Chapter Tease: Dodging Africa

Just a little tease for those who have not yet read Dodging Africa. Here’s a Monday taste to complement your cup of Joe!

Chapter 2: Tom’s Lorry

Chief Tau’s Village, Bodiba

For a moment the smell of coffee fooled Tom and he thought he was in his mother’s house on Cape Cod. The rustling sounds were really waves crashing on the Chatham shore. But no, a second later the waves became the swishes of a straw broom. Mma Lilli was consumed with her morning ritual of sweeping the dirt compound outside Tom’s rondovel. Cape Cod dissolved and the morning sounds of the African village filled his hut.

Tom had over slept. Mma Lilli’s heavy broom work was a sign of disapproval that Tom should sleep so late on a Saturday. He groaned as he sat up in bed, lamenting the previous night’s sins and his African mother’s deliberate sweeping punishment that intensified the throbbing behind his eyes.

Pulling on his khaki shorts, Tom tried not to bend over too far. Never again would he share in the local brew with the village elders. It was not made for white men. Not only did he have a hangover, his gut felt distended and rotten. For months he had refused to partake in the pasty-thick, sour brew but realized that it had become a credibility issue with some of the men. Was he in or out? Was he a chumza of the village men or a white boy who was just a helpful and temporary fixture? Maybe fixture status was not so bad after all. It would have to do.

Suddenly the visual of him quaffing down traditional bojalwa beer became too much. Tom fell out the door of his hut, just making it to the latrine where his stomach reared up in revenge, shooting the foul bile into the hole. Shit-smell made him retch again and he reeled backwards on his heels. Tom stumbled out of the latrine, pale and dazed, his sour, swollen tongue a foreign object in his mouth.

Mma Lilli watched Tom’s discomfort, a smirk on her face and hands resting authoritatively on her hips. A cackle broke from her lips and she walked up to Tom with a towel and clucked her tongue. “Do not try to be a headman, Tommi. Your belly is white and soft, not black and experienced.” She cackled again and carried her large body across the compound to the cooking fire.

 “Very funny, Mmawe,” Tom replied weakly. “You’re slowly poisoning me. It’s a conspiracy, right?” Mma Lilli cackled even harder.

 “Yes, conspy-racy, you lie, you see.” She laughed even harder in delight over her poem.

 “You don’t even know what conspiracy means, I’ll bet.” Tom’s hangover was a source of obvious delight to Mma Lilli but he was not in the mood this morning. He had been in a shitty mood all week as a matter of fact.

 “If you can speak English and not American, I understand you, mosimane.” Tom scowled at Mma Lilli for calling him a boy and insulting his language. She pretended not to notice him any longer and walked around the side of the cooking hut.

Tom went to the washbasin on the table outside his hut. Every morning Mma Lilli heated a small tub of water for him to wash. Today he pined for his tiled shower back home which would have beat down on his cloudy head and pushed off the worst hangover of his life; or at least the worst since his arrival in Botswana almost a year before. It seemed longer sometimes. Maybe it was the distance from home.

He remembered how far away the states felt the day after he had arrived in Africa. When absolutely everything was suddenly different than it had been twenty-four hours before, a strange sense of time loss occurred. Nothing was familiar; there was no comforting context, no reference point that brought equilibrium. For a man who had always felt a certain degree of confidence, it was disconcerting to be suddenly naked and without the language and familiarity to clothe his discomfort.

Tom recalled his first morning in Botswana. The Peace Corps training site, where he was to spend ten weeks learning the language and culture of the Tswana, was on the grounds of a church that had certainly seen better days. It was a type of African Baptist branch, filled with severe pews made of black wood. An old, off-key pump organ sat in the rear, eventually becoming a practice area when his group had to learn the Botswana National Anthem for their “swearing in” ceremony.

That first day “in-country” was surreal. Was he really here? Was the sympathy of his mother and the comfort of his girlfriend really thousands of miles away in another world and at least two years from his grasp? It was early November, summer’s peak in Botswana. Heat wrapped itself around everything by seven in the morning, making sleep impossible. The crunchy straw mattress and squeaky springs on the cot did not help, nor did the weevil that had chewed noisily inside his foam pillow all night.

Everyone rose early in Africa. An endless cacophony of roosters and barking dogs served as a primitive alarm each morning. There simply was no way to sleep in. Although groggy from almost no sleep during the two-day trip from New York to Botswana and the training site, Tom felt restless his first day in-country. No set agenda had been provided to the trainees that first day, so the thirty volunteers roamed about the compound or quietly unpacked their bags, all in different stages of culture shock or separation anxiety. Having been abruptly ripped out of their safe zones, via a twenty-hour plane ride and eight more hours of buses and vans, the green volunteers looked to one another for that old feeling of cultural comfort. Relationships formed quickly and tightly among the group, the only link with what was and what they knew.

Tom decided to set out and explore the compound and surrounding village of Molepolole as everyone else was unpacking. Two other volunteers joined him, Sam from Idaho and Jill from Connecticut. The church compound was set back off the main road about a quarter mile. What struck Tom the most was both the brightness of the sun and the homogenous tan color that pervaded everything from the soil to the huts to the colors of the children’s tattered khaki school shorts. His baseball cap and Ray Bans seemed to tame the heat. Sam’s Stetson and the wide-brimmed straw hat that Jill wore did the same.

Idaho Sam was a cross between a cowboy and an environmentalist. Never without his bowie knife, he liked to whittle while he walked, crouching down every few yards to examine and identify a rock or lizard species, always verbally providing more detail than anyone cared to know. Jill was the youngest of the entire Peace Corps group. At twenty-one, she was still trying to figure out her thoughts and opinions on issues, and generally found it easier to adopt whatever theories and comments were provided by whomever she happened to be with. For obvious reasons, the Peace Corps boys liked sitting next to her at meals and on bus trips, her agreeable nature and California blond palette providing an attentive audience. Tom liked her too and as the weeks moved by quickly during training camp he sought Jill out at meals and for walks through the village hills.

While Molepolole did not have a true “center”, the post office shared an open area with a bottle store selling warm beer and spirits and a general dealer grocer selling one of just about everything. Feeling curious this first day, the trio entered the general dealer to scope out its wares and see how they would spend their meager Peace Corps allowance of one pula a day in training camp, and which they were told would increase to P125 a month once on the job. Before they had left the training compound, Tom had asked the site director how to say “hello” in Setswana. With this one word literally in hand — he had written it on his palm — Tom took his first stab at greeting a Motswana woman in her own language. But after saying, “dumela,” he did not know how to respond when the shopkeeper greeted him in return and then rattled off another sentence which seemed like a question.

Tom flushed red, shrugged his shoulders apologetically and said in English, “I’m really sorry but I don’t know Setswana yet.” He smiled broadly, his blue eyes flashing sincerity. The two Batswana women giggled and said they knew English and could teach Tom Setswana. As he was learning what to say after dumela, Idaho Sam was examining the enamel cookware collection and Jill the strange array of biscuits, sweets and chewing gum, all in packaging written in Afrikaans.

By the time they left the shop, Tom was happy. He had successfully communicated with Africans, purchased a faded black and white postcard to send to his girlfriend and found an African print shirt. He would wear it that night at dinner and impress the other volunteers. Tom also left the shop with his old confidence back. He could deal with being in Botswana. It was going to be okay.

That feeling lasted for a good five minutes until a green mamba crossed their path on the way back to the church compound, only a foot in front of Tom’s shoe. Fortunately, the mamba had its own agenda and quickly slithered through the tufts of growth that grew in the dirt-sand and provided excellent snake cover. It took a good ten minutes before Tom could no longer hear his heart beating in his ears.

A year had passed since that first day’s experience. To Tom it felt both like a long time ago and like it was just yesterday. He had not seen Idaho Sam or Jill since training had ended almost a year before. Both of them were stationed in the southeastern corner of Botswana, a two-day trip on dusty roads from where Tom was in the north. It would be nice to see Jill again. Tom knew that if he wanted more with Jill that she probably would not refuse. During their time at the training site, Tom and Jill quickly stumbled together, allowing the gin to let them do what they had wanted to since they met. They made clumsy love in the darkest of Kalahari nights, only seeing one another’s outline but making every touch count.

Now the thought of Jill in his bed caused the heat to rise in his cheeks and shorts. But she was the type of young woman who picked out the color of her wedding trousseau even before a first date. Tom had wanted Jill in his bed many a night over the last year, but not the relationship that would have gone with it. For this reason, he had not gone down to the capitol city even once and never bothered to answer Jill’s postcards and letters. He knew he was a shmuck. He also knew he would sleep with her again in a minute.

Suddenly a scream broke Tom’s reverie. “Tommi, Tommiwae, takwano, takwano, come, come!” yelled Mma Lilli. Pushing aside the rondovel door, Tom ran into compound where Mma Lilli was pointing to a crowd of villagers running and shouting with purpose.

Wa reng, Mma Lilli? What’s going on?” Tom shouted back.

Ga ke itse, Tommi.” She did not know either but the crowd of villagers was approaching their compound. Tom and Mma Lilli moved quickly out of the courtyard through the front garden, and met the crowd in the cart path in front of the main gate. An elder stepped forward, the chief’s brother, and his entourage grew silent.

“Mr. Tommi, we are needing your lorry. Chief Tau is felled by a leopard.” His brown, lined face suddenly fell, his bottom jaw quivering with the terrible knowledge of his brother’s fate.

Mma Lilli grasped the old man’s hands in hers and then turned the strength of her gaze on to Tom. “You must go janong ka bonako, Tommi. The life of our chief blows in the wind and he cannot be lost now.” There was not a question to be asked. Tom nodded.

The chief’s brother called Lesole’s name, and he moved his way forward through the crowd. Still winded from his four mile run through the bush, Lesole’s little chest heaved in an out and his face and neck glistened with sweat. A great fear also shone in Lesole’s eyes. He had to show Mr. Tommi where his grandfather was, but he dreaded returning to the evil, bloody spot. But his father needed him to be strong. He had said that to Lesole before he started running. So much running, but now he could not remember any of it. Somehow his legs and his fear carried him back to the village. Now his memory and his dread would lead him back to the leopard tree.

“I will show you. Come quickly!” Lesole grabbed Tom’s hand and began running with him towards the Land Rover parked in Mma Lilli’s side yard.

Tom had no time to think. What did he need? What did he have? “Wait, I need the keys. And, Mma Lilli, get some blankets and water, please, ka bonako.” Tom broke from Lesole’s grasp and ran to his hut. He grabbed the keys, a shirt and reached under his bed for the Peace Corps-issue first aid kit. What he would do with it he did not know since he had no idea what shape the chief was in. If Tom could get the chief to the regional health post, he might at least have a chance. What direction was that from the attack site? “Jesus,” he said to himself out loud. “I’m not ready for this.”

Water, bread, blankets and towels were tossed into the back of the Land Rover. Tom pulled out slowly while the crowd parted, allowing him through. Lesole sat tall in the passenger seat ready to navigate. Suddenly there was more shouting in the crowd and a nursing sister in a white uniform appeared at Tom’s window.

“Oh, yes, thank god, sister. Please get in.” Tom’s relief was great. Having the fate of the chief rest solely on his shoulders was not a situation he was relishing. Nurse Cloud was a thin, small woman whose unfortunate looks and terse demeanor had relinquished her to permanent spinster status. She was a government appointed village nurse who had completed two years in a secondary school, and then had two years of nursing training. While her medical knowledge was limited, she at least kept down incidences of diarrhea and infections in the village that arose from bad water and untreated cuts.

The crowd of villagers silently moved aside and watched the make shift ambulance gain speed as it left the village. Lesole shouted the first set of directions to Tom. He barely heard the small boy’s voice above the roar of the Rover’s engine and the fear of responsibility pounding in his ears.

# # #

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