By Phillip Clark
In Botswana, out in the Kalahari, the things you left for later were what got you. Once I had left my windows open overnight, and for three subsequent nights I was plagued by camel spiders scurrying on my floors and walls. Another time I had hand-washed my laundry and left it spinning on my rotating clothesline too long, too lazy to bring the clothes in promptly—usually an hour in the Botswana sun was enough to dry even soaking wet jeans—and roaming goats had plucked four of my t-shirts off the line and eaten them. A cow once leapt over my chain-link fence, fairy-tale style, and devoured all the watermelons that I had planted, but failed to cover.
In Botswana you had to have buckets. If you didn’t have any buckets, or if you hadn’t any water stored in them, then the day when the borehole went dry or the diesel pump broke down—and there were many such days—you would have no water at all, to cook with, wash with, bathe with, or drink.
Such problems occurred not only in my small concrete-block home but also at the remote savannah school where I taught English, though because it was now technically summer break—here in the middle of December—and the students were largely absent, few things seemed to have much urgency.
Even water, that most precious of all commodities in the desert, was treated fairly lightly this time of year, so that the school cistern developing a significant crack in its base and leaking its stored rainwater into the desert sand should not have caused alarm. Money, however, what the Batswana called madi (which was also the word for blood), was taken very seriously by nearly everyone, and as the cistern was new and had taken a large share out of the school’s monthly budget, the deputy headmaster—who liked to be called simply The Deputy—was not pleased to see his investment hemorrhaging its contents into the schoolyard. The actual headmaster may also have had concerns, but always spent holidays out of town, seemingly as far from the school as possible.
I had taken the initiative to ask someone from the recently arrived highway crew to see if they could repair the leak—highway crews seeming likely to possess the tools and access to the cement that we would need for such a repair. As none of the other teachers or staff knew anyone on the crew, and as I happened to know the supervisor, I was here with Joop to request, humbly, if there might be anything he could do to help us.
Joop—rhymed with nope—was a Dutchman, though he had lived the life of an Afrikaner, most of it in South Africa. He had traveled up and down and across the bright continent many times. He was nearly sixty, in those days around thirty years my elder, and his presence here, with his wife, Nanci, had heralded the end of my tenure as the only foreigner in village. Now, I had thought then, there were three of us.
Joop was the head supervisor of the road crew constructing the Trans-Kalahari highway, a project which, when completed, would create a wide asphalt ribbon to span the entire mid-western part of the country, from Jwaneng to Ghanzi. It would not be long before the particular section of tar which was to bisect our small village would be laid. When this happened, when cars and trucks without four-wheel drives could easily come and go, I knew the dusty town would change forever, the way such towns—anytime, anywhere—always change in the face of this kind of development. For now, however, the main road consisted of shimmering packed white calcrete that blew up a fine dust whenever a vehicle passed, and most of the few trucks that roared into sight roared out of sight just as quickly.
“Oh, we must fix it,” said Joop immediately, of the cistern. I had brought up the topic of the cistern’s disrepair casually, but suspected he would say as much, and as we sat in his yard under the shade of his pergola (which had been constructed, vines and all, along with his entire house, expressly for the habitation of Joop and Nanci while they resided in the village) I felt grateful, though vaguely underhanded at not having just asked him directly.
We were drinking from glasses filled with cold Castle Lager. In those days I came to see Joop and Nanci once or twice a month—what seemed, to me, quite often, though Nanci was always complaining that I hid in my house across the village like a hermit. I suppose my visits to them were as precious to them as they were to me—it gave all of us the opportunity to speak to someone from a culture closer to ourselves than that of the Batswana who lived in the village, who were my students and colleagues and with whom Joop worked on a daily basis. Most of the Batswana, even if they spoke English, had never heard of the “The 60s” as an era, the era when Joop and Nanci met and fell in love while in college; they had never heard of Woodstock, or the Vietnam War, or listened to the Moody Blues. These cultural artifacts were not particularly salient in my own mind, either—I was born at the tail end of the 1960s—but I could offer at least a muddled understanding of them. When I sat at Joop and Nanci’s dinner table some nights, in their house that had its own diesel generator to provide electricity for them around the clock—the only location in the entire village to have this luxury—we listened to vinyl LP’s of the 70s: A Night at the Opera, Let’s Get it On, Black and Blue. They made me whiskey cocktails, fed me popcorn and pork chops with applesauce, delicacies I could not find anywhere in the village or very many places in the entire country. Once they served me a crisp toast with a red paste spread across it, and would not tell me what it was until I ate it. It was salty, like some sort of devilled ham, and they smiled at me, pleased. Nanci announced, “It’s filet américain. A Yankee fillet.” This turned out to be raw horsemeat formed into paste. They seemed surprised that I, an American, had never heard of it. But I hadn’t.
I could sit with them for hours and discuss movies, critique music, talk books and literature, and though on reflection I can’t imagine what I argued, I remember we even discussed philosophy and the social policies of South Africa, which in those days was still in the weakening grip of apartheid. As their guest I served a certain purpose, I suppose—I could affirm Joop and Nanci’s experiences as one-time younger people, as do-ers in their own era, as people with character who had been many places and seen many things, as urbanites—as, ultimately, White People not from Botswana.
“I don’t know if it’s fixable,” I said, having examined the cistern myself that morning. “The water seems to be coming from the stone beneath it, and I’m not sure it can be fixed without tearing the whole thing apart.”
“Yes, we mustn’t leave it,” Joop said, as if he had not heard me. “We’ll go today. Just you have to let me get some things and we’ll go in just now.”
Nanci had come from inside the house. “Where are you going ‘just now’?” she asked, having heard the last bit of his comment. They spoke, in my presence, only English, though it was not their first language. Their accents were slightly different than one another, though both of them handled English naturally.
Joop drank the last of the beer from his glass—I noticed mine was already empty, and I wondered how long ago I had finished it. He looked at Nanci for a moment, perhaps registering her question, and then his expression seemed to change, as if he were transmitting an answer to her nonverbally. After this pause, just long enough to be noticeable, he said “No, I just have to get Jambo and some tools from the office and we’re going to fix the school’s watertank.”
Nanci turned to me.
“We have a leak in the cistern,” I said.
She looked back at Joop.
“Z’ watertank, regenbak, it’s got a hole,” he said to her, not quite impatiently. “No, I’ll be back soon, eh?”
The office camp of the road crew consisted of several corrugated iron shacks, some of which contained desks and computers and fax machines, others serving as the actual housing units for the road workers—dorms of sorts, though very simply constructed and, unlike Joop’s opulent quarters, with no insulation or indoor plumbing.
“Let me just get some things,” Joop said, as he pulled his landrover pick-up beside one of the metal buildings. I sat obediently shotgun, enjoying the rare ride in a vehicle. He leaped out and entered a trailer, and through the dusty windscreen I watched a few crewmen walking around in their overalls and hardhats. All of these men were considered of high status if they ever entered the village, from the most humble go-fer among them to Joop himself. To work on the road in any capacity meant you had some skill, even if that skill was just using your brawn to shovel asphalt or load trucks with sand. Some of the better-paid workers were those who had licenses or experience enough to operate tractors or bulldozers. My male junior high school students aspired to this work. Some of my female students simply aspired to be these men’s mistresses. I never spoke to the men if I happened upon them in the village, though I had noticed them in increasing numbers as the roadwork picked up. I tended to attribute my lack of cordiality with the workers as a language issue, but they very well could have been just as fluent in English as they were in Afrikaans, a language I knew most of them could speak fairly well. As for their own native languages, I was not sure if they were South African, Tswana, or even Zimbabwean or Namibian language groups, and since I knew almost nothing of those languages, I did not usually try to make conversation were I to be faced with them at any of the few cafés, shops, or numerous bars in the village.
“There’s a quite a good one who gives me help,” Joop said. A man roughly my own age was running toward us.
“Ja, Jambo!” Joop shouted sociably. He said something else quickly in Afrikaans, and the man jumped without breaking stride into the bed of the pickup. I turned around to face the bed of the truck to acknowledge him, as there had been no introduction. He sat sideways looking off out into the bush and did not return my nod of greeting. I noticed a fine fleshy scar across his forehead, a scar which looked very old, and also very painful to have acquired. After a moment of craning around, I turned back to face forward and we were off.
The cistern was still leaking when we arrived after a brief, bumpy drive through the village and down the kilometer sand rut to the school. Though the Deputy was not present, I assumed no one would mind a repair, so we set directly to the task. Joop instructed the other man, Jambo, to mix carefully the water with a large sack of powder and a bag of gravel to make the concrete, and within thirty minutes, by packing the mixture neatly around the crack and extending the length of the standpipe, the base of the cistern looked even sturdier than when it had been first built, and Joop assured me there should be no more leakage. The whole operation struck me as very simple, no more complex than changing a tire. And yet I would not have known how to do it without being shown. Jambo wrapped up the empty bags and stowed them and the tools into the bed of the truck, then jumped in after them.
“If you have more problem with it, you should let me know,” Joop said, extending his hand. “There should be no more trouble. But you call me. I’ll see what I can do, ja?”
I shook his hand, but, unable to offer anything even remotely close to the comforts he had at the road camp, said simply “I really can’t thank you enough.”
Then they were gone.
So it was by the generosity of Joop that the cistern was repaired. The Deputy was quite pleased and surprised with the sudden results.
“My goodness, this is very nice,” the Deputy admitted, examining the nearly seamless mend in the stone base. “Please Clark, tell Mr….?”
“Mr. Van Dongen,” I said. “Call him Joop.”
“Joop,” the Deputy said, smiling at the sound of the word. “Yes, please tell ‘Joop’ that we are very grateful for his help and that he is most welcome at the school.”
The cistern itself was located outside the door of The Deputy’s home classroom. He also taught English in addition to his administrative duties, and during the school year his students could often be seen opening the tap for a drink before morning classes, or rinsing the residue of morning porridge from their enameled tin bowls.
“My goodness. He certainly did it quickly, didn’t he?” asked The Deputy. “Hy praat Afrikaans?”
The Deputy had spent some years attending school in what was at the time the South African segregated homeland of Bophuthatswana. He spoke Afrikaans fluently, or so it seemed to me, I who could speak barely the word “Ja.”
“He does,” I answered his question. “He’s Dutch, though. I think he doesn’t care for Afrikaners.”
In truth, Joop didn’t seem to care much for Dutch either, as there had recently been a group dispatched to a neighboring village to take geographical surveys for a Dutch university, and Joop had all but snubbed them, writing them off as “very rude.” Nanci had agreed.
“Dutch. I see. They must have a very beautiful house.” The Deputy said this with a kind of sarcasm, and I couldn’t understand if he were annoyed by the fact that Joop did in fact have a rather large and, by our village’s standards, quite expensive home, or if something else were bothering him.
“Yeah,” I said, of the house. “It’s air conditioned.”
“My goodness,” said The Deputy again. It seemed to have become his preferred interjection.
That afternoon I decided to take The Deputy to Joop’s home first-hand, to offer thanks but also to sate The Deputy’s apparent curiosity. I expected Joop and The Deputy would get along well, as The Deputy had some knowledge of South Africa where Joop had spent considerable time, and was old enough and knowledgeable enough about the world that he would no doubt have much to say. He was given to suddenly quoting Shakespeare, particularly Macbeth, a trait that I found unique enough that it made him unusually interesting relative to my other Batswana colleagues, who seemed content to disappear into their homes after school or go drinking in the village without me. The Deputy was also a fairly fluent conversationalist—much better than myself—and this could be a way of bringing my two tiny social worlds together.
The road crew lived out beyond the calcrete road, so that to get to Joop’s house we, with no vehicle at our disposal, had to walk through the village, up the same dusty sand ruts Joop and Jambo and I had driven through. On our way we decided to buy a few cans of beer as a friendship offering to Joop. We were, after all, going to be arriving unannounced, for in those days even telephones had not reached so far into the desert.
Exiting the bottle store, we encountered the man who had helped Joop repair the cistern faucet a few days before. His bright scar was unmistakable, and in the bright afternoon sunlight looked even more pronounced, as if inflamed anew.
“Jambo!” I called out to him. “Ya, monna.” It was my way of showing solidarity with the man. “Ya monna” was what I usually said in these cases in Tswana, mainly because it is what was always said to me in such situations—Ya, Monna—something like “Hey, Man.” But it was what you said; it was the code of Batswana men to acknowledge each other’s presence in the world and I had come to feel natural enough using the phrase as a greeting.
For a moment, he seemed to pause, and he looked, not at me, but at The Deputy, and then at neither of us. Then he kept moving, the brown paper bag in his hands crumpled as if it had been carried for a long time, recycled with every trip to the store.
The Deputy was regarding me with a face that seemed half-bewildered, half-appalled.
“I know him from the construction camp,” I said. This, I thought, would illustrate to The Deputy that I got out of my house more than anyone, even he, had expected. “Maybe he doesn’t remember me, though,” I admitted.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Clark,” The Deputy spat. “Don’t be such a ninny.”
In the glare of the sun we had been walking; there was no one else on the stoop of the bottle store. The sack of beer in my hands seemed unusually heavy, and I stopped, my shoes sunken in the warm, beachlike sand.
The Deputy didn’t look at me, and didn’t stop walking, anxious, it seemed now, to leave the shop, with or without me. “How could you think,” he said, “of such a ridiculous word.”
And suddenly it was as if I had just arrived on Botswana soil again. I was as unsure as I had ever been in my years of living there of what was expected of me. Every possible act before me seemed tentative, a mistake waiting to happen. The flat pan of the village stretched out brightly all around us. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
The Deputy did not turn to acknowledge me. He was down the steps now, and I quickly picked up pace again, trying to follow. He still wouldn’t look at me. “His name, Clark,” he said. “That man’s name is not Jambo.”