Only the froggy
croak of a secretary bird.
No lush sounds like
full rivers or wind through hedges of bougainvillea. Not in this part
of town, where the red dirt is trampled smooth and wooden buildings
like storage sheds are people’s homes.
first week in Mochudi, I was convinced that if someone were to upturn
the packed soil, dormant seeds would sprout. Now, two years later, I
am returning to Toronto because I feel the need to reassemble myself.
The mission hospital and clinic will have to do with one less nurse
everyone feel guilty when they leave?” I ask Mma Mafote, the
who was first my landlord and maid, now my friend, priestess and
Mma Mafote sets a
plate of dried fruit and sour pap on the table. “What exactly did
you think you were going to accomplish here?”
A voice shouts
outside the open door, and a little boy runs down the dirt road
towing a newsprint kite, dangling it in the air only a few feet from
his outstretched arm.
Mma Mafote smiles
and shakes her head as she pours two glasses of chibuku—the
bitter sorghum beer I love. “You
been at the clinic two years, and that is reason to feel good, not
first day in
Botswana I sat at this table and asked Mma Mafote what it was like to
inherit her grandfather’s farm, to marry a young hunter and start
family, to lose everything when he became sick and died. Even though
I barely knew her, I asked Mma Mafote those questions.
“What is it
you ask me? To what can I compare it? It is like my life.”
Now on the
outskirts of Mochudi, on the edge of the expanse called the veldt,
Mma Mafote waits for the day when the first sign of illness appears
in her. When it does her children will travel to Cape Town to live
with distant relatives. She has made the arrangements.
packed,” I say.
She kisses her
finger and places it on the thumbtacked photo of her children with
me: three faces shining, washed wet from a rain shower we didn’t
expect, our mouths open in crazed joy.
Mafote lays her palm on my head and tilts it back so we’re eye to
eye. I am endlessly fascinated by the tangle of braids collapsing in
every direction, and she shakes my head gently to get my attention.
“Over the years many nurses have come here to make a difference.
You, my sweet man—” She leans closer. “You came here
when you leave you will take me, my children, my town, and this
country back with you. But our memories will be heavy.”
She leans away,
presses the small of her back, and stands straight with a short
groan. “Heavy. Like me.” She laughs and musses what little
have left. “You white boys and your flimsy hair.” Her ring
catches and yanks as she pulls her hand away, and she lays a single
blond strand carefully on the table. “My apologies.” She
at the clock on the wall and shouts to her children. “Oscar,
In the next room,
her orange and blue headscarf with its matching skirt, mbaco,
is laid out over a chair next to her daughter’s purple and
This is what they will wear tomorrow morning when they accompany me
to the airport. They will stand and wave, and bright orange and blue,
purple and yellow will be the colors I leave here and never see
Our guests arrive
as Mma Mafote prepares the afternoon meal. Two women from the clinic,
a neighborhood family, and one of Mma Mafote’s English
students, Mma Thoba. We are surprised to see Mma Thoba even though we
invited her, as she has never, in over a year of English lessons,
said one word to me.
of the women
from the clinic gives me a palm leaf basket she has made, and the
other woman gives a crushed ostrich-egg necklace from a local
girlfriend.” She giggles.
"I thought you were my
girlfriend," I say, and she covers a slotted smile with her hand.
We sit around Mma
Mafote’s kitchen table and drink beer, eat seswaa—simmered
beef and corn mush—and tell stories of the day, while the
play a version of tic-tac-toe called Nine
Men's Morris in the other room. One of
the guests has brought a bottle of a cream liqueur called Amarula,
and we smack our lips over it, acting drunk.
Mma Thoba walks out to the road, sits on an overturned plastic
bucket, and smokes a cigarette.
“Her niece would
have been ten this week,” one of the women says.
“First her sister, then the niece—pretty Dineo—and
I demonstrate the
practiced sympathy I learned from an American doctor my first month
“If you immerse
you’ll never last,” the doctor told me when I asked how she
with the disease that continues to cap off lives, families, and
lineages. “You have to ride the misery like a world-class
surfer—somewhere between unfeeling and feeling.” She
“But more unfeeling.”
Mma Thoba stands in
the threshold of the doorway again. With her shorn hair and large
pouchy eyes—dark almonds in bloodshot ponds—she has the
face of a
fifteen-year-old gone saggy with age. She wears rings on both hands
and a large bracelet on each wrist, one overloaded with silver charms
and the other with large red, blue, and ocher beads.
who appears to weather with her grief, Mma Thoba has taken each
tragic punch full-force. No amount of jewelry can hide the damage.
“I was promised
dancing,” she says.
Mma Mafote lets out
a whoop and throws both hands in the air, and the rest of us move
chairs and tables while she puts a Benny
in her new player, my gift for her fortieth birthday.
Mma Mafote gathers Mma Thoba near. “—we show you our
There is wicked
heartfelt laughter as we jump and twist to The
Jersey Bounce in
the two cramped rooms. The children join us, and holding hands with
arms stretched taut we are charm bracelets, spinning, shimmering,
tossing sweat into the air.
Our party ends
early when we realize the day is too hot for dancing, and the
sunlight is almost gone as Mma Mafote begins to scrub the dirty pots
and dishes. Mma Thoba is out smoking by the road again, and the
children are in their bedroom. I hear Sara’s voice, a high
of her mother’s song, over Oscar’s, both spirited and
reenacting an argument overheard in town.
only a bag of beans. Calm down!”
other out the front door, and I carry my beer onto the porch, where
the air is locked and still.
over from the road, sits next to me on a board spanning two empty
chicken crates, and together we watch the foot traffic in the sunset:
two men returning from town with a large cage of hens, a patchy dog
sniffing a tree and darting away, an old man riding a bike with a
white kitten in the basket. The man rings the handlebar bell again
and again, just because he can.
“Have you been
Disneyland?” Mma Thoba asks in her thick Bantu accent.
I remember our
family trip when I was eighteen, young enough to be impressed and old
enough to notice the missteps in all that choreographed happiness.
“Yes I have. Why? Did you want to go?”
wipes sweat from her forehead with a paper napkin. “Oh no. Not me.”
She opens a locket on a silver chain around her neck, leans toward
me, and shows me a tiny photo of a young girl hugging a Mickey Mouse
doll. She squeezes her lips together, squints, and looks away,
Out on the road a
teenage girl walks by with a yellow umbrella. She stops in front of
us and collapses it, stabbing it into her shoulder bag because now
the sun is only a golden splat on the edge of town. A little girl in
diapers straggles behind her, dragging a large branch that scrapes a
line into the dirt.
the baby girl. I am allowed to see her joy and fortitude flowing full
and strong, and, along with it, more hurt than what is fair. She
smells strongly of sweat and beer and cigarettes but I know I am in
the presence of fierce life.
The boy with the
kite runs by again, this time in the direction of the setting sun.
His white shirt now an amber fire.
“Do you want to
know the truth about death and life?” Mma Thoba looks out toward
something, nothing. “They are very, very good friends.”
stand to go back into the kitchen, and Mma Thoba begins to applaud.
“Go! Go!” she shouts to the boy with the kite. “Go!
cheer as the boy
runs down the road, stirring up red dirt with his bare feet. “Go!
“Go! Go!” we
Mma Thoba stretches
both arms toward him and flecks of light dance on the charms of her
bracelet. As the last threads of day pull away, the boy kicks up a
haze of dust and disappears around a curve in the road.