My breath runs short, tired from carrying a heavy load.
“Hallo, my friend!”
“You, basa! Where ah you going?”
“Ticket, basa? I buy for you. You’re going to where, Madame?”
“Eh, come with me, let’s go! Tickets, let’s go.”
The crowd of “call boys” circles around us, a gaggle of pale people lugging bags in the awkward shuffledance attempt to avoid the crisscross streams of women balancing buckets of fruit, people heaving 50kg sacks of who even knows what, aggressive toothbrush salesmen, children playing tag, and other travelers impatiently trying to go their own way. Sweat drips down my face as I put on my best ‘dontmesswithme’ expression.
“Come, basa, where are you going?”
“Mutapengi!” My friend, a 6’5″ dude who stands out in any crowd, brushes the call boys off. But for a moment I pretend that it is my own transportation-induced stress he is trying to soothe and I try to relax a little.
“Ok, basa, come, I buy for you. tickets to Mutapengi this side, eh?”
We all start laughing. Clearly this one doesn’t speak Tonga and didn’t understand the command. Mutapengi. It means Don’t Worry.
A few weeks ago I asked some volunteer friends who had been here a while how they go about communicating with folks back home. One of them said: I do an email list. Every few weeks I write a paragraph about me doing something dangerous so that everyone keeps worrying about me and then that’s it.
Coincidentally, the same friend gave me perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received: don’t hold your breath while you poop. I never would have thought that I did, but after she said that I started paying more attention. Like I said, good advice.
Anyway, her comment about worrying people made me laugh. In communicating about my experience so far, I’ve tried hard to take the opposite approach. It’s messy. You tell people you’re moving 50k from a paved road with limited transportation options, a language barrier, poisonous snakes, malaria, questionable cell service, and no ice cream, and for whatever reason they start worrying about you. Plus, a lot of loved ones have seen me in a pretty sloppy emotional state in the past, and a grief relapse is not out of the question. And on top of that, there’s the fact that we are often taught to associate the word ‘Africa’ with various forms of worrysome stuff. So, you’ve got a recipe for friends back home imagining me facing all kinds of nightmarish situations with a lack of frozen dairy products with which to solve them.
I’ve been trying to counteract all these things and put people at ease by sharing the highlights. (And I think it’s important to say that there’s a number of things people might worry about on my behalf that I’m not at all worried about: for example I’m not worried about being robbed or physically hurt in my village. It’s a small community and I know the people around have got my back.)
Although I think on some level it does all of us a disservice to only show that side of things. I still don’t think anyone needs to worry about me, but the truth is this is really hard some times too. At least the way things have been going so far, I often find this experience throws the most pleasurable times and the most painful ones at me in the same breath. Or rather, the same sucker-punch to the gut that knocks the wind out of me.
One second I am filling my lungs with the sweetness of a bowl of recently harvested honey wafted by a warm breeze. And the next, my little brother and I are coughing on smoke from the fire cooking our dinner.
One moment I’m inhaling the earthy scent of a healthy compost heap. And then I’m trying to catch my breath as a miniature tornado rips through my yard, tossing dust in my face, eroding soil and my sense of hope.
I exhale into downward facing dog as the sunrise peaks through my window. When it sets I hold my breath to avoid smelling the stench of the dismembered rodent parts my cat is dissecting on my yoga mat.
I blow out candles on a birthday cake made by new friends. And later that week I blow my nose weeping, when being asked for the 6th time in one day if I’m married or how many children I have stirs up an emotional whirlwind I hadn’t forecasted.
I’m panting from laughing and dancing fearlessly with my family under the stars. A few hours after, I find myself sucking in sharply through clenched teeth as I sit in the glow of my flashlight, painfully popping pus pockets that are starting to be infected.
The lightrays scattered through the clouds in an hourglass glow over a gently sloping field of sunflowers swirled with wispy purple wildflowers makes me sigh. And then I’m choking on air thick with tobacco dust while baMamas sort through curing leaves in a windowless building under florescent lights.
They say that the most common thing that continues to stress volunteers out during their whole two years is transportation. Whether it’s navigating the busy bus station in Lusaka described above, or trying to find a hitch at the quiet side of the road, I feel that. Especially given that my village is 50k off the tarmac.
I recently took a trip to a city 60k away with my baTaata. We left walking at 3 am. Due to a series of mishaps we ended up hanging out in the village center with a few drunks for a while in the middle of the night and getting to town at 10 am. At 4pm we started waiting for a ride home with some groups that had presented booths at the agriculture show. I was hoping we’d make it home by dark.
Soon, I was watching the sunset, with our vehicle nowhere in site.
The next thing I know, it’s almost 10 pm and they’re telling me I have to climb in now before they pack the goats in. I pass someone my bucket and try to keep my balance by holding onto the open metal frame over the truck bed. I halfway stumble to a seat on a mealiemeal sack and lean up against a bag of squash behind me. In the darkness I’m surrounded by a jumble of voices and objects being reareanged and balanced, slowly tucking me into my spot. A familiar smell stimulates my sleepy brain. Sure enough, she’s offering me a plastic baggie full of guavas. Yes, please, I accept. A chicken in a wooden cage ruffles its feathers on top of a heap to my right.
Judging by the sound effects, it seems the 20-something people are all settled and the goats are coming on board, so I imagine we’ll finally be leaving soon. As we start off, people quiet down. The wind whips up through the open frame so I wrap my extra citenge around my neck as a makeshift scarf. I’m too low down to see where we’re going, so I just look up through the crossing bars to the same stars that saw me off heading in the opposite direction. We greet each other again.
I’m trying to keep myself alert as the vehicle rattles along and lilts through potholes, but I sway back and forth on the edge of sleep. A baMama has slunk down and is now resting on top of me, the back of her head against my chest. After a moment I realize that the respirations of my stranger-sister and I have synchronized. Our inhales and exhales match, the pendulum pattern with the slightest sleepy pause on each end is one and the same. I marvel at this emotional mobious strip I’ve found, where my senses of vulnerability and safety have converged. I wonder what she is dreaming about as I start to surrender to slumber. As consciousness fades, I silently thank her for reminding me that in any of these moments there’s only one thing I need to do: just breathe.