Thursday, April 8, 2010

Month End

My Grandfather told me about how when he was a boy, country folk used to dress up to go into town. His aunts and cousins could be spotted from a block away—country girls in dresses sewn in colors so loud they made a sound as they walked down the street. Going into town was an opportunity to shine and to be noticed; that is what I think of when I am in Lobatse at month end and I see the old ladies wearing dukis and german print dresses and young women wearing new dresses and outfits that can still be spotted on manikins in shop windows. Even I try to avoid my holey jeans at month end and I wear a new crisp top and try not to sweat stains into the armpits. I comb my hair out nicely because as much as I hate the crowds, I enjoy watching the people in them. Everyone with a job is paid at month end and so at the shops there are specials and the specials bring crowds and queues and thick aired koombies. I love it and hate it at the same time. There’s an excitement that month end generates for me. I stand in lines, long, long African style lines where people in front of you say “I’m here,” point out their spot and then go into the grocery store to buy something and stand in another line while you hold their place whether you want to or not. Naughty children abound. Men gawk and say “hey beybee,” as we walk by but I love that women get dressed up to go into town at month end. I run into people I know and we exchange pleasantries. Month end is usually when I get free rides from people I know who see me hiking into town. Although Lobatse is nothing special—its mostly grocery stores, pharmacies, practical places like that—I enjoy watching people flood in at month end, men in their nice clothes, women in dressy dresses, things I would almost never wear outside of Botswana. These are clothes that are beautiful but far out of context in America (think, puffy sleeved dresses and ruffles). I lament that Americans don’t dress up anymore, with the exception of black people and immigrants and we’re all gleefully flamboyant, what most may call tacky. Most Americans don’t even try anymore. My holey jeans wouldn’t elicit a second glance back home. I’m soaking in the last of Lobatse’s pageantry at month end. I think of my grandfather and all the lady relatives who I did not know, all of whom dressed up to go into town to fetch groceries, run errands, exchange pleasantries with other people on the road in flamboyant colored dresses made especially for going to church and going into town.

Dark Night

Storm clouds are backlit by shadowy gray moonlight, moonlight that doesn’t reach the ground. The sky is deserted and throughout Pitsane the electricity is out because of the storm. It is dark tonight. There is no light behind windows except for the dim illumination, an inscrutable glow of weak flames gulping wax and wic. Through the windows to my house my candles burn tall flames because they've nearly been burned to a roach. Occasionally there is a bright flicker when a moth flies into the fire (it seems they really do that) but the night is saturated shades of black and blue; it really is a perfect picture of darkness. Usually I cannot see outside at night because there is a glare from the light emanating from inside my house; my house becomes a fishbowl, lit from within, but tonight a vague silhouette of trees and tin rooftops are visible. Solid things are black. The sky and space between solids is blue. I think back to when there were national brown outs when I lived with my host family during training in Molepolole. At least once a week we sat together as my host sister ambled through the dark for candles. We were never prepared but she knew the house well and always found candles quickly. I'd get my handcrank flashlight and my host nieces would play with it, taking turns cranking the handle, marveling at what a clever contraption it was. We would talk. We would talk about nothing in particular but I find myself sitting in the house alone, not even the cat is around, thinking about the times I sat with my host family in the dark, when we stopped watching the TV. In the dark is when people beginning to see each other; we begin to notice the things we missed in the light. We are searching for the things we cannot see.
The sky looks empty and starless, but then a round yellow hole in a blank sky leaks a shaft of light just as the power flickers back and collapses again. Soon after, my refrigerator groans back to life and the lights illuminate. The windows reflect the glare and show an image of myself against the cold glass windows. I close my curtains so that tsotsis cannot look in and I will resume distracting myself in the glare. A book. A novel. A movie. A couple songs on my Ipod. Once again, I am a cardboard cut out in a backlit box. I'll go to bed thinking to myself what I fool I was—the sky is never empty, for the blanker it looks, the more layers of clouds there are covering what’s cloaked underneath.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Jacaranda Trees

Someday I’ll have a house, and that house will be situated on a street lined in lavender jacarandas that rain little purple flowers in the spring. I'm even prepared to plant these trees myself, grow them painstakingly, because that will give me more to brag about over wine and cheese when the Peace Corps is a cocktail story—I’ll get sauced and make up stories about how I single handedly built hospitals or saved little baby kittens; Sensational stories on the cusp of implausibility that an average American will feel too stupid to question because after all, I was in the Peace Corps which makes me honest and good by default.
In my mind's eye my street looks similar to one of the highly stylized Chinese kung fu movies of late. I will have a terrace and a balcony and they'll be swallowed by ancient, thick purple bougainvillea. I will take afternoon walks through the lazy tarred lanes that are feathered with felled purple flowers. My children will take for granted the pink light bleeding through the canopy of blooming trees; the dog's only want will be to pee on yellow hydrants and scratch up grass over where he's urinated but I'll walk in quiet contentment under the smoggy LA sky and think of the beginning of the rains; I'll think of Botswana's "springtime" and all the things I took for granted back then (now), when my moods matched the sky's. Under a purple canopy, memories will become beautiful and tinged with a different colored light. I won't be able to see as clearly, but what I will be able to make out will look be a lovely misty purple, not bachelors’ button blue. I'll remember how I spoke choppy Setswana, and how much all of the children loved me (mostly, they're just unafraid). I'll laugh about the frustrations and remember how I called strangers mother or father as a sign of respect, how I hitch hiked here and there with little worry about my safety. I'll miss those things and I'll think of muted thunder clapping, of waiting for prolonged promises of rain. I'll think of the quiet taps on my tin rooftop, then of the rain like timpani drums and the thunder like cymbals; I'll remember the music of a deaf composer pouring on my rooftop.
When I immediately get home I’m sure the problems that seem so insurmountable today will seem less so because hindsight blurs the edges, the details, the feelings that small details engender. I’ll beat myself up for not breaking the tasks apart into smaller pieces and approaching them bit by bit. Gradually, hindsight’s keen vision will blur into memory and fade into nostalgia and I’ll remember Tebogo and Olebile’s birthday parties, or building a garden with Kamogelo, Aerobics Club practice, and watching soapies at Neo’s house. But today, I am in Pitsane and the pans are dry. Its been overcast for the past week and that brings hope for rain, but sometimes the clouds are plain empty, other times the rain just passes us by. The upside is that dolor hued skies look pretty when lit with jacaranda blossoms and that memory will stick to me harder than the names or faces of people who don't show up to VMSAC meetings, the counterparts, or the ladies who call me fat, and for that I am gratefu

Thieves in the Night

Back home I never noticed the moon much. I don’t pay it much mind here either, not until I looked up that night and against the clear black sky there was a large orange moon; a moon that looked like a sun, bright and full but dim enough to look at. It was a naughty version of itself. Like a lustful moon that wasn’t blushing, but rouged.
The moon bled clear bright light while a shadow of a man watched me through the side window of my house. Yellow light glowed from the single window with sheer domicile curtains. I laid on the couch right under the window oblivious and watching a movie on a laptop. My neighbors all go to sleep before I do but Oh, my latest “counterpart” woke up to go to the toilet. She spotted him through the naked bathroom window of her house and called me. She whispered. I always thought of her as such; a whisperer. One who says things in quiet hushed tones when you’re not around or not listening. But this time she whispered pertinent information—that a man was watching me through my side window. The first time I introduced myself to Oh was the night I went to a party in Good Hope with my then counterpart, KT. KT told me Oh would be the new social worker in Pitsane, so I introduced myself. Oh got up mid conversation and walked away. No goodbye or it was nice to meet you, or I have to go. She just left. That was the first time I put in effort but after all my efforts with KT, my patience was threadbare and so the next time Oh blew me off was my last effort. Though we communicate infrequently and in fake polite bursts, I get the impression that she resents my lack of effort. She’s put even less effort than I have. The office is right behind our houses. She lives next door to me. I’ll go weeks without seeing her but I know its my job to solicit people’s love and approval, its my job to be pleasant. I feel a little guilty for two half hearted attempts for her approval, but I just can’t stand being tolerated on good days, avoided or blown off on bad days and never genuinely liked and so I’ve found my own activities involving people who don’t mind working with me.

The night Oh called, to tell me that a man was watching though the yellow glow of my side window, that was the beginning of a change. After Neo and her boyfriend chased the thief away I felt “integrated.” Like someone cared about me. My neighbors. My community. They liked me. They saved me, right?
Several months later I read The Bluest Eye for the 3rd maybe 4th time and the phone call made much more sense. I love Toni Morrison. Her prose. Her insight. She can put ugly truths so beautifully. This time I recognized where Mos Def and Talib Kweli got the chorus for Thieves in the Night.
“Not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves (in the night) from life.”
Toni Morrison had described me and Oh, and so perfectly. The sandy sentiments all around me storming my head and sliding through my fingers: does she like me, does she hate me, should I have tried harder? Then there was the man looking through my window, Oh watching him through hers; the phone call, the whispering,. What I perceived as integration and genuine concern was just common courtesy. I thought about it. I’d have done the same for her. I’d have even done the same for someone I hated because we’re not compassionate, we’re only polite. We’re not good people, just well behaved.
That’s when my bleeding heart healed. I’ve healed and my heart is lame. Now it’s a machine more than an organ and I don’t spend as much time wondering if colleagues really like me. I sleep better at night with the measured beats of a pacemaker and not the fickle pump of a fleshy heart hungry for approval.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


The text message went thus: "I'm over this place. I just did a project which confirmed my frustrations with the people."
It was a simple statement. Something said out of frustration. We've all been frustrated. We've all said and thought fucked up things, we've generalized and buried our hard heads into our soft hands. But the sub-text gave me the emotional equivalent of the moment when you know you'll vomit, when your salivary glands keep producing thin clear spit and you feel sweaty and nauseous. Its the subtleties that sadden me. Not the people at his workplace, not the people who worked on the project, but he referenced the people. Them. His patience has spoiled and curdled and so he'll leave bitter, not angry at any one in particular, just those people; all of them. The world around him has been condensed and abridged into a low quality product for his convenience, like Ri-Coffi or Nescafe. For some, its better to just leave, and never come back.
It makes me think back to the benevolent teachers at WPHS, my high school. Some of the teachers would sit back and read the newspaper and tell you they got paid whether you learned or not. Some were optimistic and white. They were from Culver City or Santa Monica and they came to teach math or English because they wanted to make a difference. They would be like Hilary Swank and Michelle Phieffer in those movies, you know the ones. They hoped to make such a difference and have a profound influence but they inevitably left after a year or two. They left angry; chased away by our obstinate ignorance and our ingrained attitudes and un-motivations. These benevolent teachers tried to help us and we didn't appreciate their efforts, and so they went back to Lockhead Martin or to their advertising jobs and re-diffused into their white privilege. They remember their time at WPHS with spite and don't understand why those people, those terrible, terrible kids wouldn't let themselves be helped by qualified professionals who'd given up so much to teach there.
What they failed to understand was that in general, we had an ingrained hatred of fair weather friends who wanted to help us to make themselves feel benevolent and giving. If they didn't understand that, understand that we didn't appreciate them 'slumming it' to make themselves feel good, then it was better for them to leave and never come back. So when I joined the Peace Corps I kept my high school English teacher in mind, the old white guy who taught at my sketchy high school. He never lowered the bar, never took my bullshit, never gave up on me or any of us even though I half assed everything and consequently failed his AP test because of my laziness. He had the measured patience and understanding of a Peace Corps Volunteer because he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer. He was different from the others, he focused on what we could be, not what we were at the time and not what everyone believed we would be.


Biriyani. Have you ever had it? I did and it was delicious. My god. It was delicious but they fed us three courses. Course after course after course and it was delicious but we didn't pace ourselves. I had biriyani until I wanted to burst and orange colored pastries that tasted like donuts and spindly greasy yellow pastries that tasted like sugared lemon. I left happy because for the first time in my life I'm grateful to be invited to someone's house for dinner. So much of life is lived over a plate and whenever I'm invited to share I always come and I'm always honored to be there.
With Setswana food, its a plate over a plate. Two plates stacked on top of one another to make a flying saucer filled with food.
At homestay I cooked once. My host mom was away campaigning (she's a councillor) and my older host sister was away doing something. I was home alone with the kids and I wouldn't let them eat until everyone got back. I think about it now, and it was appalling but that's an American thing. We think its cruel for old people to be served first. They thought it cruel that I made hungry children wait until the old people got home before they could eat. I saw it as spoiling their appetites. In Botswana, meals don't need to be eaten together. You just need to make sure you dish for everyone.
A year later I eat my phaleche and I enjoy it. I find myself seasoning food with pure MSG and liking it. Generally, I season food with the cornucopia of spices in my kitchen. I live close to Lobatse which has a lot of Indians and so the grocery stores have every spice imaginable and some I've never heard of. I've asked Indian ladies to teach me to cook Indian food and they always oblige. I'm welcomed into their kitchen to learn to make Sambusa, how to fold it like a flag. They teach me to make chapatis, how to rotate it as I roll to make it even and perfectly round. I've been taught how to make curry and the difference between garam masala and mutton masala. I cook everything from Mexican to currys, but from time to time I'll make a Setswana dish, sprinkle it with MSG, and enjoy it.
When my neighbor's maid sends over a bowl of beans, I smile and clean the bowl with my spoon. I wash it and then return the bowl with biscuits or maybe mashed potatoes. I'm not sure you'll ever understand how I feel when she sends one of the children over to give me fatcakes and so when I get home and I meet a foreigner, they're automatically invited over for dinner. I can't imagine the loneliness of being away from home in America---a country where we don't invite people over for dinner, but "entertain." I can't believe that I'll go home to a place where its unheard of to send a child to the grocery store by themselves to pick up milk and eggs or where if someone pulls over to give me a ride, I have to say "no" because its unsafe to talk to strangers.


Don't get me wrong. I like my village and my house but every time I return to my house after a long time away its like I don't know the place. That split second after I open the door and flip the light switch, things are strange. The house has a smell. Not a bad one, but an unfamiliar one. I notice what a strange assortment of furniture I have, how the living room set looks like a Cosby sweater. Although I have more than enough furniture (a sofa, love seat, overstuffed chair, coffee table, desk and chair, book case complete with potted basil plant atop it, a large charcoal sketch on the wall) it feels hollow and I wonder if I need more furniture. I mull over in my mind; do I need a mini-rose bush to put by the desk? Is that what's missing? In a millisecond I am attacked by the Ikea nesting complex.
I dump my bags, coddle my ginger tabby cat, check the fuse box and re-duct tape the main switch up because its surely fallen down during my absence. I check the fridge to see if any food has spoiled during the electricity's hiatus. There's charm in the fact that I have all amenities, (running water, electricity, a water heater) and none of them work unless you know the trick-- how to duct tape it or jiggle it, cajole it into commission. I check my garden. Flowers always bloom in my absence. I greet my neighbors and thank them for watering while I was away and then the house is mine again. I promptly forget the hollowness until something bangs against my reality again, and I hear the empty boom.