September 26, 2007
She didn't know what she wanted
The man who appeared in the school yard at the end of second term. He likes to sleep against the outside wall of my classroom. When I talk to him--when anybody does--he just stares vacantly at something no one else can see. When I walk down to my classroom in the mornings, I see the bottoms of his boots at the corner of the building. The left sole has come off at the back and flaps like a mouth when he walks. No one knows where he came from.
The dream. When my Peace Corps group was in training two years ago, we stayed at a rest camp in Omaruru. The owners of the rest camp had just adopted the tiniest little baby girl I’d ever seen. We all used to take turns holding her and playing with her, and she never, ever cried. She just looked at us with eyes too old and too big for her sweet face. She’d been born prematurely to an alcoholic mother, and it was a miracle she‘d lived. I don’t even remember her name, but I have a recurring dream about her. I’m walking down the street in Omaruru and I see a small girl walking toward me, she looks about 5 years old, and she’s staring right at me with those same big black eyes like she knows exactly who I am. So I say, Excuse me, do I know you? And she says It’s me. I’m all grown up now.
My calendars. Last January I made two big calendars on chart paper, 6 months per sheet, and I write down everything I do during the week, from extracurricular activities to subject meetings. I also let the kids put their names and a sticker on their birthdates. There’s always a crowd studying the calendars at class changes and after school. The other day Priskilla and Seigried asked me what the big sticker on December 7 was for, and I told them it was the day I was going home. Miss Irene will go back for the holiday? Seigried asked, and I said yes. And then you teach us in grade 7 next year, said Priskilla, who is in grade 6 now. She turned around and smiled at me.
It’s so hard to describe how I feel, like I’m split in two. That’s not good enough. I would stay if I could? I would stay if I were a better person. There is so much left to do, so many things I wanted to do and didn’t, so many ideas I never had time, or courage, or motivation, or something, to carry out. I meant to teach them all to read, to count, to multiply, to be kind to each other, to take care of themselves. I meant to do so many more things than I actually did do, it seems like a cop-out to leave now, when I’m just beginning to learn these children, this country. It feels like I‘m giving up on them.
I teach Natural Science. In the textbook I found the average life expectancy for a Namibian in 2000 in a chapter about mammals. There was a chart comparing characteristics of elephants with characteristics of humans. In Namibia, elephants have a longer life expectancy than humans: they can live to be 60. In 2000, due to the high rate of HIV/AIDS, the average life expectancy for a Namibian was 43. And it’s getting lower.
The Reader Finds What She’s Looking For
I like poems because you can always find one that says exactly what you were feeling but couldn’t put into words. I like them because you can read them again and again and they’re different every time, and because it doesn’t really matter what the writer was trying to say; the reader always finds what she’s looking for.
This piece is from The Bare Arms of Trees by John
This one is from The Feast by Robert Hass:
Burning Trash and Eating Goat
We spent a few days at my school before the holiday started, and then took the bus overnight to Cape Town. The images I went to sleep to were dry, flat, Namibian bush, sandy riverbeds, and a sun sinking in a dusty sky. When I awoke, everything was a blur of green and rolling hills and there was drizzle, actual raindrops hitting the window, and lakes and rivers with water in them. It was truly amazing. I couldn’t stare hard enough at all the green, and above it the wet gray sky filled with clouds, real clouds! I woke Meredith up but she was not impressed, and she just went back to sleep. So while I continued to stare at all the green, I ate my breakfast, and then I ate part of hers.
Cape Town is Pretty
In Cape Town, we did a lot of just wandering the streets. It was so wonderful to be in a real city. I had forgotten the sensation of being surrounded by so many people that one has no choice but to move with the crowd, a sensation I associate with cities like London and Istanbul, not with Namibia. We did do touristy things like visiting Victoria Wharf, walking in Kirstenbosch Gardens, hiking up Table Mountain (NOT as easy as it looks!), and taking the ferry to Robben Island, but my favorite thing was probably just wandering up and down Long Street, looking at menus at restaurants I couldn’t afford and sitting on the floors of second-hand bookshops. (Okay I take that back, maybe my number one favorite thing was the Wine Tour. It included a cheese tasting. I think that speaks for itself.) In all, we spent seven days in Cape Town before hopping on another bus to see the Garden Route.
The Man Who Does Not Like People
Anyway, back to vacation. As he was talking, he was driving us through the Swaartburg Pass to the Cango Caves in the back of his bakkie. The pass through the mountains is breathtaking, an old, winding road on the edge of a cliff with only a low stone guard-rail between vehicles and the deep valley below. The day was overcast and cold, and the tops of the mountains disappeared in the clouds. The mountains there are so rounded and humped up at the bottom, they look like the toes of giant feet. On the other side of the pass, the land flattens out into farms for ostriches and cows and it’s impossibly green: Crayola green, Disney green. After about an hour we started to climb again until we reached the opening to the Cango Caves, which go deep into the rocky hillside.
We went on a “standard tour” of the caves with a guide whose English was so accented by his native Zulu, I could hardly understand a word he said, but it all sounded like music. The caves themselves were spectacular. We would walk a short distance through heavy silence and humidity and suddenly find ourselves in an enormous cavern, lit only with a single electric light, covered with stalagmites and stalactites. (My interest in caves comes from a childhood viewing of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was thrilling when I was 8, especially when they started to find dinosaurs. Also, I’d read somewhere that the San people used to live in these caves. But apparently I’d read wrong; as there is no water in the caves and they’re pitch black inside, only an idiot would try to live in them. The San people only sought shelter in the first cavern when it was cold or rainy.) An “adventure tour” of the caves was also offered, but neither Meredith nor the British girls with us were interested in scooting on their stomachs through dark, narrow passages for an hour, much to my disappointment. (Apparently, people occasionally get stuck.)
I Think I See Antarctica (I’m Wrong)
After Wilderness we went to Plettenberg Bay. We spent a whole day hiking around the peninsula, which really was treacherous. It was a cool, windy day, and on the eastern side of the peninsula we had lovely views of the city on the bay and not-so-lovely whiffs of eau de seal. When we reached the point, however, we met the wind full on. The waves were crashing furiously against the rocks, and there were seals playing in the whitecaps and seagulls riding the wind like paragliders. We stayed there for a while, looking south across the Indian Ocean, and feeling as though we’d truly come to the end of the world. Nothing but ocean lies between the point and Antarctica. I almost expected to see it, an icy, silver slab against the horizon, but I saw only waves.
Walking and scrambling across the wet, slick rocks on the western side, the wind was so strong it felt as though it might take the features right off my face. At one point, we ran into some other people standing on the rocks staring out at the sea. We followed their gaze just in time to sea the broad, blue back of a whale rise up out of the water, catch the glint of the sun, then go under again. We waited for a long time, hoping it would rise again, but it did not. I later read that “August marks the start of whale season, when Southern Right whales migrate to their mating and calving grounds off the southern coast of Africa. These aquatic mammals remain in African waters until about October, when they begin their long journey back to Antarctica” (Horizons).
No Wonder It’s A Wonder!
Really Big Truck Mesmerizes Entire Country
As they worked to cut the lines, the crowd grew more and more excited, and it began to bleed into the street. Eventually there were so many people in the street that it seemed the truck would not be able to pass even when the lines had been cut. Miraculously, when the lines were finally severed, people managed to avoid being hit by them as they fell, and then some policemen drove through the crowd and pushed all the people back to the roadside. Then the truck started up, but it was driving so slowly its movement seemed like a mirage. When it finally drove past us, I could see that it was the length of three normal-sized tractor-trailor trucks, and twice the height. A tiny plaque on the side said “mining equipment.” Later, when we were finally on our way again, a Zambian guy on the bus explained that the truck had traveled all the way from South Africa at 20 KMH to transport equipment needed to start a mine in Zambia. Its journey had been documented in all the papers, and people were flocking to the towns on the main road to see it. Like I said, bizarre.
After passing through the border, the bus drove overnight
through the Caprivi and into the north. The deeper we went
into Nambia, the more scorched the earth became. Once during
the night, I awoke to see a cloud of smoke muting the bus
headlights; the land all around us was ablaze in patches like
the red-hot coals of a thousand dying campfires.
(NOTE: The contents of these e-mails are mine personally and do not reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of any institution or individual mentioned, including the U.S. Government, U.S. Peace Corps, the Government of Namibia, or its citizens. - Irene Harvley-Felder)