Peace Corps Writers
The Fireflies of Kalai (page 3)

The Fireflies of Kalai
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The Peace Corps office staff allow me to use their telephone to call my mother in New Jersey. When she hears my voice, she lets out a long breath.
     “What’s going on over there?” she asks. “I saw on CNN that there’s trouble, but they only play small parts . . .”
     “I’m coming home.“
     “Good. I told you that you were going to get killed over there. When are you leaving?”
     I haven’t booked an airplane ticket. I tell my mother I’ll surprise her.
     I’m not ready to leave.
     Not yet.
     Aimee and I, along with three other evacuated Volunteers, decide to rent a truck to go back to the Okavango region. To say goodbye. We owe at least this much to our host families. We owe at least this much to ourselves. Since the American Embassy has issued a travel restriction preventing citizens from entering the Okavango region, we leave in the middle of the night, hoping that no one who works for Peace Corps will see us leave town. After six hours of driving up the Trans-Namib highway, the sun starts to rise, and we reach the “Red Line,” the former segregating line during apartheid that is now used for livestock control. We cross over into the Okavango region and make our way up the B8 highway.
     The first time we crossed the Red Line during our site visit in July, Aimee and I remarked at how lush and green the Okavango region is compared to the harsh desert surroundings in other parts of Namibia. As we traveled up the B8 highway, the greenery wrapped itself around us, and we knew we were home. Near Rundu, woodcarvers and clay molders lined the road selling their wares. We honked repeatedly at cows and goats in the road.
     Today, however, there is no charm. The morning sun seems dull and the stillness is uncanny. As we get closer to Rundu, the road becomes increasingly pitted. The truck bumps and sways trying to avoid chunks of rock and tar. We are on the lookout for landmines. We realize that at any minute, the van could blow into smithereens. Sarah McLachlan plays from a dubbed cassette tape. No one speaks.
     My house in Rundu is the first stop. Chipo hears me open the gate and, she runs out from the courtyard. We have been growing closer, but this is the first time I hug her. Her husband Alex is now standing near the door holding their son Kudzai. Tatenda, their daughter, runs up to me.
“Auntie, Auntie! I saw your cat this morning,“ she says.
     I call for Nia, but she doesn’t come. I start to cry.
     Aimee nudges me from behind. “C’mon, she’ll come. There isn’t much time.“
     I go inside with my family and frantically pull meaningless belongings out of my locker and shove them into a suitcase. All the while, I’m railing to Chipo and Alex about what has happened since I have seen them last. I tell them that the Peace Corps says I cannot come back. In the middle of it, I notice that there are dead creepies all over my room: cicadas without wings, frogs’ legs, dismembered lizards. I run outside and call again for Nia. She comes bounding out of a tree and runs over to me. I pick her up and see that she’s got a five-inch scar running across her belly. The skin flops down revealing the pink flesh underneath.
     Alex comes up behind me. “I noticed it the other day, but she wouldn’t let me catch her. She only comes for you.”
     I pop Nia into the carrier that I have brought to take her away, my one piece of Namibia.
     Tatenda stands just outside my room watching me. “Auntie, what are you doing? Are you leaving, Auntie? When are you coming back?”
     How can I tell her that I won’t be around for her seventh birthday, that I can’t help her with her homework when school starts again, that I’m never coming back?
     I grab a stuffed beanbag lion off my bed. An old friend from the U.S. sent it to me to remind me to be brave. I hand the lion to Tatenda. “Can you take care of him for me? He’ll need a good home, and I know you will make him happy.”
     Tatenda looks me square in the eye, takes the lion, and clutches it against her chest. She nods her head knowingly while Alex pats her head.
     Leaving my house, we must drive down the road near the river. It’s the only paved road running east. The once lush riverbank is squashed, like herds of super-sized elephants have come crashing through. But no one on the street seems to notice. Old women still sell tomatoes and carrots on the roadside, children kick around soccer balls made from wads of plastic grocery bags, and a man sips beer while leaning on a pole in front of the post office. I wonder if I’ll see Masatih on the road too. I don’t.
nane = mother

mahangu = staple grain grown in northern Namibia

     We head to Aimee’s site in Kaisosi. After entering the homestead, we find her nane sitting with a group of women banging mahangu flour. She rises. “You’re back,” she says.
     “Just for a while,” Aimee says. She goes over to greet her nane properly, holding her elbow while shaking hands, briefly squatting while kicking up one foot. I also greet her, and then lay my head quickly on her shoulder. Aimee’s nane has always allowed me this little bit of intimacy, maybe because I’m brown too.
     We go into Aimee’s mansion-sized mud hut, and she packs a few things. She turns to squat out of the door, but she is leaving behind a large wooden trunk that she bought from a woodcarver several months ago.
  

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