A True Story of My Sometimes Wayward Days in Botswana
“My daughter was Miss Teen Pantyhose of South Africa, you know.”
I knew it was critical to our plans for a ride back north to respond exactly right to this statement of obvious pride in her daughter’s accomplishment. It did beg the question, though, whether there was an adult Miss Pantyhose.
“Look at her. She’s gorgeous, isn’t it? My Scheherazade.” Miss Pantyhose’s mother picked up her daughter’s framed picture from atop the thick rimmed television.
My boyfriend and I nodded vigorously, both understanding the need to restrain our true thoughts. We swallowed snickers, absolutely necessary If we ever wanted to complete our trip up north and back home. The throat snorts stayed quiet, a larger objective at play.
“Well look at me,” the mother gestured emphatically, pointing at herself. “She’s obviously my baby. I bet you can’t guess my age. Go ahead, guess.”
I knew this would not go well no matter what I said. The bottle-blond, over-weight South African white woman was not the gorgeous specimen that her confidence seemed to imply. The term barfly kept repeating in my brain. I silenced it, like a fussy child squirming in a church pew. While I thought she looked 45 years old, I underestimated by ten years, thinking that strategy provided a real safety net.
“Uh, 35?” I couldn’t hide the reluctance in my voice.
She looked incredibly disappointed with my answer. All hope drained from me. My stomach turned. The bent of her mouth wasn’t happy.
“Well, I’m 36.” She was huffy and reached for her blue skinny box of cigarettes on the coffee table and lit one. I could tell: I had just been sent to useless-girl prison. My boyfriend stayed fairly quiet, rather unusual for him. He had that look he told me about. You just wish you were your socks, and focus on that. He was from Philly and that was a joke, of course. It meant you would do anything not to be in the current situation. He made affirmative noises in his throat. As a Marine during the Tet Offensive, he knew when to keep his mouth shut. It was all about survival.
The day continued to devolve.
It had begun with the deficit of having to hitchhike from the capital city of Gaborone to where we lived in Francistown, a not unprecedented travel mode for poor Peace Corps volunteers in Botswana. It was a four hour drive, or twelve hours and twenty-five bucks on the milk-run train, which stopped at every siding and town along the route. Hitchhiking was free or a few bucks gas money to the Batswana drivers, not so much the whites unless they looked like they expected it.
We were so damn poor, with our monthly allotment all but spent by about the 18th of every month. It was more expensive to live in a town like we did rather than in the bush. Especially when the village volunteers came to visit and used our place as a hotel. The gas that produced hot water and ran the stove-oven came from large cannisters behind the house, each one costing about one-fifth of our monthly income. Electricity and water were also costly. And food. Our country cousins rarely thought of this. They would just keep telling us how easy we had it. They had no electricity or running water in their poor village homes. Little kids would fetch water for them at 5 or 10 thebe a bucket, our equivalent of a few cents. When newly arrived in-country, I had read about this village-volunteer phenomenon called the “deprivation game” in a piece another city volunteer had written in the Peace Corps Botswana newsletter, a sporadic periodical written whenever someone got around to it. We, the city volunteers, did have it easier in a lot of ways, but we paid for that existence. The village volunteers would not only come to our houses and obliviously spend our money while bunking with us, they bragged they were even saving money out in the village. While ours ran out on the 18th. Luckily we had a credit account at the white-man butchery in Francistown. We used it liberally until the next pay day.
So with our hands flapping downward in the breeze, as is the Botswana hitchhiking method, mother of Miss Teen Pantyhose had picked us up in an older-make Mercedes. The kind that people buy who don’t have a lot of money to pretend they have money.
“I just have to stop by our house for a few minutes to grab some things and then we’ll be off.”
That was how we ended up in Mother Pantyhose’s house. The minute ended up being two hours and dread filled us, spilling over into high anxiety. You know when you get that feeling that things are not going to turn for the better and a deep sense of dread spreads through your body like poison ivy? That was this time.
Miss Teen Pantyhose herself made an appearance in the living room where we sat on a couch, a typical disinterested teenager, skinny, beautiful and sporting Walkman headphones (it was the mid-80s) and long, brown straight hair. Father of Miss Pantyhose also walked through at various intervals. He was what the apartheid regime had named “colored,” and looked white, almost I guess, but could never be white by the judgments of the super bleached fantastical real-whites of South Africa. Unfortunately, many in his South African racial band were miserable, wanting to be considered white because of the skewed and distinct apartheid advantages, while knowing they never would by the racist categorization, and hating that they had any Blackness in them. Tough situation on mental stability and the happiness scale. Father Pantyhose didn’t smile at us. He viewed us with skeptical paranoia.
And time ticked on and still there we sat. Some smartass guy, probably in his early 20s, thundered through the house after the first hour had ticked away, petulant and bent on revenge towards mother of Miss Pantyhose. We were not sure who he was and were afraid to ask, but he took her car keys and wouldn’t give them back. Then he left. My boyfriend later said he got the feeling Mother of Miss Pantyhose was fucking the petulant-one. That was after she made googly eyes at my boyfriend that insinuated a flirty comment like, ‘ditch your girlfriend and I’ll fuck you quick somewhere out of sight.’ But then she started making fried chicken for the journey; we both screamed in our heads. Too far back into Gaborone’s suburbs, we couldn’t walk out in over 100 degree heat back to the main road. We were fucked and we knew it.
Finally, the three of us departed. Boyfriend and I felt somewhat better. There was nothing now between us and home except for a few hours of driving. Or so we thought.
End of Part I.
From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast
For more from Lady Proverbs, go to PulayanaPress.com and the blog: WTF Happened: A Blog for Well-seasoned Women…and Others with Discriminating Tastes.