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
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 décolletage. 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.”