Friday, April 16, 2010

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.

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