Thursday, August 25, 2016

Birth and Death

A message with an apology and “I didn’t know how else to reach you,” is never one with good news.  Especially not when it comes from someone so far in your past you honestly probably wouldn’t have remembered them if someone had asked you to name everyone that was part of your life that particular year.  You might have remembered them with respect to their role in your life---oh yes, and there was the new volunteer who replaced me at my site---but not by name.

Yet, when that name popped up on my Google Chat, I knew exactly who it was.  I knew the name lingering inside the chat window’s large block of text even more: Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

One of my bamaamas, my Zambian moms.  Bamaamas are like kids I think; you’re not supposed to have a favorite.  Maybe there’s an exception for the one that bore you; that one can be your favorite.  But the ones that are your other bamaamas, the ones that help raise you (even when you’re already grown), and feed you and teach you how to cook and wash and speak Tonga, and live.  The ones you wish you’d asked to teach you how to pee standing up.---I understand the concept; I was just never gutsy enough to try it.---Those bamaamas, I don’t think you’re supposed to have favorites.  But I did.  I had two, and Ba Joyce was one of them.

“I was in Zambia…”

Zed!  Oh, Zed! Just the day before I had been describing Zambia to someone, “Zambia itself will crawl in your heart and never leave. It will burrow like a panya in the grass of your roof, with a scratching that forbids you forget it’s there no matter how infrequently you actually see it.”  At the sight of “I was in Zambia,”  every bit of burrowed Zambia burst forth. 

And then it exploded.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away during childbirth.”

Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce bore her second son the week I moved into the village.  Her passing through my life bookended by childbirth.  One of those many things we take for granted here.  One of those common, everyday, planned things that used to truly be a miracle.

Ba Joyce.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away during childbirth.” 

“The family is still clearly mourning her loss.”

Ba Joyce. 

Ba Joyce.

The family.

The family without Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

My eyes welled up as my body filled with ambivalence.  Not the American ambivalence of not caring; the British ambivalence of feeling two conflicting emotions at once that I learned from Kryten.  A strange taffy pull that brought even more tears.  Devastation that Ba Joyce was dead.  Elation that others were not. 

Ba Timmy was out in the village, visiting us.  We were nearing close-of-service (COS in Peace Corps parlance), pack-up-your-bags-and-say-goodbye time.  “When are you coming back to visit?”  Ba Lenix had asked.  “Oh, probably in about five years,” Ba Timmy had answered.  Ba Lenix let out a sort of snorty chuckle, a chortle if you will, “We will all be dead.”

I feared he was right.  At 36, he was already past what was then the Zambian average life expectancy.  At that time, the HIV rate in the country was hovering at about 20%.  Simply statistically speaking, a family with one husband and four wives was not an optimistic proposition.  It had only been a few months since I had sat in the shade shelling beans with my favorite bamaamas asking about why one of their others wives had gone to the mission hospital some 20+ km away, since deep and serious eyes had looked at me as a voice tried to laugh a laugh that caught in a throat, since I had heard  “tuyakufwa.”

There was something else, too.  I knew my situation was not like Ba Timmy’s.  Funding a trip to a quasi-remote African village would not be in my near future.  Not in five years, probably not in ten.  When my mother and grandmother came out to visit the year before, it truly had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  Even if I were to move back to Africa, I doubt Mommy would visit again.  But then, going to see your twenty-four-year old daughter in a small community she’s made home is very different from visiting your nearly middle-aged child in a block of flats in some bustling metropolis.

I used to write to them, my family, my Zam-fam.  I used to write letters and Christmas cards and little notes to say hello.  I’d send along pre-paid postage vouchers from USPS so they could write back.  “Ndamueya!”  I’d write, “ndamueya maningi!”  I was not lying; I think about them everyday. 

To get mail to the village, I would send it to the post box in Monze, the nearest town, for the government school in Chona, about 10km from our village of Cheelo.  There was a wonderful family who lived in Chona.  The parents taught at the school and the older sons ran the family transport business, carrying things and people and goats to and from Monze.  They would collect the mail and send it over to Cheelo with a passenger who might be going that way.  Perhaps another Cheelo resident or someone passing through on their way to somewhere like Namateba.  But the mail started coming back, unopened, months later, having gone across the Atlantic, through Lusaka, to Livingstone, to Monze and back.  The school had closed its P.O. box. 

Occasionally, I’d meet a Zambian or someone who was traveling to Zambia.  “Can you take a letter for me?”  And I’d hope the magic informal mail system of people who know people going that way would work.  I don’t know if my letters ever made it.

We lost touch.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away.”

Years.  But still, ndabaeya maningi, everyday.  Sometimes, I see them in my dreams.  I see them running towards me as I run towards them, coming up the path past the cattle stall and Ba Lenix’s special cisyu field.  I see them around the fire as we munch on roasted mapopwe.  I hear them yelling “Ba Nchimunya, Ba Nchimunya!” and laughing while my face aches from the stretched smile I simply cannot contract back into fitting on my face. 

Even when I am not asleep, I talk to them.  Imaginary conversations in the shower and on bike rides and in the car and walking down the street.  “Ndaunka ku mbeleka kwa ciinga.”  I’m sure my Tonga is worse than ever, but my thoughts are always in it.  There is no one here to know if I am accidently yelling “prostitutes!” into the air or asking if someone’s menstruated.  I imagine introducing them to Mr. Trizzle, standing sort of scared and unsure on the packed dirt, afraid of what allergens might jump out and bite him.  “Ah-ah, where is Ba Mr. Mindala?”  I try to punt the question.  “ezyi Ba Trizzle, bali benzuma.  Ndabayanda.  Bali kabotu maningi.”  “Ba Nchimunya, muntu isiya?”  Ba Fare would laugh, not really asking a question.  And they would make him feel so welcome and stuff him full of nsima.  The good nsima made from mbusu ground in the village, not that tasteless store-bought mealie meal from town.  And Bay Joyce would hang back a little bit, a huge smile on her face, “Banina Daddy Bunny.  Mwabola?” before coming in for a hug.  “Inzya, ndabola”  I have come.  Finally.  At last. 

But I have not.

And there is no Ba Joyce to smile and greet the mother of stuffed rabbit.

No Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce.

“Ba Joyce recently passed away.”

Ba Joyce.

No Ba Joyce.

Ba Joyce, Nchimunya and Mazoka

Mazoka, bamaama benu babolide.  Ino, mwakalona lyoonse, antomwe.  Amudokamane.  Pesi, mebo,ndaousa.  Ndamueya, bonse.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Say Hello to Chester

Vehicles are supposed to be female.  There’s a rule somewhere, probably in some old seafaring guide, a Viking legend or buried deep in a dusty pile of books in an etymologists’ study.  But this time, this time that just didn’t work.  I took one look at those wide-set eyes and pointy grin and knew immediately, his name was Chester.

I found Chester online, through some sort of search that lead me to Woodbridge Auto Auction.  A 1994 Cadillac Seville with barely 90,000 miles.  That pointed grin smiled from the ad.  “Black,” read the advert, though I could clearly see this Cadillac was not black.  Burgundy?  Brown?  Rustic bear?  Not black.  More like latte inside, ‘spresso out.
chester (3)
He was going up for auction on Saturday.  I would be in Orlando.  The auction house offered an option: pay for a hold to keep it off the auction; if you like it, the payment goes towards the cost of the car, if you don’t, refund. 
Getting a hold on Chester turned out to be much easier than getting to Woodbridge.  An airplane (from Orlando), Metro, a bus, and a strange walk along the highway with a Hungarian in search of cowboy boots later, I was peering under Chester’s hood.

I brought him home on a Wednesday.  He spent the next two weeks in and out of the mechanic’s.  One does not buy a 22-year old car from an auction house and expect it to be in working order.  No, one buys a 22-year old car from an auction house at a nice as-is price and gets a list of repair needs with the title.
Chester went to the mechanic who had managed Betty’s transition to hospice.  Woody’s an excellent mechanic, and most of all, understands attachment to a car.  He and his team replaced two broken engine brackets, sealed a hole in the exhaust pipe, located a tiny leak in the oil pan and generally tidied him up into tip-top shape.

I took him home and parked him behind Betty.  “This is your new brother.  I know it’s strange to be replaced by a sibling, but it’s what we have to do now.  Tell him all about the area, where we usually go, and what it’s like to ride with me, ok?”  I patted her hood and tried to ignore the pinch in my chest.
Betty and Chester (2)
For the next several weeks, I moved Betty and Chester around the neighborhood.  Every Tuesday and every Wednesday, for Wednesday and Thursday street sweeping.  Sometimes they rested together, one in front of the other.  Sometimes they were on different blocks. 

Slowly, I moved things from Betty to Chester.  First the crate of fluids---oil, brake fluid, windshield washer fluid, engine coolant, bungee cords, rags, the large sheet for hauling things on the roof.  Then odds and ends---maps, the car seat I’d recently gotten from a friend at church so I can drive other people’s children (and scare dates as a side-effect, apparently).  Putting Betty’s mixtape in Chester just seemed wrong.  He has a cd player, so I put in one of my favorite cds, U.S.D.A.’s Cold Summer.  He ate it.  Just ate it.  Wouldn’t play it.  Wouldn’t give it back.  Just gulp, gone.  I tried everything to get that cd out.  Paperclips, pens, every button on the stereo.  Eventually, I gave up and put in a mixtape I’d made before Betty’s that turned out to be too depressing.

Emotional music, songs like Low Man’s Lyric, November Rain and Landslide are great for moody nights when the darkness of your apartment matches the darkness of your soul.  They are not great for driving around traffic-clogged cities.  Chester needed a mixtape of his own.

I went out to him, “Chester, I made you your own mixtape.  I’m going to take this random one out so you can hear yours.”  I hit eject.  Chester was so happy to have his own mixtape, he spit out the depressing tape and my U.S.D.A. cd!  I smiled and knew we were going to get along just fine.

Chester is doing well so far.  Someone took a gouge out of his front bumper, about two feet over from where John at the local hardware store drilled the front license plate on (no charge; such a sweetheart!).   I may color it in with marker.  This past weekend, he took a piece of road debris to the face and will now need to have a doctor’s visit, but it looks like that shouldn’t be too costly.

Chester’s very spacious inside, so much so that if I put the seat all the way back, I can’t reach the pedals!  (So that’s what it feels like to be Munchkinhead.)  His trunk is a bit smaller than Betty’s, but it does well enough.  His hood is longer; he’s packing a V8.  And my goodness does he purr on the highway.  Slowly, I am learning him.  Learning how he handles, learning his size, learning his quirks.   We’ve managed to parallel park on the left-side of a narrow one-way street, now it’s just a matter of making it second nature.

I still miss Betty---she was laid to rest in July---but I am very glad to have found Chester.  We have many adventures ahead of us. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Born on a Tuesday; Read on a Wednesday, and a Thursday, and a Friday…

After months of waiting for it to be available in the U.S., I have finally gotten my hands on Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, and I do not want to let go.  I like the way it feels, the texture of the cover.  Often, I sit and rub my hand along it, over the smooth almost flesh-like page. Gripping the back and front together around the spine, feeling all the sides at once. 

Sometimes, I need to close the book and grasp the supple tome just to remind myself that I am real and I am here, in a chair in my apartment, at an airport, on a plane, in a hotel, wherever I might be reading.  That I am here, and me, and born on a Sunday, not on a Tuesday.

It is not glossy.  It is not like the dust jacket on a hardcover or the plastic-y coating on a mass-market paperback.  It is soft, though firm.  It is as though the paper was coated like the wax print wrappers Nigerian women wear.  Like even in its international printing and distribution Nigeria seeps through, out of the book, and into you.

I like the way Elnathan John does like Adichie and puts phrases in English right after they appear in another language.  I like even more that he only does it sometimes, leaving us to get the meaning from the context and emotion of the situation instead of doing it in definitions of words we know carrying their own heavy connotations and histories in our lives.

There is much in the book that is difficult, but anything that makes us face our own empty humanness is difficult.  So are things that tie tongues in knots.  There’s a lot of Hausa and Arabic, and I cannot tell one from the other, written out in Latin script.  There are phrases I recognize from working with colleagues on the Arabic Creative Commons licenses---insha Allah---and phrases I know from Ziriums’s songs and Malcom X’s biography---salamu alaiku; alaiku wasalam.  But there are many others unfamiliar that I cannot even stutter out in my head.  How does one pronounce a g, h & f all together in a row?  It’s like playing scrabble with Cat.  No wonder Dantala thinks English sounds “soft and easy like one does not need to open one’s mouth a lot or use a lot of air or energy.”  Imagine if he ever heard Italian!

The reviews on the back of the book compare Elnathan to Achebe.  But Born on a Tuesday feels far more accessible to an outsider than Achebe.  Perhaps I just know Nigeria better than I did.  I hope, though, that it is more accessible, that it is read widely, and that those of us whose story this is not see how easily it could become a story that is ours.  And that they---we---make it so that it never is.  Insha Allah.

“I am not sure if it is the hope of money that lures them or the fact that the [ ] movement is something new.  Everyone likes something new.  Eventually people get tired and some other new things takes over.  It isn’t grounded.  Something that has no roots and springs up with leaves and branches everything is bound to crash from the weight.  They can’t see this now.”

Born on a Tuesday, pg. 89

Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John; Black Cat 2015

Friday, August 19, 2016

Are Those Ruffles Under Your Skirt?

ruffles on bloomers peaking out from under jungle dress
Ruffles!
"I call dibs on the bloomers in Mommy's sewing room!" I yelled to my sisters over Twitter.  I'd found them lying around, probably on a pile on the large cutting table that had been pushed to the wall to make room for Munchkinhead and me to share an air mattress on the floor.  It was the ruffles that first got my eye.  Ruffled eyelet against more ruffles in a sort of softened army green.  I love ruffles, almost as much as I love sparkles.

"What's this?"  I picked them up and unfolded them.  "Bloomers!"  Mommy quickly informed me that Munchkinhead had already told her she couldn't get rid of them and very well might have plans for them.  Like an eager toddler yelling "MINE!", I pulled them on, over the skirt of the black suit I was still wearing from playing grown-up at work earlier in the day.  But that was hours ago and 1,000 miles away, literally.  Now, I was home, in Mommy's house, where no one ever grows up,  delighting in the ruffled bloomers with the elastic that easily went over my skirt and rested snuggly against my waist.  "They fit!  They fit!"  I jumped up-and-down.  That means they won't fit Munchkinhead.  I call dibs!"  I tweeted Munchkinhead and Alfred to let them know.  Alfred more as a courtesy, in case aliens had invaded her brain and made her suddenly interested in ruffled bloomers.


Bloomers up close showing bullfighting pattern
Toro toro toro!
Munchkinhead was glad of my excitement.  She had been disappointed that the bloomers did not fit her.  Like many things in Mommy's sewing room, no one had any idea where they'd come from.  Munchkinhead had forbidden Mommy from getting rid of them not because of some grand plan in mind, but because she did not want to see something so wonderful as bull-fighter-covered ruffled bloomers tossed away.   Yes, upon examining them more closely, later in the evening while playing board games with family and The Great Ecclestone, I discovered the pattern on these darling things was little bull fighters waving soft army green cloth in front of angry stamping dark green bulls.  How deliciously what-the-vampire.

I wore those bloomers most of the weekend, sometimes as shorts with a t-shirt---because Mommy's house is the only place one can look that ridiculous---sometimes under my dresses like proper bloomers go.  Then I could tumble in the grass and hang from the swingset to my heart's delight.  And Mommy didn't need to worry about saying, "get down from there, you have a dress on."  I love bloomers.
Bloomers hanging on the clothesline
Bloomers or the clothesline

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Under the Bridge

There’s a man under the bridge.  The railroad bridge at M and 2nd Streets in Northeast.  A calm man.  A stoic man who sits silently facing the road, saying nothing, unflinching, a refuge in himself, in the chaos of biking, walking, driving commuters.  Except when he’s sleeping--curled up under matted truck furniture pads or discarded carpet padding and a heavy green tarp.  In the summer, the top of his balding head pokes out, tufts of scruffy black hair visible against the deep green and matted grey of his bed.  And  except when he’s standing in the middle of the sidewalk passionately yelling from his Bible, screaming verses at the top of his lungs, still drowned out by the din of rushing cars echoing within the concrete walls and the clamor of trains above knocking the metal frame of the bridge into itself.  It’s been a year since I’ve seen him reading.  Perhaps it is the times of day I pass.

I try to make eye contact with people sitting on the street.  To silently say “I see you.  You are not invisible.  You exist.”  I rarely have food and even less often have cash.  But I have my humanity, and I try to offer that.

He never glances to meet my eye; I look away so as not to be mistaken for staring.  Some people do not want to be seen.  Some people wish for invisibility; it is the super power they’d choose.

Or maybe he’s just not “on.”  This is his home.  I do not know where he goes during the day.  I know he leaves.  Perhaps he works elsewhere, doing something others would regard as a job or asking for sympathy and help in another place.  I have many friends who prefer to live away from where they work.

I’ve come to think of that spot as his spot--that wide expanse of shaded uneven sidewalk where I must bike-slalom around support poles and city planters, the cement covered in pigeon droppings and ash from the man’s cigarettes, leaving a perfect outline of where he sleeps, that bridge—as his place, as his home.

But lately, others have moved in.  They do not sleep swaddled in plastic tarps.  They have set up tents.  Little pop tents like the kind my cousin’s friend uses camping.  First there was one.  Then two.  Then three.  Sometimes two again. 

I wonder how he feels, the stoic man under the bridge whose presence calms me.  Does he think of that space as his the way I do?  Is his space to him smaller?  The tents are on the street-side of the sidewalk and he is next to the stone wall that seeps water for days after a rain.  The world of DC people pass between the man and the tent row, a mini street on a sidewalk.  Are the people in the tents his friends?  Does he simply tolerate them?  Do they talk to each other when they’re all awake and the men in their suits and the women in their short skirts and slippers-masquerading-as-shoes have all bustled off to downtown and Capitol Hill?  And how long will they stay, the people in tents?

This is the question that follows me most.  Because when those tent people go, I doubt it will be on their own accord.  Tents are for the rich to hide in the woods and pretend they know how to be self-sufficient.  They are not for building a home on public land.  The city will tolerate it for awhile the way it tolerated the mini tent-city on the footpath extension of the bike path for several months.  Tolerated it until the Pope came.  Then it had to be disbanded.  Can’t let the Pope know there are poor people.  Who will come and unwittingly by their coming make the new tent row disperse?  Our next President for inauguration in January? And when the tent people are shooed away, will the man be forced to go, too?  Will the stoic man remain?