As the Mercedes pulled over to pick us up, the boyfriend and I looked at each other with hope. Until the car sputtered to a halt.
The white man rolled the window down and I bent to talk to him. Yes, he was headed to Francistown! Then the ‘but’ came.
“I have to stop at the job site first and switch out this vehicle. It’s got a problem. Will just take a few.” Another South African, the guttural accent unmistakable.
Looking back at my boyfriend he gave me a nod, yet his face reflected someone in the first stages of food poisoning. We both felt poisoned by the day.
“Great, thanks.” I got in the front and boyfriend took the rear. He eyed the South African looking for any signs that the chap’s interests weren’t aligned with ours. He leaned forward.
“What type of work you doing in Botswana,” my boyfriend asked.
“Working on an electrical substation. Just near Foley Siding, if you know where that is.”
“Oh, yeah, I know where it is,” I chimed in. I’d been in Botswana a year longer than my boyfriend, and knew the landmarks a bit better. “About 20 klicks outside of Francistown.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Our camp is just a quarter klick off the main road.”
“Great.” My tone didn’t reflect the hyperbole of my word choice very well. By then it was starting to rain a little, the drops hungrily absorbed by the dry earth.
The South African’s camp was a work site trailer suited out half camper and half office. It was plain but bright, with large windows that allowed a clear view of the outside. A kettle for tea water was on the small gas stove, and dirty cups and silverware sat beside the little sink.
He offered cold drinks and we accepted, as grateful for the distraction as to quench our thirst. Boyfriend and I sat at a table on a padded bench, exchanging the usual small talk with the South African. As with others of his nationality, he responded with a somewhat distrustful look when I mentioned being a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. Like I was going to report them to the morality police. Which means they knew their shit was weak, as my boyfriend from Philly would say. It’s a good saying.
White man had that look in his eyes when he spoke to me, like I was a ham sandwich that he really wanted to gobble up. It’s not enjoyable being on the target side of this male projection. Boyfriend noticed it too. Between growing up in Philly and being in the Marines, he rarely missed a trick.
South African went out to his two pickup trucks. Another man joined him, who looked like a sidekick kind of guy, the assistant, the wingman of lesser rank. There were a few other small buildings, more like block shacks, with zinc sheet roofs, and he must have been in one of those. He was mixed race, a fact only important to the South Africans who, at that time, had an adherence to a color bar hierarchy, tyrannical and murderous if you weren’t white, which also defined the level of job a non-white could rise to. Between the two South Africans, truck hoods were lifted, tools fetched, with the white man running in and out of the trailer, getting tools and repeating he would just be a second.
We watched, wondering in whispers to each other if we should wait this out or head back to the road on our own. We were numb at that point, having tamped down our emotions so that we didn’t totally lose it. We still had miles to go before we slept, as a wise poet once said. The camp yard looked desolate, with an unfriendly mishmash of machinery, piles of metal and wooden poles, tires and dangerous looking barbed wire in random places. The gray skies set a gloomy mood.
The South African returned with his plan.
“So we can’t all fit in the same Hilux, so Di you ride with me and you (he pointed at boyfriend) ride with Aggi here.” Suddenly Aggie’s big head filled the doorframe.
Something wasn’t quite right, but it wasn’t all completely registering yet. Boyfriend’s face had a sheen of distrust. Separating us wasn’t sounding right. Neither of us liked that. Aggi left and we heard him trying to start the tan Hilux that he would drive. The engine wasn’t catching.
“I can sit on his lap,” I put my hand on my boyfriend’s leg. “It will be a bit squishy but we can manage. It’s only a half hour drive, or even less.”
“Yeah, Di will sit on my lap. We’ll manage it.” Boyfriend put his arm around my shoulder, settling in to his firm territorial stance.
Just then Aggi was back.
“The Hilux not starting, Boss. We’ll have to take the blue one.”
The white South African had a look on his face like some masterplan had been foiled. He said something under his breath and went out the door to the broken car.
“You’re not leaving my side. This is important. This is serious.” My boyfriend said, after white Boss had left the trailer. I wondered if he was over-reacting, but he was more worldly wise than I was. He was several years older and had gotten through Viet Nam, the 60s, and a stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa. This was my first foray out into the big, bad world.
Ten minutes later the four of us were on the main road again, headed to Francistown, all in the front seat of the pick-up truck. Aggi was driving, white Boss in the middle, and me on my boyfriend’s lap. It was raining, Botswana style, so still hot and humid despite the gray skies. The front seat quickly became stifling so I opened the window a crack for some relief. Splatters of rain began hitting the back of my neck. I leaned heavily on the door so not all my weight was crushing my boyfriends legs. That effort made one of my legs tingle with a cramp.
It was apparent that white Boss wasn’t happy, his body language somewhat huffy. Certainly he was regretting having picked us up, as his thighs touched the men on either side of him. He didn’t seem the type of person who would go out of his way to help someone else if there wasn’t a benefit in it for him.
“What part of Francistown you live in?”
“Near the Erietta Cafe, if you know where that is, close to edge of town, kind of where the Zimbabwe road starts. There are some flats there, in a three story building.” I couldn’t really look at him as I talked, there wasn’t even enough room to turn my head all the way. My head was a half-inch from the top of the cab.
“Yah, I know it. Lots of Indians there.” Then he and Aggi conversed in Afrikaans for a minute. They knew we wouldn’t understand.
My boyfriend spoke up.
“If you’re not headed in that direction you can drop us anywhere. That would be great.”
“We can give you a lift to your place. It’s a small town. We’re staying at the Tati Hotel tonight. Border is closing in a half hour so we won’t make it.”
“You headed to Zimbabwe?”
“Yah. Some good hunting there. The police are so dumb and drunk you don’t really need any permits up there. I got a cousin who can ship out skins and it’s easy to give meat away there, no questions asked. Everybody’s fucking starving. Mugabe is ruining that country. It used to be nice there when it was Rhodesia.”
Neither of us were sure of a safe response, especially now that we knew there were probably weapons under the tarp in the back, where our suitcase was as well.
“You like teaching those Blacks?” He touched my arm.
“Yes. They are very good students. And no discipline issues like in the states. Kids really want to learn here. And their parents are paying a lot of money to send them.”
“You a teacher too?” He turned his head towards my boyfriend.
“No, I’m working on a World Bank project. Surveying the squatters areas so that water and toilets can be set up in the area, and access roads.”
“Christ, that must be a mess. Do you actually have to go into the area?”
“Yes, I’m doing the mapping. I enjoy it. Have met lots of very nice people. And they really need water sources and proper toilets near by.”
“You’re not nervous going in those squatter camps?”
“Not at all. I’ve lived in far more dangerous places than Botswana. Like Viet Nam. And Liberia.”
“Ah, you were in a war then.”
“Yes. I carried a machine gun. During the Tet Offensive.”
“Whoa. Maybe we should take you hunting with us.” Both white Boss and Aggi laughed. “Then I guess a few drunken Tswana won’t worry you.”
“Everyone’s been really welcoming. And the squatters areas are actually organized in many ways already. Everyone seems to really care about their houses. I get invited in for tea all the time. Lots of nice folks.”
“Well, I’m not sure why you Americans come to Africa. Believe me, you can never teach the Blacks anything. They pretend they’ve got something and then you find them ten minutes later drinking Chibuku under a tree.”
White Boss and Aggi laughed together, despite the fact that Aggi was part Black. I wondered if Aggi would be in trouble if he didn’t always laugh at Boss’s jokes. Non-whites in South Africa had mastered the survival skills to head off any violence against them.
“It’s been a good experience so far. Many of the people living in the squatters area have jobs they go to everyday. There’s no affordable housing for them in town except to build their own structures.”
“Lots of tin shacks, yeah.”
“Some of those. But also block houses and some rondovels too. Everyone seems to make improvements as soon as they get more money.”
White Boss made a noise in his throat, skeptical and bored.
There was the traffic circle! I had never been so happy to enter Francistown, a rush of relief untensing my muscles. Boyfriend squirmed a bit under me. He had self-described “chicken legs” and although I wasn’t overweight, even a child got heavy in a lap after a few minutes.
I directed Aggi to our place and minutes later we passed the Errieta Cafe which was just before our flats. Greeks owned the shop and were rather overbearing in their hospitality to white people. Depending on the time of day, they either insisted you drink a small white cup of thick coffee or a small clear cup of Ouzo. Either one produced racing hearts and blurry vision.
The gravel in the parking area of our flat crunched beneath the Hilux’s tires. Boyfriend opened the truck door and I spilled out. One knee collapsed but the other held strong, and I hobbled to grab our suitcase. While thanking them in an over enthusiastic way for the lift, white Boss asked if he could use our bathroom. The four of us climbed the stairs to the third floor.
I opened the door and immediately stepped back onto my boyfriend’s foot.
“What?!” He was exasperated and it hurt. I opened the door all the way and he saw it too.
All the lights in the apartment glared, arrogant and in charge, like an interrogator. The dining room table was full of dirty plates, pots, and silverware, with waded up napkins. Congealed gravy and shards of meat covered the plates. Water pooled next to a sauce pan lid, glasses partially filled with beer, and our African cooking pot, with its long handle for cooking over a fire. The small kitchen also overflowed with the detritus of a cooking event, the sink loaded with dirty dishes, the drainboards full of food boxes and vegetable remnants.
“Holy shit.” My boyfriend looked around trying to take it all in. “Cathy and Keith. Didn’t we say they could stay here?”
“Where are they?” The apartment was quiet.
Just then I remembered white Boss and Aggi. They were looking incredulous at the mess and sticking close to the door. In white households in South Africa, a Black servant would have come and cleaned up this train wreak.
“Sorry for the mess. Looks like we have company. Here, I’ll show you to the bathroom.” I walked Boss to the end of the hall where the bathroom was. As we passed the spare bedroom we both looked in. Clothes were on the floor and hanging over the end of the bed. Two open suitcases had more disheveled clothes, spilling out like a lava flow.
Aggi stayed next to the front door, looking uncomfortable. When Boss came back my boyfriend half-heartedly offered them a beer.
“No, no, we’re good, we need to get moving.” He looked around again at the mess, his nostrils wide as though he was smelling a latrine.
I chimed in. “Well thank you again for the lift and putting up with cramped quarters. Good luck on your project.”
Boyfriend added, “And happy hunting.”
We all did our best fake smiles. I was still so in shock that Cathy and Keith would just walk away from this mess that I was tongue tied. Had their mothers not taught them that it was verboten to trash someone else’s house and then go out?
The two South Africans backed out the door.
As it closed, we both plopped down on the Naugahyde chairs in the living room.
“Where the fuck are they?” The boyfriend asked.
“I bet they went to a movie. Cathy is starved of all entertainment.” A new theater had opened in town recently, the Cine 2000. It was 1983 and the name must have sounded modern, almost space age to the Indians who had opened it. Prior to this, the only movies in town were bad karate and Bollywood films shown in an empty storefront on the street next to the railroad tracks. It was only fifty thebe to get in. Viewers sat on old folding chairs, or when those filled up, the floor.
Keith was a development officer working with co-ops and lived in Gaborone in a modern flat. Cathy was a science teacher and lived in a small village about forty-five minutes northwest of Francistown. Theirs was a relationship fraught with discord, the five hour distance between them just one of the challenges. Keith was a Bostonian through and through, complete with a Kennedy-esque accent and Dorchester-Irish sensibilities. His father regularly sent him the Boston Globe, which would come weeks late, crossing oceans and deserts to reach him. We all watched him when we were in Peace Corps language training in Molepolole, smoking his pipe and reading the Globe like it was the bible. Cathy was an “Oregon girl” like I was, from a small town on the coast and a no-nonsense attitude. Before her and Keith got together he was conjoined with another volunteer in our group, Cici. She was also from Boston, snobby and full of a fiction of troubles. If Cici perceived that she wasn’t the center of attention, then some scene was created where her volunteer fans would glom on and comfort her. She was too much drama for me. I sensed she didn’t like me. I could also draw attention, not on purpose, and that was competition Cici didn’t appreciate. She finally became too much for even Keith, their Boston alliance weakening until it broke. Cathy had become Keith’s confessional as he struggled with his Cici relationship. Somewhere along the way Cathy morphed from priest to girlfriend, being more authentic and less needy than Cici.
Neither of us even tried to tackle the dinner collision that surrounded us. We were simply too exhausted, even to be that angry. It was more shock that someone would just walk away from it all.
Boyfriend pulled a joint out of his wallet and lit it. For ten minutes we sat, passing the joint back and forth. Neither of us talked. There was too much to say and nothing to say. An ashtray was between us on the coffee table, with three of Keith’s cigarette butts in it.
“He wanted to rape you.”
My lips parted but I didn’t say anything.
Boyfriend rose and walked towards the bedroom. We had lost this day.
The street light behind the flat cut through the space in the curtains like an uninvited guest. Squinting against it, I rose and turned off all the lights.
As I walked down the hall to the bedroom I pulled my shirt off and unhooked my bra. It stunk of the day.
Outside the cicadas buzzed in the moonlight. I pulled off the rest of my clothes and slipped in next to my boyfriend under the mosquito net. He was already asleep, the heavy breathing of exhaustion moving his chest up and down.
We were home. We survived.
[Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty.]
From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon coast.
Find more from Lady Proverbs at PulayanaPress.com.