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?