Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Common Ground

photo by Mary Vazquez
The wind was blowing. The snow was miniscule beads flying more up than down. It was cold, and gray and Mercury was in the middle of its retrograde. I am thinking of Montreal. 1970. I was twenty years old, just married, about as directionless as those beads of snow. I was blown up across the border when we left the country, but I was determined to ground myself. It seems to be my destiny, this search for home. For a base in the world. A place to land. I’m still searching.
Winter is the change agent in my life. I met my husband in February, married him the following February, learned of my pregnancy the next February. When I look back I see a pattern of changes, decisions, turning points, most of which took place mid winter. When the world is frozen solid, that’s when my life cracks open. The decision to let go of the dream house in the face of financial misfortune. The end of the marriage. The return to graduate school. I don’t hibernate. I hyperventilate, then go to ground and, like the tiny beads of white coursing by the window, the descent usually takes a random direction, no clear path to the ground, no sense of time and space other than the belief that the landing will be accompanied and perhaps cushioned by many other beads of white finding their way from sky to earth, from circumstance to wellbeing.
            This is my prayer for our country and our world this coming February—that we can all find common ground.

Friday, December 5, 2014


As I listen to the news that once again an American jury—grand or otherwise—has acquitted a white man of killing a black man and/or boy, I can’t help but think of the Botswana flag. When I first arrived in my village, a young man in the senior secondary school proudly explained their black, white and blue flag: the blue is for water, which is the most important element in a desert world. The black and white is for the fact that blacks and whites live together peacefully.
            He told me this not that many miles away from the border of South Africa, a land where Apartheid kept blacks and whites living in fear and anger for decades. I almost didn’t believe the young man, it seemed too sweet an idea.
            Once considered the poorest country in the world, Bechuanaland was home to the Tswana people. In 1885 the Tswana asked the British to offer them protection from the Boers, who were invading their lands from neighboring South African Republic. Can you imagine asking the British, one of the major colonizers of the world, to ‘protect’ you? The British agreed, but couldn’t be bothered to set up any offices in scruffy Bechuanaland, so for years the capital remained across the border in South Africa.
            When Botswana gained its independence in 1966 there were many white people living within their borders—mostly cattle ranchers in the Ghanzi district. They could have told them to leave—this was their land now. They could have forced them to emigrate. They did neither. Botswana offered citizenship to all people living within their borders, no matter what their race.
            Most people know of Botswana from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladie’s Detective Agency series. My life in Botswana was not as cheery and humorous as that depicted in the McCall Smith books—rapid growth and economic disparity were changing things, particularly in the major cities. Still, I did not walk in fear. Batswana are gentle people by nature. I was more afraid of someone on the bus bursting out in song than brandishing a knife.
            Today I think of their flag, which according to the World Atlas, has colors that correspond to those on the national coat of arms. The blue represents water, the white-black-white bands depict the racial harmony of the people as well as the pluralist nature of society. They are inspired, the atlas adds, by the coat of the zebra, the national animalDescription: ot.
            And I think of the zebra (also the name of Botswana national soccer team): a social animal that lives in small harems or large herds. Unlike their closest relatives, horses and donkeys, zebras cannot be ridden. The first time I saw a zebra was from the bus as it drove past the Botswana Defense Force on the way out of Gaborone. What was a zebra doing in the middle of the capital city? Someone explained it to me: the BDF protects all inhabitants of the country, including wildlife. The zebra had been saved from poachers and was grazing behind the gates of the BDF until it could be returned to its home.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Saving Spike

It is autumn here in the US. The trees are almost garish in their wild colors—the last blast before grays and browns and blues wash across the sky and land. Rusty splotches will fill in here and there and green will barely dare to peep out at one point or another. It will all become very subdued, as nature settles down for the serious work of getting through winter.
            In Botswana nature is preparing for summer. Ninety-five degrees and water shortages. I am glad I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer there, but it is more present to me everyday. The memories keep coming back unbidden. Especially the dirt paths of my village and the treks I took with Felix and Spike, my landlady’s dogs. I did not welcome them at first. I am not a dog person, but they decided to come along whenever I left the compound, and I was not going to get into a confrontation with two dogs, one of whom came up to my hip and loved to chase goats. I got used to having them trotting along beside me and in time I came to rely on them. I thought I left the US with my sense of direction intact, but in Botswana, at the bottom of Africa, I kept getting lost. The dogs always knew where we were, even if I didn’t.
            When I returned from my father’s funeral to find Felix missing—presumed poisoned by an angry goat owner—it was Spike who got up and trotted along with me every time I opened the gate. We walked our grief together. He padded alongside me to the bus and waited until I got on. He accompanied me to school and waited all day until I was ready to return home. At night he slept on the step across my doorway. No man ever treated me so well. And for nothing. I did not feed him, did not even touch him. Where did this devotion come from? Another volunteer said she was sure African dogs attached themselves to white people because they knew we wouldn’t hurt them. A dog in Africa is a desperate beast. My landlords did not feed their dogs, did not even give them water. If Spike or Felix, driven by hunger, managed to kill one of the landlord’s chickens, they were beaten. And yet the dogs stayed faithful to the compound. I didn’t speak Setswana but apparently I spoke Dog. I talked to Spike quite often and he always responded.

            Towards the end of my term, when the drought was taking its toll and Spike’s age was holding him back, I intervened. He was leaving the compound less and less and when he did he usually returned the worse for wear. His ribs became visible and scabs appeared on his head and torso. I began giving him half my dinner each night and made sure there was water available for him. When my landlady tied him to a tree and left him lying in the sun to keep him away from the bitch in heat I fashioned a sunshade for him.

            Finally I convinced my landlady to allow me to take him to the SPCA in the capital. There they dressed his wounds, put him on antibiotics, and guaranteed him a home until adoption. It took a few months, but after I had returned to the states I received word that Spike was healthy and living with a family.

            It’s not the work I expected to do in the Peace Corps, it’s not really sanctioned by the Peace Corps, but it’s probably the most satisfying thing I did—saving Spike.

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.