Picture of the Rains coming in Serowe (patti's village, where we painted Pooh) btw, this is her view every evening from her front step.
Wowee, 2011. I came home yesterday in Pax’s big flatbed truck. It was me, Pax (a tall Herero man who wears a cowboy hat and chews tobacco and speaks very little English), Tamaga (a light skinned San man, my counterpart, who has a strange resemblance to a young version of my father, thin but starting to show a belly, a weird sense of humor but always has a joke ready in a slightly crooked smile), and Isaiah (pronounced “EEE-ZAI-AH,” a short, skinny Motswana who always wears a bright red trucker hat and a pair of sunglasses, I’ve only seen his eyes on 3 occasions thus far). Pax speaks very little English, but because we travel so often together, I like to think that we’ve become good friends. I play with his kids and his large herero wife at home sometimes, even though none of them speak English either. These 3 guys are like my leprechauns at the end of a treacherous rainbow, whenever I come home from a long trip and see them in Ghanzi, waiting for me to ask them for a ride, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, give them each a big handshake, and think, “Man, I like New Xade.”
Around 4PM yesterday, Pax, Isaiah, Tamaga, and I pack into the cab of the big flatbed truck and load in a dozen or so kids from the Ghanzi farms on their way to school. We also pack in some villagers, including some friends of mine, and all our little parcels and packages of food and material from the town. As we set off on our regular route, Tamaga occasionally turns around to ask me how I’m doing. I’m starting to feel more tired than I’ve felt since I arrived in Botswana when he turns around and asks me, “What are you expecting?” Huh? I thought for a second that he was speaking in reference to the men I finally hired to clean the makgunda from my yard, why would he ask me that? He pointed to the sky ahead which had grown eerily dark and cloudy. “Rain?” was my answer. “Pula!” he said, and then Pax did a funny sort of high-pitched Speedy Gonzales laugh as he pulled out of a pothole in 1st gear, slammed on the gas, and leaned back in his seat so his large body was a flat as a plank. The truck rumbled and jumped and I looked behind me at the people and kids wrapped in their blankets as their bodies bounced a few feet off the bed of the truck.
A few minutes later, I watched out of the window as the rain came and eventually turned into torrents. Behind me, in the truck, not a person could be seen. Everyone hid, lying flat against the flatbed with their blankets held over them. They looked like one large, shivering patchwork quilt. Tamaga looked behind us and asked me guiltily if I had any blankets or a jacket I could lend them. I had nothing, and my own hair was standing straight up and down on my arm in defiance to the cold weather. A few minutes later, no sooner had the storm died down when I heard a very loud, almost cartoon like “WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!” A tire had deflated. The sound was so cliché, I almost thought it was a joke.
Everyone climbed out of the truck, me last, cause I was convinced it wasn’t real, and the men got to work. They were like a well-oiled machine. 3 men salvaged parts from 2 extra tires in the back. 1 man began unscrewing the bolts from the flat, and Pax stood and watched. The kids and the women, eerily enough, immediately ran to the bush on the sides of the road and picked berries from the trees. A few minutes later, they had moved beyond my line of vision, but I swear to God, I could still hear a harvesting noise, like the sound of a stick on a washboard or wooden fence, that sounded almost exactly like the sound effect in the video game Age of Empires, when the peasants are gathering food. I don’t know how much time passed, but soon enough later (after I helped to unbolt 3 screws from the tire—why on earth do these massive tires require 10 bolts to keep them on? What genius engineer decided 10 was optimal? I bet he just thought 10 was a pretty number but never thought to himself what the practical implications of “10” are!), another truck drove by and all the women and children gathered their stuff and switched vehicles. Tamaga suggested I go with them if I wanted to go faster, I said I was ok to stay. And I was. I was enjoying myself quite a bit. After the truck had left, he then said, “This is why there are no women in Botswana, you see how those women reacted? As soon as there is trouble, they run away.”
As the men started cleaning up their handiwork, Tamaga showed me some wild green things that he said provides salt, I imagine he was replenishing his electrolytes after all the hard work of changing a tire from a large flatbed truck. It tasted pretty good and I felt pretty cool, standing there in the aftermath of a storm, eating wild green things, in the wide open bushland. I’ve realized I’ve spent so much of my life in enclosed places, my house, the car, the office, the city, that being out there surrounded by trees and clouds for as far as the eye can see--- it was really pretty neat.
The Stuff Even Peace Corps Can’t Prepare You For
When you join the Peace Corps, I’d say they do a pretty good job of sending you pamphlets, letters, packets, and papers to prepare you for your journey. They brief you on medical tips, traveling tips, packing tips, working, language, and culture tips, and they tell you that the trip will be hard, you will miss your family, you may even see people die. But nothing they can tell you or write to you about can prepare you for that moment when the frailty of life lays out in all its glory naked in front of you.
Almost a month ago, my friend died. Only this week did I have the guts to face our friends about it. I found out details about her death that I never wanted to know. Details that made her absence even more real and finite. Her shop is closed, locked up indefinitely; her house, empty and dark. Her family, I’m told, has left town for the time-being, perhaps to grieve, perhaps to brood. Her death, not only unexpected, was wrought with mysteries and frustrations. Apparently, she didn’t have to die. Apparently, someone did something wrong after the accident, and her life could’ve been saved.
2 weeks ago, our village had a funeral for a 5 year old. Today, an 8 year old was raped and another child ran away from the hostels all by himself. I sat next to my counterpart as he held my hand in his lap and buried his head into his arm. When he looked up, his face was puffy, but his voice was calm. We talked about our options. Then we stopped talking. We had no options. The best we could hope for was that a car from Ghanzi would find the child. We had no resources, no transport, no back up plan. I could tell he was disappointed. Maybe it was his face mirroring back at me, but I thought I also saw failure there. Failure to intervene in time, failure to stop more pain from entering this community, failure to be able to do anything about it. At that moment, I realized. No amount of Peace Corps programming, no volunteer project, no youth center or tutoring program I can create in my 2 years here could be enough to pull these people out of the intense feeling of failure and misery they endure on a day to day basis, the result of being displaced from their homes and cultures and told to live in a world and life that is void of options. It’s like walking in a desert at noon with the sun burning a hole through your back, your head, your feet, and not seeing a single tree to hide under. I know that feeling now.
The moment before my counterpart appeared, I was thinking about what could happen here that could help these people, a conversation I have with myself daily. The only conclusion I come to these days is education. Like my counterpart, there exist a handful of bright, motivated, hard-working individuals who want nothing more but a tertiary degree so that they could be successful, and in Tamaga’s case, so that he could come back and help his community. If only there existed some fund that would do just do that. Send a hardworking San individual to school, regardless of his age or sex or occupation, so that he could return to this community and be the one to empower, teach, and guide his people. No more black and white talk about “these people,” no more complaints of communication or cultural barriers, no more feeling of defeat and failure at the hands of an educational institution, no more coming home from secondary school just to be a drunken bum, like your mother, your father, and your uncles before you…
1.21.2011 As of right now, the child who ran away from the hostels is still missing. It's been around 29 hours and it's been raining intermittently. My counterpart estimates he may have gotten as far as 20 km as of last night. Ghanzi is around 108 km away. No one has seen the child on the road yet. We all hope he is doing ok. We still don't have a vehicle to go looking for him.