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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.     

My 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 practitioner.      

Does everyone feel guilty when they leave?” I ask Mma Mafote, the woman who was first my landlord and maid, now my friend, priestess and shrink.

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 have been at the clinic two years, and that is reason to feel good, not guilty.”

#

My 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 a 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 like, 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.

I haven’t even 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.

Stay,” she says.

I’ll come back.”

Martin?” Mma 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 so that 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 hair I 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 glances at the clock on the wall and shouts to her children. “Oscar, Sara, wash up!”

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 yellow. 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 again.

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.

One 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 artisan.

For your 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 children 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.

During the meal, 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.

Mma Mafote nods. “First her sister, then the niece—pretty Dineo—and then Baby One. Gone.”

I demonstrate the practiced sympathy I learned from an American doctor my first month in Africa.

If you immerse you’ll never last,” the doctor told me when I asked how she dealt 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 hesitated. “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.

Unlike Mma Mafote, 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 Goodman CD in her new player, my gift for her fortieth birthday.

And now—” Mma Mafote gathers Mma Thoba near. “—we show you our moves.”

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 descant of her mother’s song, over Oscar’s, both spirited and clever, reenacting an argument overheard in town.

Husband, I will beat you!”

Wife, it’s only a bag of beans. Calm down!”

They chase each other out the front door, and I carry my beer onto the porch, where the air is locked and still.

Mma Thoba walks 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 to 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?”

Discomfited, she 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, smiling vaguely.

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.

Mma Thoba watches 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.” 

We stand to go back into the kitchen, and Mma Thoba begins to applaud. “Go! Go!” she shouts to the boy with the kite. “Go! Run!”

We cheer as the boy runs down the road, stirring up red dirt with his bare feet. “Go! Run!”

He runs faster.

Go! Go!” we scream.

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.




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Scott Warrender is a teacher, playwright, pianist, and composer. He lives in Seattle and teaches at Cornish College for the Arts.



After reading this story, an acquaintance suggested that I document all of my years spent in Africa. I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I had never been there, that the settings and characters were dredged from imagination and memory. Truth is, I like writing about average people who manage to get back on their feet after life knocks the hell out of them, whether they live in Fargo, North Dakota, or Mochudi, Botswana.





 





  


Copyright 2009