The First Moments We Were Alone
If you know me you know, and if you don’t I am informing you, that I very recently became a member of a U.S. government-sponsored organization called the Peace Corps. What this means most immediately for me is that two months ago I moved out of my apartment in New York City and in with a 78-year-old African woman called Eunice.
Four days ago I hugged Eunice, repacked the two duffel bags that constitute everything I own, climbed into a stranger’s pick-up truck and drove nine hours to what will be my home for a further two years. It’s a sparsely populated village in Sub Saharan Africa called Sese. You can’t find it on a map but you can find a speck of a town called Jwaneng, Botswana and imagine me 20 kilometers south of it. That one they documented because of the diamonds they haul out of a crater there. I wrote the following the day after the pick-up truck drove away and I was finally alone.
I wanted to begin writing in this state to document it. I know that my memory of this will smear when I adapt and normalize, and that the truth of these first moments will be lost.
The land changed on the drive from Serowe. It became lush and then it became bolderous and then it became raised swaths of earth, capped by enormous plateaus. Mountains that never peak. Then it became sand and we were there. We drove farther into the sand, snaked around tin shacks and plots of land, ownership asserted by fences of tree branch and wire. In the dark, I collected a stove and lifted it into the truck, surprised by my ability to lift it. I saw great holes in the ground surrounded by mounds and wondered what lives inside of them.
We pulled up alongside a woman and inquired as to where the teacher whose name I knew lived. The teacher who knew where my house was. We were told to count six houses ahead and hers would be that one. I knocked on the door alone and was grateful for the recognition in the woman’s face when I said my greeting and my name in Setswana. She was enormous on top and small on the bottom and holding a four month old baby, whom she handed to me so that she could collect keys. I worried that she was too old to gracefully get into the truck’s high cab but she was practiced and limber and directed us to the house as I held her daughter’s child.
The house is much, much nicer than the shacks around it. The floor is tiled, the door is wooden, there is a ceiling, there are walls of concrete and they are painted light blue and the rooms are large. There are two tables, three chairs, a chest with drawers terminally off their tracks and a bed. I’d been told to expect nothing.
The truck pulls away and I am left using the light from my Nokia to locate candles. I light six of them, in different rooms. In a cabinet I find an ancient candle holder that delights me and I enjoy carrying it from room to room. I remove my mattress from the front bedroom and drag it to the back where there is a curtain, being careful to avoid the candles on the ground. The sky burns intermittently with lightning. I have purchased tomatoes and crackers on the drive and I sit in the corner of the room watching the lightning through the windows, eating off the one tin plate I purchased in anticipation of this moment. I’m unable to wash the tomatoes because the little water I was able to get from the tap I’m afraid not to save for drinking. I don’t know when there will be more. I walk the perimeter of the house in the lightning storm and look for a standpipe with the light from my Nokia, but am unable to locate one. I collapse, still thirsty, onto the mattress and sleep for 9 hours.
My alarm at 6 a.m. confuses me. I wake up and pace. I’ve given myself 30 minutes to prepare to leave for the school. I hope I remember the way through the sand. I need more sleep.
I scrounge through a pile of semi-dirty clothes that I haven’t yet been able to unpack. The least wrinkled item, something that covers my tattoos. I’m able to get an inch or so of water out of the tap and into a bucket to wash my face and teeth.
I trudge through the sand, unable to keep my normal pace, clumsy strides and working calves. I meet my neighbor for the first time. She exits her 6 by 6 tin enclosure wearing a blue jumpsuit and we meet at the fence. I stare into the desert that exists beyond her plot. She asks me if Saturday I will pay her to clean mine. My Setswana is terrible so at first I think she’s thanking me for cleaning the yard but then I concentrate harder and her real aim becomes clear. I look around me not able to comprehend what about my plot is not clean, as the abandoned one next to mine is full of empty beer bottles and dumped, dead brush. I tell her no thank you, I will do it.
I follow the children, dressed also in blue trousers and shirts. They – both the children and the clothes – are stained red in parts from the sand. We squint, they scare me. I try to remember they are just children. I think they want something from me. I decide I don’t know what I’m doing. That I have no skills, no incisive questions. Children walk around me and near me and close behind me, gawking. Asking for money. Not being able to hold my gaze. Looking at me with just as much amazement at my existence as I have at theirs.
The school head and I speak for an hour. The HIV rate is high because of the diamond mine nearby. A shiftless existence, workers coming, going. Men and women away from their families. Everyone drinking too much. I’m told they ignore their children.
A student of about eight years is marched in front of me and it takes me a moment to register the gash on the left side of his bald head that’s actively leaking blood in a trickle down his cheek and off his chin into the sand. I squint at him and at the boy who has evidently caused it. A thrown rock. I’m told this is what happens because the parents aren’t parenting. I’m told that when the kids stop coming to school – kids no older than 12 – it’s often because the mother is sick, dying of AIDS and the child must run the home. I stare at the bloodied child, not fully able to focus on him. His eyes won’t meet anybody’s and he stifles small sobs that are evident only in his hiccuping chest and streaming tears. His eyes register nothing. I want to feel something for this boy, but I don’t. I think only that I will write something down about it and I wonder if I’ll have the capacity to feel anything for anyone while I’m here and if that will matter. I don’t know exactly why I’m here but I know I hoped to feel something. One of many self-involved reasons for coming.
The school head says I must meet the chief so that he can tell the villagers that they have a visitor and that I must be left alone. I must be taken to the clinic, I must be taken to the homes of the children who no longer come. It can be done tomorrow. She tells me to go home, to rest.
I’m home, staring now out of my window watching donkey carts go by commanded by men in blue jump suits. Almost everyone I saw this morning was wearing a blue jumpsuit – men and women both. Men and women from the mines.
I pace, not knowing what to do. My brain will not normalize to this. Not yet. I sit on the porch, I eat a banana. Then cashews. Then an orange. I keep my mouth and hands busy so that I won’t have to be alone with my brain. Two years here. Can I be here for two years? I can feel the heat of the day coming, bursting into the slight kindness of the breezy morning and the absolute nothingness of my view. One of the men steering a donkey cart, he’s gone by twice now and I have confirmed it, is wearing a Santa hat. It’s October.