Peace Corps Writers
The Fireflies of Kalai (page 2)

The Fireflies of Kalai
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     The Peace Corps has known. They have known about the southern advancement of the Angolan civil war. It has been reported. But Group Thirteen, my group, is recruited anyway in May 1999, to train Namibian teachers at posts along the border. “Namibia deserves a chance at development,” country director Judith Oki says of the decision. “We have to give her a chance.” And when I receive my welcome packet in April, just three weeks before my graduation from university, I sign the contract and prepare to say good-bye to all my friends. I and twelve other do-gooders accept the charge.
     When Jose dos Santos is planning the battle at Kalai, he calls on Namibian president, Sam Nujoma, for help. Nujoma tells him to use Namibian soil to launch MPLA attacks. Nujoma is quoted as saying that Angola is Namibia’s ally. So, dos Santos sends hundreds of MPLA soldiers over the Okavango to set up cannons aimed at UNITA rebels in Kalai. However, the soldiers of the MPLA are ill cared for by their government; and they themselves, like the refugees, are starving and without supplies. The soldiers ransack clinics, markets, and citizens’ homes in search of food and medical supplies. Men are beaten. Women are raped.
     We Peace Corps Volunteers remain at our posts.
     UNITA rebels get wind of Nujoma’s pact with dos Santos and send in soldiers for revenge. Again, whatever is left from the MPLA ravishments fall into the clutches of UNITA rebels. They ambush cars on the Trans-Caprivi Highway, the only paved road leading east from Rundu into Caprivi, the Namibian panhandle. UNITA rebels carjack a group of French tourists. The rebels shoot their three children. In the head. The American Embassy posts a restriction banning U.S. citizens from traveling on the highway into the Caprivi region. The Caprivi Volunteers are finally evacuated, although the Okavango are not.
     We Peace Corps Volunteers remain at our posts.
     This is our life.
     This is my life. I walk six kilometers to Rundu Junior Primary School every morning at 6 a.m. — past the river, past suspicious men that I have never seen in town before. I teach people how to manage their classrooms, how to create learning aids, and how to read and speak English. I gossip with my friends. I eat fried fatcakes from a roadside vendor for lunch. I walk into town after school in the scorching afternoon sun. I stop at the HIV/AIDS prevention center to fetch Masatih from work. We grab cool drinks and shoot pool. He walks me home. After my nap, I jog to the outskirts of town past Kasava. The people wandering outside the camp are never the same. I wait for Aimee to walk in from Kaisosi so that we can watch the sunset over the Okavango River. This is my life.
     I want this life back.
     I remember sitting on the edge of the river with Aimee. It’s nearly ten o’clock — two hours past sunset — but the October heat hangs in the air and wraps around us like a wool blanket. The slow moving water catches slivers of moonlight which bounce back at us like boomerangs.
     “It’s beautiful out here,“ Aimee says, her words coming out drawled because her chin is resting on her knees. Small beads of sweat glisten at her temple, and fine ringlets of brown hair are pasted to her skin. I can still see her freckles in the dark. Her head pops up. She points. “Look, it’s starting.”
     Dozens of lights begin to flash far away on the Angolan side of the river. They come and go like momentary blinking bulbs shifting from one spot to another. Soon, dozens become twenty, ten, five, before dying out and reappearing a short distance away.
     Aimee says, “They remind me of fireflies back home in the summer.“
     I sigh. “Yeah, just like fireflies.“
     I want this back.
     I remember the mercury in the thermometer creeping closer to boiling, and Masatih showing up more regularly outside my bedroom window. The courtyard leading to my quarters is double-gated, so he has taken to spooking me through the window screen rather than banging on the outer gate and waiting for me to undo the locks.
Metaha zeni = Good afternoon.

ewa = okay

     “Metaha zeni,” he says, “let’s go for a swim.”
     “Ewa,” I say and meet him outside. He reaches out his hand for mine. I give it a quick squeeze and then try to release, but his long dark fingers envelope mine. I shake away. It’s not proper to hold hands in public, even if I am a foreigner, and he knows it. He tests my knowledge of Kavango social practices from time to time and helps me understand his people. He is part of the reason that I belong. He laughs and runs over to the gate to open it for me. I feed the ducks and rabbits in my family’s compound and head off to the river with him to swim for the rest of the day.
     I want this back.

ON THE MORNING OF THE BATTLE at Kalai, Jim assures us that we will return to our posts after the fighting is over. As a Volunteer, I never return. The evacuated Volunteers are shuttled from campsite to campsite waiting for Nujoma to repeal his decision. The war continues, and the Namibian army is even called in to help fight against UNITA. After two months, Oki finally puts on the brakes: “You’re going home.“

  

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