?”
“Yes. By people there. People who were jealous.”
“Jealous? Why?”
“Of his success.”
“But to poison him for it?”
“It happens here. Jealousy is strong. They curse to cure it.”

“It doesn’t sound like malaria.” Jenah says.
“No, it doesn’t,” I say.
“No, it doesn’t,” the man says.
“No, it doesn’t,” the woman says.

Ask.

“How long did it take?”
“A couple of weeks.”

Ask.

“Is his girlfriend ok? I met her here often.”
“She’s gone home to Zimbabwe.”

Pause.

“He was so young.”
“Yes.”

Ask.

“Do you know how old?”

In Botswana they don’t say numbers. They use birth years for age.

“1987.” She says.

And I stop asking.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hallway

Our Close of Service conference has come and gone. Heaps of bureaucratic paperwork and exercises about proper closer and that twinge in my throat as someone distant and significant hugs me goodbye forever.

In addition to preparing us, Peace Corps was also thanking us. One night they piled our remaining 48 volunteers (originally 61) and took us to a game park at sunset. We were greeted with picnic tables of mimosas and then ushered onto three large vehicles for our twilight game drive. After a six elephants, three kudu, tiny warthog babies and a journey of giraffe we came across a clearing in the bush. It was dark by then and someone had set a bonfire.

At the bush “braii” (bbq) we got to enjoy traditional Tswana fare (butternut, chicken, papa, cold slaw) mixed with rare American delicacies like garlic bread and hard, red, seedless watermelon (Botswana’s watermelons are typically soft, pink and besieged by seeds, so we were particularly impressed with this desert and filled our plates with giant juicy slices)

In addition to the braii there were several other decadent meals and the Counterpart Dinner where the dessert bar was almost as long as the dinner buffet. Three volunteers gave speeches in fluent Setswana and five Batswana health professionals thanked us and a representative from the United States Embassy gave a poignant speech that left us feeling appreciated, heroic and nostalgic. We wore dresses and ties and took millions of photos hugging our counterparts.

By the end of the weekend everyone’s stomachs ached after the dramatic shift from village fare to the American-style feasts. On the last morning I carried this ache under a heap of papers and a gnawing sense that I didn’t have the words to say good-bye. And sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we said “Oh, I’m sure I’ll see you again” or “You’ll be in Gabs before you go, right? Call me.” Sometimes we avoided eye contact. Sometimes we squeezed hands and said nothing.

Brad hugged me and said “we did it” into my hair. And that was enough.

_________________

Back in the village I spread the stack of papers across my couch and tables and start drafting a “to do” list. I have 8 weeks and one US visitor remaining plus three reports, a week of medical appointments and 22 documents to complete. The list makes me feel more organized but I still find myself lying awake in bed and thinking of people’s faces and counting weekends.

In the last weeks before leaving America I dreampt over and over that I’d lost my shoes. Different scenes but in every one I was frantically searching for my boots. Someone assured me it was just transitional stress and a fear that I wasn’t prepared.

My dreams have become more vivid again. Especially since the conference.

In the one that returns I am standing in our school hallway and the electricity is out. I’m fumbling for the key to my office and it is pouring outside. The building is empty and when I look down the hallway I see a locked door with a small window. Beyond the window are hundreds of my students and they are pressed against the glass and calling for me. The rain is beating so loudly and I look at them and then the floor, and then back to them. They continue banging and calling to me. Over and over. And I stand in that long, dark hallway with a broken key and a locked door. And I am frozen.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Glass Hours

Next week we go on lock down for the last two months before close of service. This means volunteers are scrambling for our last social moments together. Parties and camping trips and dinners… tonight is my first quiet Friday in a long time.

At sunset I walked to Giam’s for one of her fabulous Tswana meals. The kids were dancing in bare feet and the shabines were blasting traditional music and the sun was setting gold behind a stretch of soft blue clouds.

Late now. I shuffle home to cows competing with bar songs and crickets and stars whispering the melody. My yard is all sand and sleepy chickens. Our banana tree sways in the cool air. Botswana’s autumn rolling in.

Time slips through this hour glass. I remember the way home and family and friends used to ache in me. I marvel again at human resilience and adaptation: fascinated by how happy I have come to feel in this bizarre and beautiful world.

The lights are out on my right. The neighbor’s fire smoldering to my left. I open a window and say good night to them and to this little village and to another day in a place that I will leave but which will not leave me.

Another Case of Pace

I hear them coming and freeze. Terrified. Niwde drops Ohpm onto a chair in the office and people begin crowding the door. He is hysterical and sobbing—and he can’t catch his breath.
__________________

Things move so slowly in Botswana. Most days I try to deep-breathe the impatient Bostonian out of me but then there are moments when the pace is unacceptable. When speed and time and urgency are essential.

___________________

The story has been told to me and by me a million times:


Last year’s Sports Day where 3 children were left in this state for 2 hours.
The student who died of asthma just two months after I arrived.
The boy who drown in the pool of rain water.
Jen’s student who complained of a heart pain and died an hour later.


The Head of Department is calm. Disturbingly so. She saunters out to the school combi and we are told they can’t take us to the clinic—they are on their way to Gabs. I’m asking everyone to use their car and everyone is staring at me blankly. His head is on my shoulder and he is hyperventilating and coughing and terrified. I say it’s okay—we’re going now, we’re going soon, it’s okay

in part to reassure myself.

Maybe it didn’t take a 5 full minutes for the Head of Department to get her car. Maybe it was my fear or impatience. Maybe it was her age. I said is she here yet? She’s coming. Now—is she here now? She’s coming. What is taking so long? Doesn’t anyone else have a car?

She arrives and I have to commission two male teachers to help me carry him to the vehicle.

Ohpm is one of the tallest boys at school. Athletic and handsome and popular. I hold the shell of this in my arms as we drive to the clinic. He looks exactly like a baby. And he’s turning blue. He looks exactly like he is dying.

________________________

The clinic is empty. Not one person in sight as we pull up. I race out of the car screaming “Ko ko!” (the Batswana sound for knocking) “Re batle thuso ja nong!” (We need help now!) No one comes so I begin opening doors and calling louder.

Eventually, I come across one of the cleaners and a family welfare educator. They stare at me, tsking my audacious behavior. I stare back furious at their complacent response.

Both ladies stroll out to the car and look at the boy and there is so much silence surrounding his gasps and sobs.

The head nurse patters across the yard to us—clicking her pen and surveying the scene.

At this point I stop speaking. My voice is very small and my insistence irritating. This is not how they do things. I may be making it worse.

Mma Idalt finally asks for the boy to be taken into the clinic. I watch as the nurses turn him. I wait and wait as they call his name and shift him around the table. Eventually I walk outside.

On the broken bench I am praying and counting minutes. At 4 Mma Idalt presses him against the wall and pours medicine down his throat. I can hear his breathing subside and mine return.

_________________________

Ophm’s father is called. He tells us he is working at the primary school, just behind the clinic. Still, he takes 30 minutes to arrive.

Ophm’s asthma occurred in Mma Gnasid’s science class. She was performing an experiment. As she poured the ethanol Ophm immediately began gasping.

Mma Gnasid asks Ophm’s father why he didn’t tell the school about his son’s asthma so she could take proper precautions. The father shrugs and claims not to have known. The mother left him 10 years ago -- that was really more her sort of thing to deal with.

__________________________

Back at school the teachers approach to ask if Ophm is okay. The track and field coach says Ophm often had asthmatic problems during training.

You didn’t tell anyone?
The parents are supposed to come with a note from the doctor.
But you could have told us.
He always recovered.

___________________________

The Head of Department and I sit in the office. She’s staring at her notebook. I’m staring at my desk.

That was scary.
Yes.
I never waste time with these things. I’ve seen it too many times.

I look at her. Trying to hide my awe and outrage.

I lost a nephew that way. 12 years old. By the time he got to the clinic they had already pronounced him dead.

Yes, time is so important. It determines everything in these cases.

And then my husband. A diabetic. No one knew. When the stroke came, again, we were too slow.

She tells me story after story and I’m clutching the arms of my chair and I’m teetering between compassion and fury.

______________________________

Teacher blames father.
Father blames mother.
Coach blames parents.

And I blame a culture where emergencies do not elicit urgency.

Still, he survives. This time.

I spend the afternoon talking to the classes about safety. I write down allergies and take the names of the asthmatic children and plead with them to bring medicine, inhalers and doctor’s notes to the guidance office.

The nod at me. They say “Yes, Mma” in unison.

________________________________

My walking pace has slowed in Botswana. I am adept at waiting in queues for hours. Meetings that cover two items and run for 4 hours no longer phase me. A 10 mile trip in a friend’s car requires no less than an hour and five stops. Events start, religiously, 2 hours after the program states. Sermons and ceremonies can run all day and all night.

I am better. Not perfect, but better. I still tap my foot and doodle in the margins and day dream with abandon. But I am better.

Every once in a while you get to stop being “culturally sensitive” and “adapting”. Every once in a while that American-ism makes sense and you get to say that out loud.

Out.
Loud.

And here I thought I’d be relieved.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Touch of the Tangible

I’ve been here long enough now to have annual nostalgia. I get sentimental when the trees turn purple and romantic when festive season arrives and elated when plowing begins (not only for fresh produce but also for the sense that my poorest students are finally getting enough daily food)

I’m currently entering my third autumn in Botswana. Amazing to think it’s been that long.

But not all my nostalgic moments here are positive. There is, of course, the frustration of the water outage in summer which follows the wonder and horror of spring mating season (wherein farm animals charge one another and make the most ungodly sounds -- terrifying my repressed ‘city girl’)

Still, I’ve learned to cope quite well with living off stored water and ignoring immodest cows. These are easy compared to other annual traditions. Or should I say Another. There is really only one I dread:

Sports Day.

Sports Day is a loved by students and loathed by volunteers. Last year my kids were made to run in the hot sun for hours without water or food. I arrived at the field at 3:00 to find a group of them sobbing and heaving under trees. Their friends told me they had been like that for hours. Teachers lounged under a shaded tent and explained to me that the children were “being dramatic” and “just tired”. When I finally got the worst of them to the clinic the head nurse said the same thing. When I petitioned the Headmaster for an intervention he told me the sick children were “lazy” and “making excuses not to participate.”

That was last January. The only day of my entire service that I have ended in furious tears.

And so Sports Day came again this January. Prior to the event I schemed a million ways to avoid it but all my plans and distractions fell through. In the end, I found myself crawling to school with a pit in my stomach and a distinct sense of fear. Fear that I wasn’t big enough for this. That something could happen and I’d be alone. That I’d make a mistake.

And I prayed. One of those little prayers that you mean deeply but find faith in the granting hard to believe. I prayed for wisdom and the ability to help. And I prayed that my students would be okay.

By 9:00 the kids were on the field running and cheering wildly for their teams. I felt an enormous relief when 10:00 rolled around and there was still a cloud cover blocking the heat.

But at 11:00 the sun won out. A predictable desert pattern but I still felt duped. The kids started sweating and they fell into the shade after their races, encircled by concerned friends and makeshift, paper fans. Twenty-odd “supervising” teachers read books and told jokes and gossiped under the tent.

______________


My house is less than a quarter mile from the track and when Ms. Enawstuk arrived with a car I immediately begged her to take me home. I commissioned two men to ride with us.

At my house I have buckets and buckets of stored water in preparation for the village’s frequent water outages. My kitchen is filled with bottles and my end tables and nightstand are old jam containers from the school kitchen, washed out and used for water storage. Ms. Enawstuk and the men looked at me warily but eventually agreed to assist with the Crazy Lekgoa dragging her end tables and kitchen contents into the car.

Once back at the field I set up a water station out of the back of Ms. Enawstuk’s car. I sent my favorite students out to advertise the water stand and, within an hour, had a line of kids greedily pushing cups and bottles at me, begging for refills.

I went home to re-filled the buckets three times that day. I’m guessing I distributed nearly 500 gallons of water to 340 students in the course of six hours.

These are the comments I remember from those hours:


From a student: We are much better this year, Mma Charles. You have helped us.

From a teacher: So the students are really supposed to drink before the races? I thought that would give them cramps and make them sick…?

From a student: You are a good person to take care of us like this.

From a teacher: You spoil them with this water. It makes them weak.

From a student: But who will do this for us next year? How will we tell them we need this?

From a teacher: It’s too much, Bontle. It’s 4:00. We’re on the last race—they’ll never drink all that.

From a student: You have a good heart, Mma Charles.

__________________


HIV prevention work rarely has tangible results. I’ve earned the affection of some students and colleagues but have I really helped them? Are they practicing safer sex? Do they know how to use a condom correctly? Can they differentiate between myths and facts about STDs and HIV? Do understand the risks of multiple concurrent partners? Will they continue to go to traditional healers who claim to heal HIV? Are they going to live past forty?

I don’t know these answers. I won’t ever know these answers. And I have accepted this as part of the deal. Prevention is, at the start, a blind effort. A hope. A wait.


But in the back of that little Toyota, for one minute, things were different. I was educating teachers. I was modeling safe exercise preparation. I was teaching students how to care for their friends. I was watching kids become physically revived from hydration. I was explaining the importance of water.

Just water.

________________

Sports day ended at 6:00 on Friday night. On Saturday I learned that a boy had died at my friend Jen’s school. He had come off the track and complained that his chest hurt. The teachers waited and then took him home and left him there, alone. His parents found him dead.

At Monday’s morning assembly I stood in front of the students for the first time in two years of service. I was shaking from nerves and emotion and praying they didn’t notice. I spoke for 5 minutes about dehydration, heat exhaustion, asthma, heart health, and proper nutrition. I implored them to take care of themselves and of one another as they exercised this season.

It was nothing. It was 5 minutes and water.

But it’s one of those moments that will color my memories of Botswana. Three months from now when this world is tucked inside photo albums and nostalgia Sports Day will be moments where I’ll remember I was really here. Really real. And for a minute—really helping.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Another Lesson in Collectivist Cultures

One of the other volunteers asked me to lead a staff development session at her school today on young learner lesson planning. I taught this session to three groups of volunteers last year so I readily agreed to present to a Batswana class as well.

The thing about taking on tasks in Botswana is that the preparation and stress and detail put into planning can be shockingly successful for one event and infuriatingly futile for the next.

For example, I once was in a state of panic because I desperately needed to return a pair of trousers and had lost the receipt. My fellow volunteer listened to me moan about this for two hours before saying, “Listen, this is either going to be the most difficult process you can image or the easiest thing in the world—it’s a total fluke here how things turn out.”

Indeed.

I walked into the shop and the manager took one look at the trousers and immediately handed me cash (and I had paid with credit!)


Okay, so back to the workshop.

Well, it DID actually turn out to be successful but the details of Getting There were just maddening. And amusing. Well, amusing in retrospect.

Here’s how the day went...

This morning I double checked the transportation log and saw that, yes, I had indeed booked the van two weeks ago for this event and, yes, the driver was aware of the trip. But then at 9:00 Mr. Eltneolep received a fax inviting him to a workshop this same afternoon, at the same time as my workshop.

So, Bontle, we’ll have to find a way for me to get to the workshop.
Well, can you drive your car?
No, it must be the school van.
But I booked the van first.
But I need it too.
But we can’t both have it.
But I need it.
But I booked it first.
But I need it too.

Arg!

I finally manage to get someone from the other school to agree to drive me home at the end of my presentation which will allow Mr. Eltneolep to be transported to his workshop as well.

But when that fire goes out I suddenly realize that the van is gone from the school parking lot. The driver remembers that he has to take me at 1:00, right? I call him. He doesn’t understand my Setswana over the phone. I ask a colleague to call him. He doesn’t answer. I call the person he’s with. She answers and tells me the driver has left her and he’s off getting petrol. She doesn’t know when he’ll be back to pick her up but, yes, she’ll remind him he’s taking me to Thamaga at 1:00.

ARG!

At 12:20 I step into my final class of the day and try to be discrete about peeking out at the school gate to see if the van has returned. At 12:50 the transport has still not arrived and now it’s started to downpour. The bell rings for lunch at 1:00 and the kids are shrieking from the rain and I’m hurdling puddles to make it back to the office to grab my things because the van has FINALLY arrived. I leap over the hallway of children and clear the guidance office queue and make it to the van, sloppy and exhausted by 1:05. Mr. Gnegonom looks back from the driver’s seat, chewing lazily on his plate of paleche.

Mr. Gnegonom we have to go—I’m going to be late and there are 50 teachers waiting for me!
It’s raining.
Yes, I know but I’m late.
But it’s raining.
Yes, I know but…

This continues for a while and eventually I give up. When Gnegonom finishes his lunch we drive around the back of the school to pick up Mr. Eltneoloep who stands laughing in the doorway of the kitchen and refusing to walk the two feet to the van in the rain. I beckon him urgently from the window but he will only consent once I’ve opened the door and cleared a path so he can make a running leap and slide into the vehicle. ARG!!!

Finally we are driving towards the school exit and I am a starting to feel relief when I’m besieged by a floury of Setswana which brings the van to a halt again. This time for 15 minutes. I ask what we’re waiting for and get ambiguous replies and resolve to practice deep breathing in the back seat until the vehicle moves again. Eventually, 5 teachers pile into the van.

Where are you going?
Home.
But why are you coming with us?
Because it’s raining.
But…


Oh.


So it’s this point that I “get it” and I feel so humbled by it. The thing is—my American values have been blinding me all day. My need to be well-planned and detail-orientated and profession and punctual has made me totally self absorbed. I’ve been trying to be responsible and get where I promised to be when I promised to be there but the priorities motivating my Batswana colleagues have been much different. For the Batswana, the important thing today was to help one another and sacrifice for the greater good and put other people’s needs before their own (and definitely before the clock!). If things didn’t work out perfectly it would be okay because at least everyone was helped by the van. A collective, community based culture and ethos.

And so, yeah, I booked the transport first. And it wasn’t “fair” that I was 30 minutes late to a presentation in front of 50 colleagues. And it wasn’t “fair” that I was embarrassed and felt unprofessional. That was annoying.

But, in the mean time, a giant van carried one woman to Gabs and back, two teachers to their workshops and five staff to their homes—all without getting anyone soaked in the rain.

Oh, and we saved petrol.


Two years and still Such An American. But at least the epiphanies come now. Slow and reluctant. But they come.

The Things We Love

I live on a family compound in a little pink house next to the landlords’ larger pink house. The landlords have two kids and a dog and a cat and a million chickens. The dog is my favorite. I love to come home after a long day and sit in the sand, rubbing Molly’s belly. She’s started to anticipate it and will chase after me and lie down in front of my feet until I consent. She has giant sad eyes which I find soothing and compassionate in a way I can’t explain.

Molly has had three litters since I arrived. 23 puppies all together. In this last litter the puppies lived for three months and then one by one began dying. Earlier this week the last one died.

Molly died today.
________________

The landlord came over to check on me tonight. I stood in my doorframe (as I always do) and he stood on my stoop facing the horizon (as he always does) and we chit chatted about work and the weather. And I said “What happened to all the dogs?” and he said “Well, we don’t really know.” And I said “But it was so sudden—all at once like that.” And he said, “They may have been poisoned. But did you see the chicks? My God we are so fortunate with all these new chickens!”

My best friend in the village can’t understand Americans and pets. She talks about it all the time—genuinely fascinated by our attachment to animals and confused at how we can build such fondness for dirty cats that exist to catch mice and mangy dogs that exist to protect the house.

Sometimes I theorize that it’s our individualistic culture that tends towards solitude and yet finds that privacy can be enhanced by a connection with a silent, soft and affectionate being. Sometimes I think it’s evolution past the strict hierarchical culture that sees animals as merely functional and disposable. Sometimes I just think it’s excess money and time that has made us develop new interests and hobbies beyond survival tasks. Sometimes I think we’ve got it all wrong and we’d be better off ignoring them like the Batswana.

____________


Molly crawled under the banana tree at the edge of our yard and died there today. The kids told me but I wouldn’t look. She laid there for seven long hours before the landlord finally removed her.

There have been moments here that I’ve wanted desperately to be invisible. There have been days I’ve nearly begged my skin to turn black.


But I’ve never so badly wanted to be Motswana, as I did today.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Protector

Savid and I meet at the village bus stop which may have been a mistake. We are quite visible there and the things he tells me are too painful to hide. I spend a lot of time blinking over and over to keep the water out of my eyes. I concentrate on ignoring the stares of neighbors and from bus windows, patterened with gawking eyes. Savid is oblivious—or perhaps too indignant to care. He has had enough of this country. He is leaving from rage and fear and betrayal.

______________


Ian Khama’s presidential campaign promised social improvements through heightened discipline. He has not failed in administering this discipline. It is impressive and a bit daunting. Many Batswana are not pleased with the 70% tax increase on alcohol or the early closing of public bars. People also complain about the skyrocketing traffic violation fines which, for some offenses, soared from P50 to P1000.

When Khama took office, he meant business. He wanted a sober nation. A safe nation. He also wanted a fair nation. One where only legal Zimbabwean refugees resided. Where citizens could live without the fear of being robbed or assaulted by desperately the poor who had fled their country. And so we began to see more and more deportation vehicles-- stuffed to the brim and heading back to the border. For many Batswana, this was a relief. But for those on the inside, the process seemed haphazard and unjust. One minute they were working, tending the same garden that had employed them for six years, and the next, the police had come and swept them up. Papers and pleas were ignored. Reasons withheld. It was a rapid and merciless process. In the final week of November, Botswana deported 4,000 Zimbabwean refugees. A great cleanse. Though not flawless.

______________

When they came for him there was the natural shock, but Savid had been through this before. He was polite and compliant—calmly unfolding his UN refugee documents and waiting for the expected pardon.

The police glanced at the documents and told Savid to put them away. It was not their job to determine his status, but merely to take him as instructed. Savid protested, insisting that he had a right to know his offense but the officers merely grunted and began attaching handcuffs to his wrists.

“This is unnecessary. I will go with you freely. I merely ask to know my offense.”
“It’s a protocol. I’m sorry—we are required to use these.”

Savid’s hands were fastened behind his back and he was led from the garden to the police vehicle. Friends and coworkers and garden customers stood gaping at this abrupt display. Some called out to ask what had happened. Some ran to the police, demanding an explanation. But Savid couldn’t answer and neither could his escorts. He was Zimbabwean. That’s all the justification they had and needed. He would have to wait for more answers.

__________________

Savid was taken to his home and told to pack a bag. He did this reluctantly, still pleading for reason and urgently displaying his passports and papers. The policemen had waning patience and gruffly zipped his bag and reapplied the cuffs. They then drove him 50 kilometers to Molepolole where Savid found himself penned inside a vast cage. There were over 1,000 of them—men on one side and women and children on the other. All Zimbabwean. There were tents but no roof. Someone took Savid’s bag and he would not see it again for four days.

And then the rains started. Cold, hard rains.

Botswana’s rains tend to come staggered—a few hours of downpour and then blazes of sunshine before the next spell. A cloudy day here and there. A brief quenching followed by thick humidity.

There are 340 days of sunshine and blue skies in Botswana each year.


Savid watched the sky cloud over and the wind rise. He hugged his t-shirt against his skin and found his way into a damp tent. From there he watched the rain fall for three days straight. No one came for him. No one responded to his pleas for clarification or his belongings or even a single warm garment. He and the thousand other refugees huddled in confusion and a mounting rage. Waiting and shivering.

It is hard to deal with such mayhem in these uncomfortable weather conditions. It must have overwhelmed the officers, for no one appeared during those days. Rain does much to impede the work flow here in Botswana.

Savid ate three small meals of undercooked porridge each day. He would not step into the showers and when I asked him why he looked away with such disgust it turned my stomach.

“The prison was a pen for animals and I believed I would die there.” He said to me, shaking his head back and forth. “I thought I was finished.”

“And I was angry.” He has stopped looking at me now. “Not at them but me—to die this way. I could have been home—fighting for a cause! Dying for our freedom. But instead I was dying here—in the arms of my protector. And for what…? For what…?”

And I am blinking water
Locked on his sunken eyes and blinking blinking
________________

On the fourth day the rains finally stopped. By noon prison operations had resumed and Savid spotted the Police Chief walking just beyond the chain link fence. He called to her, begging for a moment. Just a word.

The Chief responded to this emotional plea and told Savid there was a protocol he must follow before speaking with her.

But he had taken these steps many times, he insisted. He had asked for a meeting and been ignored time and time again.

The Chief look sideways at Savid. His wrinkled forehead and hollow cheeks. His refugee documents pressed against the fence. There were mountains of others behind him. A list of pleas that preceded him. A protocol that was meant to be followed.

Maybe the Chief knew there had been a mistake. Maybe she merely liked the shape of Savid’s eyes. We call them miracles because the explanations elude us.

And so they did, when Savid was called to her office that afternoon. And when Savid was discharged.

“Maybe God put you here to meet good people,” said the Chief upon Savid’s release.
Savid stared at this good woman and felt gratitude and vulnerability and danger.

Outside the prison gate things had changed.
Savid’s space and God and “good” had been revised.
The Chief’s theory seemed possible. And unconsoling.

_______________


The sun is in my eyes now and I’m squinting up to see him. To read the lines on his face at the end of this nightmare story.

I will go now.
Where?
Home. To Harare.
Will it be dangerous?
Yes, but perhaps no more dangerous than here.
What has your wife said?
She’s coming for festive season. Her and three of my children. We will plan then.
And what will become of your refugee status?
I will lose it. The UN does not approve of my return. They will make me write a document, saying I voluntarily return to Zimbabwe, fully aware of the risks to my life and safety.
And you are?
I am.


And I am blinking blinking blinking