“Makuwa, Makuwa! Wiki!” A litter of two- to four-year-old children run after me, excitedly down the dirt path. I have almost as much dust on the bottoms of my Dockers as they have dirt on their faces. I turn and walk towards them. They scatter behind acacia trees. The youngest of them starts to cry. It is OK for them to follow after me, but not OK for the Makuwa, big, scary white lady to approach them.
“No, candy. Your teeth will rot in your mouth.” I know they do not understand a word I’ve said. They know as much English as I do Thimbukushu.
It’s late. I forgot my laptop in the school library. The library has already been broken into twice in the year I’ve been here. I don’t risk it. The village has one lamp post. If I didn’t already know these trails, I would have walked all the way out to the main road.
I look up at the sky, through the shadow of trees. I have never seen so many stars, yet the ground is pitch. The only light comes from the glow of television sets inside mud huts. It is such a juxtaposition that took some getting used to. The houses in the village are made of either mud with thatched roofs or cinder block with zinc sheets across the top held in place by large rocks or miscellaneous junk. I lucked out with a studio flat on the hospital grounds. At my age, I have nothing to prove. Hot running water is a good thing.
It’s June and cold. I have on a sweater and a light jacket. The jacket will come off before I reach school. The villagers are bundled like they’re ready for a New York blizzard. Now I know what the Canadians thought of us Phoenix residents with our whining about the cold.
I feel particularly sorry for the babies, bundled in so many layers, I can barely see their faces. There are undershirts, heavy sweaters and pants, nylon caps, mittens, and booties with socks. A blanket tightly wrapped around and the cotton sheet used to strap them to mother’s back. They can hardly breathe, much less move.
Of course, I’ll be remembering this in the dead of summer while I am standing in the classroom drenched in sweat. It is one thing to have sweat pouring down your back, but a whole other experience to have it dripping down your crotch.
Yet, with all this feeling of not belonging, never understanding the conversations around me, being the only white face in the crowd, after three years I cannot imagine going home to the sameness.
Photo: Cairo, Egypt, 1980 — Mark Wyatt