The following short stories are coming soon. Below are the categories you will be able to choose from.
A Life for a Life
Hello…I’ll Shoot You
The Nike Pilgrim – Walking the Camino de Santiago
AN AFRICAN SAFARI
I looked down onto a golden African plain from the window of a turboprop jet, searching for rivers, roads, and people. After traveling for thirty hours, I asked myself, “Why am I really going to Botswana?” I knew I wanted to go on a safari. But for three months?
Back home, friends had asked, “Why Maun?”
I told them the truth. “I closed my eyes and pointed at a spot on the globe,” and wondered if I’d be landing in a dusty donkey town.
The next morning, exhausted, I got up and went to town to explore.
It was said, Maun was once an ugly, remote trading post for big-game hunters and Sans Bushman. But it outlived the malaria-riddled days with soot-filled lanterns hanging next to canvas-wrapped cots to become a photo-safari jumping-off point.
I stopped at a bank. Then I got a cell phone at a convenience store. Finally, I dropped by a market in the ‘Old Mall,’ where the locals shopped. Women from the Herero tribe, in long flowing, sequin-studded dresses and matching square, flat hats, lugged sacks of groceries curbside where they waited for the next cab. With a week’s supply of food, I followed their lead and got in line behind them. That’s when I met Gadaphi.
I opened the door and got in the back seat of his car. “Coca-Cola Road,” I told him, then pointed in the direction of my place. One could only guess how the cabbies found their way around the web of unpaved roads with metal-roof shacks selling soda, canned milk, and mobile phone recharge-minutes.
“You’re from Maun?” I yelled over the noise of a pickup truck backfiring.
“No. Francistown. Studied marketing. But there was no work there,” Gadaphi answered, with an easy-going resignation in his voice.
Not far away, we turned left off the asphalt pavement onto Coca-Cola Road. Thatched mud huts, both square and round, lined the white-sand path. Every inch of it had been scoured for firewood. It was bare, except for the chickens that scratched at the ground. Our tires kicked up dust, and the thick, peppery smell of grit followed us. At the dead end, we stopped.
“Here’s my cell number,” Gadaphi said and handed me a ripped piece of paper with scribbles on it. “Call me if you need a ride.”
I stuck it in my pocket, collected my groceries in my arms, and got out after he promised to drive me to the Mission Church some Sunday. I’d heard the services had soul-felt, heart-thumping music with dancing down the aisles. Then I opened the electronic gate to a concrete-block house, drenched in azaleas, and waved goodbye as Gadaphi drove away.
Shortly after, placing my purchases in metal cupboards and a humming fridge, I struck out on the trail along the river that fronted my home-away-from-home. Like walking along the beach, my feet sank a half-a-foot in the dry sand. It was too early for the hippos to surface and purge their lungs with loud flatulent-sounding calls. Still, I walked quickly, so I’d get back before nightfall when they grazed along the riverbank. Hippos may look like clumsy lumps of blubber, but they’re unpredictable and strike like lightning, making them the deadliest animal in Africa.
Without warning, a flock of children raced up, out of nowhere, and surrounded me. One of the braver girls, about nine-years-old, head entirely shaven, with spindly long legs and arms that stretched out from a too-small dress, pushed to the front.
Looking up at me, with a coy-innocence that fooled no one, she said, “Give me Pula.”
The others watched to see what I would do.
“Sorry, I have no money,” I told them, truthfully. It was back inside the lushly landscaped house. Instead, I pointed at something in one of the younger boy’s hands; a push-toy.
“Hey, that’s cool,” I said.
The pole was made from a tall, rugged weed with two wheels of bristling thistle heads at the bottom, tied at the bar.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
Looking back at the girl, who was clearly the pack leader, he waited for her to nod. When she did, an older boy grabbed it, then showed me his invention.
“What’s your name?” I asked the bigger boy.
“Motswane,” he answered, suddenly turning shy, studying his feet as he dug a hole in the sand.
Eyes flaring, the bald girl shoved him aside. “I’m his sister, Bontle.” She waited until she had my full attention. “My name means beautiful,” she said, hand on hip. And she was, with cedar-brown, silky-smooth skin and a luminous smile. But beneath her lovely exterior, I saw a tough little spirit.
A woman’s voice yelled out from a distance. Wide-eyed with alarm, they picked up the firewood they had been carrying then scurried off, down a different path.
“Goodbye, my friend,” Bontle yelled back, turning for one last glance as she and her friends scrambled along the river bank. I waved, then continued on my brisk walk.
Above, sunlight filtered through wispy rose-tinted clouds, and an African fish eagle flew overhead, along the winding river. My mind wandered back to the safari’s in Hemingway’s novel, Green Hills of Africa, with large walk-in tents, tin-bucket showers, and the call of the wild. Months earlier, I’d cruised the web in search of such a safari and found five-star all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, $2,000/day per person gold-plated lodges, with brandy on the nightstand and hot water bottles under the sheets. That was more than I needed. But kayaking down a crocodile rich river at $400/day wasn’t what I had in mind, either.
A couple of weeks later, the woman managing my Airbnb called about a mobile safari.
“A friend and I are going on a self-drive safari to Chobe and Victoria Falls in a couple of days. Do you want to fly up to Kasane and meet us there?” she asked. “I need to know today.”
The plan was for her to drive a teacher she knew from bible school in Zimbabwe. They hoped to catch some game on a morning drive at Chobe’s east gate, then ferry over to Victoria Falls, a UNESCO site in Zambia. I had nothing to lose but a few hundred bucks, so I made up my mind immediately.
I got a cheap puddle-jumper out of Maun three-days later to the north-eastern corner of Botswana. After exploring Chobe and photographing herds of elephants, zebras, and antelopes, we crossed the muddy Zambezi River into Zambia. On the Zambia shoreline, a tense crowd paced back and forth. Over one hundred soot-belching, copper-hauling semis waited to be loaded onto the flat-bed ferry that would ford them over to Botswana—one truck at a time.
“There’s less risk of getting hijacked traveling in a convoy,” a waiting driver told me as we exited the ferry landing. The thought of seeing a copper-laden semi being stopped would be at gunpoint was unnerving. From the river, we maneuvered through customs then to our connecting ride. Restless men, with hungry eyes, surrounded us, heckling every other passerby and us.
“You want ride?”
“Buy my bracelets. They’re made from silver.”
“You need tomatoes? Onions?”
I clutched my passport tight, then got into the taxi and looked out the window at the lineup of day laborers, eyes sunken and sullen. They made me realize that on the other side of the river, ecotourism was doing more than just providing tourists with an exotic backdrop for Christmas cards. It was trickling down to all the Tswana. I looked back as the cab inched away, then we continued to Livingstone.
An hour later, we reached the noise and congestion of Livingstone. Old, sun-bleached cars honked at every intersection, and women in long colorful skirts with matching headwraps pushed their way through the crowds. I saw little evidence of Victorian-era colonial architecture in the mishmash of storefronts. We continued on to pickup some bananas at the Maramba Road food market but decided to take a rain-check on the roasted caterpillars.
The next day, on a path towards the deafening noise of The Falls, I overheard someone say, “Victoria Falls is just another waterfall.”
To me, that was like calling the Grand Canyon just another hole in the ground.
“How tall are The Falls?” I asked the seventy-three-year-old bible teacher as we got closer.
“Three hundred feet? Four hundred?” she answered and shrugged her shoulders then stopped at the vista outcrop.
It didn’t matter what the number was; the drop off to the gorge below would have given anyone the heebie-jeebies.
“WOW!” I yelled as white waters curled off the lip of a flat ledge—from a calm, meandering stream above. I stepped away from the intimidating drop-off.
“I saw The Falls years ago from the Zimbabwe side. When it was still Rhodesia,” she shouted.
Below, the Zambezi River boiled as the falls gushed over a rock shelf, a mile wide.
“Why did you leave Rhodesia?” I asked as we moved down a narrow trail, thick with shrubs.
“The Bush War. We lived on a farm. It wasn’t safe to stay.”
“I heard it was a nasty civil war,” I said. “Fighting in the cities and all.”
“Heavens, no. It was the farms the guerrillas wanted. It was the farms they attacked.”
We stopped speaking as we crossed a bridge, overpowered by The Fall’s thunderous sound. There, The Falls spilled into a series of gorges, showering us from above then spraying water back up from the rock-walled valley below.
“Was your farm attacked?” I asked, shaking the water from my poncho.
“No,” she said. “But every night, we radioed the other farms to make sure everyone was okay.”
“Did anyone you know get hurt?”
“No, because we usually got word from the Reserves before the guerrillas attacked.”
“Husbands, like my Jim. The government sent them out for six weeks at a time. They put on black face paint. Wore old clothes. Couldn’t bathe for weeks because the guerrillas could sniff ‘em out.”
“What did you do when he was gone?”
“I stayed home with the children: three girls and a boy.” She looked into the distance as though reliving the past. “One day after dropping the kids off at school, a group of black teens blocked the whole street. I stopped and waited for them to let me pass. Instead, they walked towards me. I didn’t know what to do. So I drove into the ditch, and around them, then gave them an unladylike finger as I sped away.”
“Must’ve been scary,” I said.
She nodded. “All us mums with little ones kept personal weapons on us. The older boys carried rifles everywhere.”
The image of schoolboys in starched white shirts and blue ties toting guns through the academy’s halls came to mind. They had most likely aimed those rifles at people they knew—who worked on their farms—who, like lions on the plain, were now roaming the grasslands at night.
“Back then, there was a lot more game around The Falls,” she said wistfully.
“I heard the guerrillas and the military had taken to using wildlife as target practice.”
“Not our soldiers,” she cut in.
The results were the same regardless of who did the killing. I wasn’t surprised they had little stomach to worry about wild animals when the country was being beaten down by civil war. With an obliterated past and no hope for the future, it was no wonder they had post-traumatic stress in their eyes.
“We made it out of Rhodesia. To South Africa. My brothers lived there. But we had to leave everything we owned behind. I can’t say South Africa was much better. Shortly after we arrived, a black teen broke into the house. Stabbed me in the back six times.”
I just raised my eyebrows. Was this what I came to Africa to learn about?
We stopped for one last look at The Falls. In the distance, a bungee cord jumper leaped from the metal-arched, 400-foot Victoria Falls Bridge. Tourists, I thought—risking their lives—for what?
Several weeks later, in a small, sparsely furnished office with an overhead fan, I asked for a quote on a car-hire for a four-wheel drive. In a month, I’d be going to a village outside Moremi and decided I was bush-savvy enough to drive there.
The agent and I talked about the 4×4 truck and other things. I learned he grew up in Maun, went to senior secondary school, and was the oldest son in his family. I told him I owned a four-wheel-drive back home and had lived in the mountains.
“When we return from our safari,” I told him, “I’ll give you my 20-liter gas can.” The one I needed to buy because there was only one gas station every four hours. That way, he could ‘loan’ it to other tourists and maybe not notice any scratches on the truck when I brought it back.
He smiled knowingly.
After we shook hands, I walked in the hot sun to a cluster of trees where taxi drivers hung out. Anyone and everyone who had a few bucks bought a car, got a license, then put a sign on their roof. With no bus service in town and few private vehicles, cabbies always had work. Whether it was enough to pay the bills was a different issue.
Next to the shady patch stood the ‘New Mall,’ with a couple of grocery stores, an electronics shop, bank, and liquor depot. Every spot in the parking lot was taken. Guides heading out into the bush stocked up their high-riding, nine-seater, canvas-topped safari trucks. In the back, tourists in wide-brimmed hats, sporting tailored clothing waited. They were going on a guide-driven safari, where everything was taken care of for them, from tents to candle-lit drinking binges. And hopefully, a life-long experience worth every cent of it.
Under one of the trees, I saw Gadaphi’s taxi come to a stop. I walked over and hopped in.
I told him about a ‘walk-in’ deal for Okavango Delta with a ‘fifty-percent off’ bargain on last-minute bookings. But I needed a puddle-jumper to get into the Delta. So, Gadaphi agreed to drive me to the airport in a week.
After Gadaphi dropped me off, I walked along the river, like I’d been doing most days since I arrived. I saw the same fishermen with mesh nets sitting on the bank’s edge and the same kingfishers diving into the river. Along the path, a young boy kicked a plastic milk jug filled with water as though it were a soccer ball. I waved, but he was too intent upon keeping the jug aloft to notice me. At the stream crossing, a lineup of men and women, just finishing work at the greenhouse on the other side of the river, waited to be poled in a dug-out mokoro. I felt sorry for the poler—fighting the current to get them across and sometimes waiting with uncertainty as a hippo swam past.
On my way back, I stopped to talk with a South African ex-pat, who moved to Maun when there was only one store in town and no electricity. It was always like that along the waterfront. I met the local butcher’s wife, the daughter of the famous crocodile hunter, got rides up Coca-Cola Road from people who were the faces behind the online safaris I’d read about back home, and talked with the men building new homes along the river for foreigners to rent. One such man was Wisdom.
“What are you making?” I asked a slender man in blue overalls, digging a two-foot-wide ditch.
He greeted me with a bright, comforting smile. “This will be a fence,” he said and pointed at one on the next property. “With lights,” he added.
In front of us, a pile of concrete posts lay ready to be raised. No other workers were in sight.
“You work alone?” I asked.
“No. The others had to go. I live just over there.” He pointed at a concrete building no larger than eight-foot square. “I said I would finish up for the day.”
“You have a different accent. Where are you from?”
“Zimbabwe,” he answered.
I was puzzled. Both the blacks and whites had sacrificed much in their civil war, but I thought only the whites left what was once Rhodesia. “Didn’t things get better for blacks after the Bush War?” I asked.
“I could not find work there, so I came here.” He looked down as if gathering his words, then went on. “I cannot say The War was wrong. Before the fighting, it cost us almost half of our monthly salary for transport to work. The Whites would not listen when we complained. But after The War…Well, we should not have wanted it all. We should have worked with the white people. Learned how to farm their land, use the equipment in their factories. Then shared the country. Now it sits broken, and I must travel here so that I can feed my family.”
“I’ve heard the local Tswana say Zimbabwe laborers work too hard…show them up.”
He shook off the compliment. “I do what I must…and go wherever there is work,” he said, then lifted his shovel. As I waved goodbye, I thought Wisdom seemed to be precisely that, wise. It was as if his soul had chosen his name for him.
A week later, my friends and I were flying over the Okavango Delta in a six-seater plane. Under us, a swampy archipelago of tear-drop-shaped islands grew then shrunk, as a ribbon of Angola’s flood-waters drowned the connecting land bridges. On the remaining landmasses, my eyes followed a network of branching paths that had been beaten down by the wild game, and the old saying: ‘All who wander are not lost,’ came to mind. Again, I wondered what I was searching for on my trip.
On our approach, I looked below and saw a man chase baboons and warthogs off the hardpan landing strip. From there, a boat carried us through an undisturbed World Heritage marshland to our lodge. Within the pristine swamp’s borders, there were no barriers. Elephants tromped between tents on stilts, pulling down branches with their trunks, and crocodiles sunned themselves at the base of boat launches. Sexual boundaries were also ignored, and infection by HIV was rampant.
“How many weeks are you out here at a time?” I asked an apron-clad woman as she prepared a ‘stuff yourself’ white-tablecloth buffet.
“My shift is six weeks on the job, two at home.” She looked down, as though an invisible, as well as white-linen line, separated our lives.
“That’s brutal,” I said. “And I thought ten-hour days were bad.”
She gave me a hesitant smile. “Wish I didn’t have to be away from my little girl so long. But many from Maun work out here. We need the money that Delta jobs pay.”
I noticed one of the bush guides give her a long, satisfied look. She scowled at him. Like many other Botswana females, she had a fully endowed buttocks, something her co-worker seemed to find pleasing. It struck me that it became a recipe for trouble when a wife or husband was away from home for too long. I gave her a sympathetic nod and then found a seat amongst other tourists around the campfire.
Once I was seated, a white South African guide asked, “So what have you seen so far?” His pacing back and forth around the fire and the tone in his voice told me he really didn’t care.
“We just arrived,” I answered. “What about you?”
“In Chobe, we saw a lion pride take down a zebra. A cheetah in Savute. And a leopard in Moremi. We’ve come to the Delta for rhinos.” His clients all nodded with admiration in their eyes.
At that moment, our Tswana wildlife guide, hips in sync like a predatory panther, joined us.
“Bro,” the South African shouted. Then he lifted his arms as though he was about to hug the local guide. Instead, he put the Tswana in a chokehold and dug his knuckles into the top of our guide’s head, as he was a dog.
“What are you doing?” the Tswana guide laughed, between gritted teeth, and tried to free himself. But the headlock got even tighter. Everyone looked on in alarm.
Finally, the South African released our guide with a sly toothy grin. He wrapped an arm around the black man’s big shoulders then asked, “Where are the rhinos?” Fortunately, at that moment, we were called to dinner.
At first, everyone ate in silence. Crickets chirped, and the sound of a muffled roar could be heard in the distance. Under us, the soothing sound of delta waters ebbed against the wood pilings. Then the calm began to disappear as khaki-uniformed men, carrying bottles of wine wrapped in white cloth, filled glasses to the brim. The conversation at the table grew louder and livelier.
“Did you know Botswana has the highest incidence of HIV and syphilis infection in all of Africa?” someone asked, as the dinner dishes were quietly removed.
“That’s statistics,” our guide answered, unfazed, then he tilted his chair back to make room for his ample stomach. “Botswana just does a better job of collecting data than our neighbors.” But he raised a suggestive eyebrow that left me wondering.
“Are you afraid of getting AIDS?” my friend asked him.
“Everyone dies–eventually.” He released a deep chuckle. “Until then, why not have fun?” He wasn’t kidding.
During the evening, I noticed the interest between co-workers was not always reciprocated, and the woman from Maun I’d met at the white buffet table made herself scarce when particular men were around. Men who said nothing but whose eyes lingered on her too long. Later I learned some women were raped, and nothing could be done about it because it was merely her word against his.
Earlier in the week, I got a lift into town from my Dutch neighbor. She worked for an NGO protecting children’s rights, and they were sponsoring a workshop on the prevention of sexual abuse in one of the nearby villages. She got a call and pulled off to the side of the road.
“What do you mean the police aren’t coming? Didn’t you send them an invitation?”
She listened to the response on the phone; I watched her wide-eyed reaction.
“Did you call to remind them?”
I could hear a jumble of words from a slow, calm voice on the other end. My neighbor’s face tightened.
“What do you mean the girls aren’t coming? Are they afraid?”
Again, the voice on the other side sounded indifferent.
My friend ran her hand through her tangle of blonde hair, then shut the phone down. “No one’s coming to the workshop. Word never got to them—so they say. There’s a law-enforcement officer in that town who impregnated his daughter and her friend. The friend’s father owed him a favor. And there’s nothing we can do about it because the girls won’t complain. They don’t know their rights, and it seems the police don’t either.”
I wondered whether they really didn’t know. Or if that was the way it was done around there. Always had been. And the locals didn’t take kindly to being told what was right or wrong by an outsider.
The Monday finally arrived for me to pick up the 4×4 and start our self-drive safari to Khwai. I was nervous, never having driven through drifts of sand before. But I convinced myself it was no different than ice or mud. We were going to a Land Development reserve north of Maun, run by the local villagers, where I’d rented a tent on stilts. The only thing missing was a guide. But it was peak season, and everyone was booked. So, I hired the caretaker at our rental, a local Sans Bushman.
Once we arrived in Khwai, I should have said no to an evening game drive, having just driven six hours on an unpaved road. Still feeling unnerved by zebras, giraffes, and elephants that wandered out from the bush and crossed the asphalt in front of the truck, I needed a break. But the caretaker, T-man, a small, wiry Bushman, made it sound like our camp would always be in sight. What could go wrong?
We drove down an animal trail, with twigs slapping the truck, blinding me at every curve to what lay ahead. Twilight cloaked the horizon with a ruby red glow, and I was exhausted. Still, I drove on.
“Closer,” the black-eyed bushman said, cocking his head for a better view.
In the branching tentacles of the slow-moving stream, a herd of elephants waded. Knee-deep in a patch of weeds, they lapped trunkfuls of water into their cavernous mouths.
The 4-wheel drive tires sank deeper and twisted in unexpected directions. I wrestled with the steering-wheel, righting the fishtailing 4×4 through the thick sand, trying to keep it out of the water that lined the road. With every pull on the wheel, the image of an overturned truck came to mind.
“Closer,” T-man urged, his voice monotone but body tense.
The elephants slowly ripped out clumps of long, waxy leaves, then ground their last meal of the day into a pulp. Because at night, predators would have them on the run.
The tall upland grasses on our left rustled. Deep, from within the nearby bushes, a cacophony of bickering bird-calls broke out in alarm. We stopped.
At the noise, a lioness woke and rose. It was time to eat, for herself and soon-to-be at least one more. She stretched her long, tawny legs then paraded up and down the water’s edge. Making the elephants, antelopes, and zebras fidget, she observed them with squinted eyes.
“I’m going back to camp,” I said and made a three-point turn. Call me a wimp, I thought. But there was no way I’m getting stuck in the bush to become that lioness’ next meal.
The light-brown man pulled his knit cap low, then slightly raised an eyebrow. Never having driven a car before, he had no idea what I was fighting or the trouble we could be in if we got stalled. I knew he was thinking, ‘Isn’t this what you came for?’
Was it? I wondered, still not sure that I had come halfway around the world, just to see wild animals. But going further into the bush, with wet quicksand on both sides, was undoubtedly more adventure than I could handle.
T-man sat slumped in his seat. As a bushman, he’d grown up with danger all around him. And I didn’t understand his take on the untamed wilderness. My experience with large carnivores was at the zoo, where they paced back and forth, muscles taut, ready to burst from 10 x 10-foot cages, while they studied me with deranged eyes. A man of few words, T-man watched me, a blank expression on his face, not comprehending that I longed to be where it was safe. Frustration and other less-kind emotions were screaming in my body talk. But I just wasn’t ready to take any chances.
Several weeks later, I hired a licensed guide to drive back to Khwai. I realized there were somethings I shouldn’t have cut from my budget safari—like a driver who understood the bush. A friend suggested I call the Land Trust, who told me to contact someone they knew, who had me call someone else, who knew of someone I really should hire. He was a stranger to all of them but would be spending twenty-four-hours a day with me for over a week. Eventually, we met. He had no business cards. No written references. He wore a leather safari hat, was tall, limped on his left leg, said his name was Rogers, and I was supposed to trust him. So, I did.
The morning after we arrived in Khwai for the second time, Rogers drove the truck along the stream bank just outside our camp. The only sounds were that of birds in the distance and the cracking of twigs under the wheels. At the edge of the water, a resting hippo opened its enormous mouth, hinged like a trap, ready to snap. Instead, it just yawned, and Rogers drove past it, undeterred. I quickly observed how the land and animals were in Rogers’ blood, under his nails, and a part of his spirit.
Abruptly, Rogers pulled off the road. He put a finger to his lips, then pointed at something under the branches. We strained our necks to see what he had found.
In front of us, a black-spotted leopard ripped out the guts of a grey waterbuck. Its dead eyes were wide with shock. Upon seeing us, the carnivore stopped eating. A jagged piece of meat hung from his incisors. Then he circled his prize several times before he laid down and nestled next to the large antelope. Not far away, impalas grazed along the stream bank, skittish, watching anxiously.
That night, after we’d returned from our ride, I stood by the open-pit fire at the edge of our tent-on-stilts campsite, cooking chicken. I heard rutting calls in the trees nearby. Shortly after, they were replaced by a hollow whistle. Then there was nothing—until Rogers came running down the stairs.
“What are you doing?” he asked frantically, dusting the area with the beam of his flashlight and clutching a knife in his other hand. “Hyenas are in the woods.”
“Where?” I asked, in disbelief. There hadn’t been any yipping growls from any predators.
Rogers explained that the antelope were warning each other with their whistles to flee because the hyenas had smelled the sizzling chicken fat and were prowling, only feet away.
Communication among animals in the bush seemed so intuitive. So why was it hard for humans? I thought of T-man, the caretaker.
One time when Rogers returned from visiting T-man, he told me, “T-man and his wife sit in the same room for hours and don’t talk. They don’t use words. Bushmen use their bodies to speak for them.”
I couldn’t imagine sitting for hours with no computer, no phone, no books, no talk, and only slipping deep into a mind space. It was as if the bushman had a sixth sense that I couldn’t perceive.
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t understood his language on our game ride. T-man could have been shouting at me with his body talk, but I heard none of it. I’d become too dependent on words, text, and emails to see there were other ways of connecting.
A couple of days later, T-man’s wife came over to our shared pump and filled up a plastic jug with water. She looked at me but said nothing. I felt an unspoken nudge from her.
“I saw you getting off the bus yesterday. Were you returning from work?” I asked.
“No, from Mababe,” she answered.
“You go there often?” I asked, remembering the village as the only petrol station for miles.
“My son is sick. He has been crying every night. We saw the doctor, but he had no medicine. He told us to come back. But we don’t know when.”
I’d seen the baby’s runny nose and rheumy eyes but thought it was nothing more than a cold. Even if it was pneumonia, the clinic had no pills for that. I thought of the pills back home, thrown away once the expiration date passed, even if they were still good. Pills that wouldn’t be shipped to Africa because someone could be sued. Pills that could save a baby’s life but were flushed down the toilet.
With the hope of making amends for not having heard the caretaker’s body language, I set some money aside in an envelope when we left for the baby. For T-man’s pride and joy. For his wife’s love of her life. For naught, if there were no pills to be bought.
Finally, the time came for me to leave Botswana. I took my last walk along the river.
From behind, I heard a call.
“Hello, my friend.” I turned to see Bontle and her pack of friends rush out from the bushes. “What have you brought me today?” she asked.
I had taken to handing out bouncy balls and lollipops, but I had nothing that day. So, I said, “Let me show you something, instead.” I unslung my binoculars then gave them to her. “Look through here.” I pointed at the two rubber-rimmed eye-pieces. With a look of smug satisfaction, she put them up to her face. “What do you see?” I asked.
She peered into the glass lenses. Her expression quickly changed to doubt. She held the binocs out to me as though they were cursed.
“My turn,” Motswane said and grabbed them. One by one, the binoculars traveled from child to child. Each of them getting more excited, their high-pitch voices babbled nonstop. Finally, it reached Goitse. A quiet girl, taller than the rest.
Hesitantly, she raised them—backward—with the larger lens to her eyes and saw nothing. She gave me a puzzled look.
I turned them around. “Try again,” I said and handed them to her so she’d hold them right.
Goitse grasped the binoculars, limply at first. Then she adjusted her view and tightened her grip. While the other children giggled and taunted each other, playfully throwing stones, she scanned the ground in front of her. A brown and white cow grazed on the edge of the floodplain. She quickly stepped back as the viewfinder leveled on its gentle dark eyes. Under the lenses, they must’ve been magnified to the size of the moon. From there, Goitse tracked an African hornbill flying between the trees, cackling, and wobbling on branches in a drunken stupor.
As she swung the binocs to the sky, my eyes followed her path to billowing clouds that morphed into mythological gods and goddesses. Then dreamlike, a trickle of sun sprinkled through the white pillows in the sky.
Goitse gazed through the binoculars, clutching the glasses tighter as if melding with them. Finally, the others nervously began tugging at her sleeve. When she pulled the lens away from her face, I was struck by the emotional nakedness and the wonder in her eyes.
That’s when I realized why I had gone to Africa. A corner of the world where, unlike home, I had no regrets about the past. No plans for the future. A place where children still believed in magic. And people talked without words. I had gone on a journey or, as they say in Swahili, a safari. But not to see wildlife.
I had traveled inward, to a place in my mind that had been layered with knowledge and buried the mystical. Instead of getting what I asked for, I got what I wanted. Something I had forgotten how to do—neglected to hear—something so natural, it should have been instinctive. I let myself be in the moment.