On a Monday, in the dead of the Kalahari Desert summer, I had a 2 p.m. meeting scheduled with the village doctor, a man from the Zambia border region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who accepted the Botswana government’s offer because, unlike his own, this is a peaceful country. There have been no bloody revolutions here, no fissures between races.
I had been to the clinic several times before. I stop by simply because my new life consists largely of seeking out hives of human activity that are not bars so that I don’t have to be alone all the time. Between this and spending nearly 30 percent of my waking hours immersed in cool bath water to stave off heat stroke, I am very busy. Anyway, there are few such places in Sese and, though I work with the school, helping out at a clinic stupidly seems like the kind of thing someone who has just arrived to volunteer in Africa should be doing, even if that person has no medical background whatsoever. So they know me there, and the nurses have given me little nicknames and want desperately to braid my hair. They often take great joy in weighing me and and if I happen to weigh a few ounces more than the last day, they are thrilled to be able to inform me that I am “getting fatter and fatter!” A great compliment in Botswana culture.
I usually sit next to Cecilia, a 27-year-old nurse who claims she is older than me because she has two children and I have none. I do her job for her, which is to count out pills from really big bottles and put them into smaller ones. She lets me do this both so that she doesn’t have to and so that she can methodically convince me to take her to America as my maid (both the school principal and vice principal – two educated, intelligent women – have made the same request). As I count, she strings together passing and loud commentary about the patients who present themselves at the window in front of us. This one is insane. This one is HIV positive. This one smokes too much marijuana. This one’s smokey blue eye hasn’t worked since the 90s when someone threw a rock at it. If they understand English, they make no sign that they are aggrieved by this betrayal of their privacy. Sometimes she interrupts her flow to attend to a tuberculosis patient in a breezy room to the right, where the windows are always left open to prevent the nurses catching it.
Occasionally, I do a pointless little lap around the clinic, unable to communicate with anyone, pretending to be “getting to know the community.” I take on this task by picking up people’s babies and patting children on the head if they don’t squeal and run away from me before I can get to them. Sometimes I go back into Cecilia’s room (there might be an official name for that room, but this is what I call it) and guiltily use hand sanitizer after these laps. I hope I stop doing that.
But anyway, I had a meeting on this particular day and when I made my entrance into the clinic, I was greeted by the aftermath of the apocalypse. There was not a single soul inside the clinic. Nobody to guard equipment or medications or to attend to patients, though there were none. I checked in Cecilia’s room and the doctor’s office and rolling chairs were cast to the sides of rooms everywhere, looking as though their previous occupants had stood up from them aggressively. Whirling fans were the only sign of civilization and, without patients and nurses hustling about, I was free to realize how loud and knocking they are. They continually threatened to fall from their perches and decapitate me. I had just walked 30 minutes in the mid-day heat to get there and was looking for somewhere to sit down when I realized that the benches I always see sardined with patients are missing most of the boards that are supposed to act as seats and that those that remain are either crooked or splintered. I sat on the floor and surveyed what else sat on the floor – a few bricks, empty bags of chips that read “monkey gland flavored!” being tossed about by the fans, crumpled papers, pill bottles and string left by a mop that had once, presumably long ago, been used to clean the floor. I saw a broom in the corner and noted the little piles of beetles that the sweeper had created in several places, somehow paying no attention to the trash. Flies were ever-present. I read a sign informing patients that “pregnant people and prisoners” do not have to wait in line.
As I sat, I noted that without the human pulse to distract me, this is what the clinic looks like. I also realized, after looking again at the time, that absolutely nothing was wrong. Everyone was simply on tea break.