A Writer Writes

The Fireflies of Kalai
by Christine Taylor (Namibia 1999–2000)

AS I ROUND THE DUSTY CORNER near my house in Rundu, the ground rumbles. Low, dull noise like tumbling rocks comes from the direction of the Okavango River. I halt and look down the street. The air, already gray, holds puffs of black smoke. I think I hear a woman screaming.
     It’s coming.
     I take off running. Blasts from near the river buzz in my ear. The toe of my sneaker catches the edge of a pothole. The sound of a sharp round of fire whistles through the air. I fall. I think I’m hit. The road is rocky and sandy. I crawl in the gravel. I realize that I’m still in one piece. I get up. I cover my head. I run like hell.
     Home.
     I reach the gate to my family’s compound just as the white van with the red and blue “Peace Corps” emblem hangs the corner. I ignore the van, and run through my gate.
     “Get in the car!” Jim, our regional director, says.
I run into my room and grab the purple box of Whiskas from my storage locker. I’m emptying the entire box into Nia’s, my cat’s, bowl when Jim flies in the door.
     “We’ve gotta get outta here!”
     My hand starts to shake, and a few nuggets of cat food bounce onto the floor. I look up at Jim. “I have to feed the animals,” I say.
     I told my family who are away on December holiday that I would feed their ducks and rabbits.
     I have promised.
     A thundering rumble from cannonfire shakes the ground again.
     “Fine,” Jim says and throws his hands up in the air. He pushes his dirty blond hair off his forehead. I grab my emergency bag — which I thought I’d never need — and run to the front of the compound. Jim is close behind when I stop and fall to my knees in the sand. He trips over me.
     “What?” he says, his eyes wide.
     “The dogs,” I say and point. I’ve been chased in the street by the neighbor’s dogs before, barely scrambling over the fence in time to save my limbs. Now these two strange mutt-combinations of broad heads, clenched jaws, and long legs rippled with muscles growl as they approach.
     “So what!” Jim says and jumps to his feet. He throws sand in the dogs’ eyes blinding them like mace. They yelp and cry. Jim clubs them with a stray tool from the yard. They run back next door.
I’m still kneeling in the sand.
     I watch Jim run to the front of the compound and dump seeds, pellets, and water into bowls and onto the floor of the animals’ pen.
     I’m still kneeling in the sand.
     Jim pulls me to my feet. He wobbles. His footing is off-balance on the shifting ground. The air has turned blacker with smoke. My eyes begin to burn. My vision blurs. Jim is dragging me to the car.
     “Nia!”
     “Just get in the car!” Jim shoves me in the door, and I fall in next to my friend Aimee. He has already picked her up from Kaisosi, her village just outside Rundu. I put my hand on the window.
     “She’ll be alright,” Aimee says, laying her hand on my knee.
     Jim nails the accelerator, and sand is kicked up behind the van. As he peels off, I keep looking out the window for a little black ball of fur running across the sand or hiding in a tree. I never see her. I only see the clouds of smoke coming from the river. I pray that my boyfriend Masatih, one of the town’s AIDS prevention workers, has stayed in his little hut on the other end of town. That he hasn’t gone out to distribute condoms to local villagers. That he hasn’t ventured out to buy dried fish from the market. That he doesn’t walk to my house. As the Angolan civil war spills over Namibia’s borders from the town Kalai I try to think of Nia tussling with a lizard, tossing it between her front paws. This will make me smile.

EARLIER THAT YEAR, Jose dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) — the ruling political party — declares yet another insurgence of the quarter-century civil war. This time, the MPLA vows to capture all the political strongholds of the opposing force, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), for refusing to uphold their part of the 1994 Peace Treaty. As the war moves closer to the southern end of Angola, thousands of refugees flood into northern Namibia from Angolan towns such as Muhopi and Kalai near the Okavango River border. They settle into a camp called Kasava on the outskirts of Rundu. From here, the refugees are transported to Osire, a larger refugee camp near the capital, Windhoek. By Christmas 1999, Osire bursts with 5,000 Angolan refugees. It has been built for 2,000.
     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,” 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.“
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.
     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.
     “Aimee, what about your trunk?” I say.
     “I’ll be back for it.”
     I open my mouth to protest, but then just nod and follow her out the door.
     We visit the other Volunteers’ sites farther down the Trans-Caprivi highway. All along the way, I scan the bushes lining the road. Once, I see an illusion of a soldier jumping out from behind a tree, his automatic rifle aimed at our truck, his eyes wild. I gasp, jerk, and nail my head on the window. The others laugh uneasily and tell me to think about other things. How do they know what I’m thinking anyway?
     After our last stop, we head back down the B8 highway. It’s nearly evening. I stroke Nia’s nose through the bars of her carrier. She purrs. The officer at the Red Line waves us through. We connect to the Trans-Namib. We leave the Okavango for good.

SHORTLY AFTER PEACE CORPS evacuates from the Caprivi and Okavango regions of Namibia, the Angolan civil war turns west and heads to other border areas. More Volunteers are evacuated from these regions. Peace Corps continues to recruit new Volunteers, however, and places them in areas farther away from the border.      The Angolan civil war rages on for another three years, finally coming to an end in April 2002, with the signing of a cease-fire treaty by both the MPLA and UNITA. This is the first period of long-standing peace in Angola since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. By the end of the 27-year civil war, it has been estimated that over 1.5 million lives were lost in the battles. One and a half million fireflies in the night.

IN MARCH 2005, I send Aimee an instant message to see what’s new. We’ve seen each other a few times since our Peace Corps tour, the last time being my wedding two years ago, but we keep in touch regularly by e-mail and IM. I tell her that we should take a trip to Namibia. For closure.
     She writes, “It just doesn’t feel like it’s finished.”
     I don’t know what has happened to my host family. Their e-mails stopped about a year ago and the local post is unpredictable. The last time I heard from them, Chipo tells me that Rundu is back to normal, like the battle had never happened. I pray that they are well.
     Masatih sends me a random e-mail whenever he can get his hands on a computer, probably in one of the government offices. In his last message, he asks me when I’m coming back to Namibia for him. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’m married now. Maybe it’s not fair that my life has moved on when life in Rundu persists as it always has under the tireless desert sun.

TODAY, AS I WRITE THIS, Nia sleeps under a purple azalea bush in my backyard in Hong Kong. Some days, when she crazily digs up spots in the dirt, I think about the times when she kicked up and rolled in the hot Namibian sand and ran around the compound more brown than black. I think about the times when Masatih bought her dried fish from the market and appeared after dark at my window, only his smile visible through the screen. I think about the children running barefoot around town, and my own feet that became so calloused and cracked that I could run around barefoot too. I think about watching both the sunrise on the way to school and the sunset with Aimee in the evenings. And when I sit on my balcony overlooking the slow moving waves of the South China Sea, I think about the Okavango River. But all I see are stars.
     This is now my life.

Christine Taylor accepted her Peace Corps assignment in Namibia three weeks before her graduation from Drew University. Skipping the ceremony, she began her service as a teacher-trainer in the Basic Education Support (BES) project in conjunction with USAID. After her interruption of service, Christine returned to the United States to teach ninth grade English in an inner-city district in New Jersey. Two years ago, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband Sean who is an assistant professor in Human Resource Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Christine works as an English language and literature tutor in a local learning center.