Monday, September 15, 2014

EID in Botswana

 “A treat,” Tunda said, “this is a great treat. A friend of Peace Corps has invited us all for a barbeque. He has a big patio. It will be a great treat.”
            We had visions of a Southern California patio, steaks on the grill. What to wear? It was the last weekend of our training. Most of our host families, including mine, had plans for a special dinner. My family was disappointed when I told them I was going to a barbecue. They knew who it was. Rra Kahn they said. Did I detect distaste inside the disappointment? “Important man” they said. I decided to wear a nice skirt and top. We were to meet at the training center and be bussed up to Mr. Kahn’s place overlooking the town. Shannon and I met at the gas station bottle store for a beer and cider before the bus picked us up.
            Information and directions were, as usual, sporadic. Some people arrived in shorts and T shirts, others in dresses. I should have smelled something then. The bus dropped us in front of a closed general store. We wandered up and down the street looking for a fancy house with a patio that certainly should be overlooking the dramatic sunset. Finally a volunteer who lived in the neighborhood came up the hill and pointed to a gate beside the general dealer. Inside were flagstones leading between buildings. I glimpsed women in black robes watching from a window.
            Children came running around the corner of a building. Not black, not white. Brown children. Laughing and running. I tripped on one of the flagstones and caught myself before falling on a child, then turned the corner into what must be Tunda’s patio—a yard completely covered in concrete.
            “Welcome! Welcome! It is my pleasure.” Mr Kahn stood before us, in a long white tunic, a pillbox on his head. “Very happy, Very happy,” he said.
            “Muslim,” Shannon muttered. “No alcohol. Damn” Apparently no mothers or women to watch the children either. A few Batswana women appeared, nodding at us and averting their eyes as they carried soda and crackers and salads to tables set up on one side of the concrete yard.  Off to the right a few cattle were hanging over a fence watching us.
            “Sit, Sit” Mr. Kahn said. No one introduced us. Peace Corps staff were oddly absent. We had no sense of why we were there other than for a ‘big treat.’ We sat awkwardly on ubiquitous white plastic garden chairs and watched as Mr. Kahn directed a man with a sharp knife to the corner of the yard. The man stepped into a three-sided structure and two other men opened a gate and led a cow before him. The men tied the cow’s front and back leg together and with a superhuman shove, knocked the beast on its side. The man with the short sword leaned down and whispered in the animal’s ear, then stepped back to let a river of blood flow down the concrete to a now visible drain.
            We watched speechless as the cow’s neck pumped hard, as if it were clearing its throat, which I suppose one could say, it was. The two men behind the cow then pulled on a rope, lifting the animal by its hind legs. Three other men appeared and proceeded to slice through what five minutes before had been a large curious bovine watching us mill about.
            Nobody moved. Nobody spoke, as the cow was disassembled, loaded on a wagon and trundled off to a building behind us.
            This was Eid. A muslim holiday in which Mr. Kahn slaughters six cows and gives them away for free. Apparently we had won the Eid lottery. The cows did not seem to have caught on. They watched from the side of the pen, calmly waiting as one by one, each of them was dispensed. Some volunteers went for walk, some turned to talk with their backs to the abbatoir. I walked up closer and listened as Mr. Kahn explained that they prayed as they sliced the animal’s throat. Maybe prayer makes a difference. Not one of the animals struggled as it was walked to its death. Not even when their legs were roped.
            The sun had set and the temperature was dropping when the final wagon wheeled past us. A few of the men began filling cut-in-half oil drums with wood and charcoal and the fires began. I turned my head when I saw the goats.
            “Yes,” Corey said. “Chicken, goat and beef. A real feast.” Corey was an ex-Marine. He could eat anything.
            We found ourselves huddled in a corner near the fires, waiting for something—Peace Corps staff to arrive with a bus? Some indication of what was next? Conversation was stilted. This would be the only sober gathering we would have in the two years we were in country. At some point fresh meat was laid on grills over the fire and hunger opened our mouths.
            “Here,” Mr. Kahn called to me, “Here Mother—you are first.” I was insulted. Who was he calling Mother? I looked askance at him, then saw Shannon shake her head. I picked up my plate and stood mute as the beast of benediction was offered to me.

            It was delicious.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Green v. Brown

Although it was my greatest fear about living in Africa, I had not seen a snake since I arrived in my village. Evidence of them sometimes appeared—the zig-zag single track from the brick wall into the compound—did the landlord's car obliterate the track? Did a dog get the snake? Was it still somewhere within the compound?
            During my first month at my site, fellow volunteer John gave me a patchwork of aerial Google map photos of my village. I spread them out according to his directions and taped them together. There before me was a bird’s-eye view of the dirt paths of Kopong: the fenced off squares of each family plot, the silver metal roofs of most of the concrete houses and the orange terra cotta roof of my landlord’s home. Why, I wondered, were all the yards devoid of vegetation? I looked at the patches of brown amidst the greenish spots of the rest of the village. This is the bush: dry vegetation, waterless river land. Why make it worse by scraping the land bare?
            When I walked to school after one of the three days of rain we would have in the two years I was in Botswana, I watched the grandmother next door line up her two grandchildren and direct them to help pull every blade of green that had sprouted overnight. Judgment, judgment, my mind was full of righteous judgment. Here was the first bit of green in months of dry dust and there they were on their hands and knees making the earth barren.
            On the weekend I stepped over the donkey dung and the broken glass, stepped off the path away from the fence where the vicious dog always threatened to tear the wire mesh apart at the sight of me, and made my way to the only tar road in my village. It was a paved horseshoe that pulled you off the main road at the empty filling station, led you past the only bus stop with a shade tree and then turned back onto the main road at the cemetery.
            I wanted to explore my surroundings. Rra Sekobolo had drawn me a map of the horseshoe and said it wasn’t far to walk. I set out with Felix and Spike, my landlady’s dogs, trotting beside me. The sun was high overhead when they looked at me with pity and turned aside from the tar road to plop themselves in the shade of an abandoned shed. A family of six went by in a donkey cart, smiling and shaking their heads at me. My water bottle was almost empty. My feet hurt. Surely the road must be about to join the highway, where I could hitch a ride.
            When no highway appeared around the next bend I turned left off the road and walked through the green bush. It felt like astroturf. Tough, spongy, prickly. After half an hour I came to a gravel road and followed that back to the center of the village. The sun was almost to the horizon when I arrived back at my landlady’s compound, put the key in the gate and stepped into the brown dirt of my own square piece of the village.

            The next day I asked Rra Sekobolo why people denuded their plots of land. It’s the snakes, he said. They live in the green grass.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ironing in Botswana


When we arrived in country many volunteers were excited to be in Africa, eager to see the vibrant colors and designs they would find in import/export stores in the states. We had all seen the Peace Corps promotional materials with photos of volunteers dressed in traditional outfits for their swearing in ceremonies. At our swearing in only two volunteers wore traditional outfits, and that was only because their host families had made the outfits for them. Who would want to wear dull turn-of-the-century German hausfrau outfits? At some point in its history Botswana succumbed to the missionaries. They put aside their loincloths and ostrich eggshell anklets and bracelets and washed off the white dots across their foreheads, donned dirndl skirts, tight blouses and wrapped their shoulders in blue plaid blankets. The rest of the continent shimmered and glowed in dashikis and hand-blocked designs while Batswana walked through the heat in heavily starched tight fitting straight jackets.
            During training we were told that no matter how poor a family was, they always ironed their clothes. I knew this was true because the first morning in my host family home I was lifting a cup of instant coffee when a woman arrived at the door clad only in a bath towel. She was there to borrow an iron. When we were given 40 minutes at the mall in Gaborone to buy supplies before being shipped off to our sites, I dutifully bought an iron and ironing board.
            At some point months later I noticed tiny holes in some of my clothes—some of which I see now in the pants I’m wearing. These were not moths—the holes are in synthetic fabrics. It was perplexing to say the least.
            At the end of my time in country I spent a few weekends as the guest of an ex-pat friend to escape the lack of water in my village (in my own private rondavel--see photo). She generously offered to have her ‘girl’ do my laundry and when she said she would have her iron my things including my underwear, I said “Oh, please don’t bother.”
            “But you must,” she said, “all clothes must be ironed here. There are tiny bugs that lay eggs in your clothes. They are only killed by ironing.”

Monday, August 11, 2014

Receding memories

I can’t remember the name of the woman who did my laundry. I can’t remember the name of the town where I changed busses—so much is receding from my time in Africa. Metsimotlha
be—that’s where I changed busses. Mogoditshane, that’s where the combis stopped. But who did my laundry? Gail, yes, it was Gail. From Zimbabwe. I paid her 30 Pula (about 40 cents US) a week to wash my sheets and towels and some clothes by hand, sheer drudgery. I did small things myself, but sheets and towels? Ugh. My landlady raised chickens to sell—6 weeks from chick to slaughter, and sold them 40Pula a bird.
            Gail slaughtered and plucked the chickens as well as cleaned the landlady’s house, did the family laundry, made the meals and babysat the boys--oh, and fed the chickens and cleaned the coop and fed the dogs. Six days a week.  Sundays were the only days she actually left the compound. I always wondered where she slept. My landlady’s house had three bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the daughter and one for the son. In Shannon’s host family the maid slept in the adolescent boy’s room. One bed. Two people in the room. “You do the math,” Shannon said, rolling her eyes.
            In my host family’s home I was given a large room with a double bed. The oldest sister had a room of her own and the three children and younger sister somehow shared a room. Or so I assumed until the morning I had to catch a bus at 4 am and found her sleeping in the dining room. By the time I made the trip to Mozambique, I was perfectly content to share a bunk room with whoever showed up at the hostel that night. Particularly when the bunk across the way was given to a handsome young Spaniard. Sweet dreams that night.

            I miss the adventure, the trek into unknown worlds. Of course I am ignoring the Easter weekend in Kalamare when I stood at the bus rank for 1.5 hours and then was shoved into a tightly packed combi and had to stand for two hours behind a driver who seemed to be in training for the Indie 500. And I’m ignoring another trip to Kalamare when the combi pulled to the side of the road, steam pouring out of the engine. Everyone climbed out and headed for the only tree in sight, sat down on the ground and waited. We three white people in the back pulled out our cell phones and called our friends. “There’s only one combi,” they said. “Hitchhike.” We hadn’t seen another vehicle on the whole trip. By the time we got our legs to unfold and unloaded our stuff, the combi was coughing back to life. Do I really miss all that?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Last Bus Ride

Now that I am “this side” I am reading about Africa, watching a TV series about a family running a game camp in South Africa, looking for Africa in the news. I would never have thought I would miss Africa this much, but here I sit in a park in New York City listening to people talk about personal trainers and watching them parade by in their slinky dresses.  “Three percent rise in portfolio” drifts by on the air and I am seeing the bus rank in Gaborone and the women dressed in long white dresses with white head wraps, their bulky bodies seated on broken plastic chairs under the skimpy shade provided by anorexic trees or tipsy umbrellas
while they wait all day to sell three bananas or a roll of toilet paper.
            I see the tall slim fellow enter the bus with his bag of frozen ices. “Metsi!, Cooltime!” he calls and tickles the children under the chin and makes the women laugh despite the sweltering heat and for the first time I wish I had learned more Setswana. I wish I could understand what he is saying that pulls people out of their stupor.
            I see the beautiful conductor on the 3:30 bus to Kopong. She was a woman of indeterminate age, dressed more modestly than most. Her shoes were solid leather always polished. Her skirts were long and her blouses did not reveal the usual six inches of d├ęcolletage. I don’t think she was Motswana. Her face was more sculptured, with rounded eyelids and a generous mouth. When I saw the carved wooden figures in the main mall, I bought one immediately—it was her face. I kept it on my desk, thinking I would give it to my son, who has four daughters. It was called family tree and had the heads of four women carved out of a single piece of wood. After a few months of admiring it I realized one of the heads had an eye that seemed to wander. The Irish in me was superstitious, afraid it could be unlucky and so I found another family tree for him (these carvings are everywhere) and kept the flawed one for myself.
            The last time I made the trip back to my village I stood on the side of the A12 highway in the sun, resigned to a long wait and a packed bus. As if in a dream, the bus pulled up within minutes and when I boarded I was stunned to see I was the only person on it. This had never happened in the two years I was in Africa. Add to that, it was the bus with my favorite conductor. I sat down across from her and asked if I could take her photo. She smiled at me and nodded. I told her I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had seen in Botswana. She smiled at me and nodded.

            When I unpacked my shoes here in America, red dust fell out on the bedspread. That red scrim covers the edge of my notebooks, sits inside the zipper of my backpack and filters out of things even now, three months after I walked across the tarmac at Sir Seretse Khama Airport, boarded the flight to Jo’burg and looked out the window at the dry cattle and sparse branches of my village, five miles away.
            What do I miss? I don’t miss the chickens and roosters under my window waking me throughout the night. I don’t miss the dogs barking and jumping all hours day and night. I don’t miss the bus windows locked tight while people sit on top of me and cough. I don’t miss the nonexistent customer service, the frustration of finding no one available to do the job they were supposed to do.
            What do I miss? The sky. The clearest bluest largest sky I’ve ever seen. And time. I miss time. There is plenty of time in Africa. Time enough to wait for the bus, the combi, the hitch.  No one is late, unless they have died. There is always the possibility the bus will come, the person will show up, the meeting will begin, if not now, at some point. If there is no possibility, if the breath has left your body and you have been sung into your grave, then and only then, are you “late.”