The first time I fell into you I was a bit stunned
The cold water and dust knocked some of the excitement out of me
The hypervigilance drained me of energy
I spent my long WiFi-less, bookless evenings thumbing through postcards of Switzerland and France, of Chincoteague and the Okanagan Valley, anywhere but here
places that seemed as far away as Pluto
And here I was on the moon, counting the days until the ship would come to take me back.
I would spend my afternoons in expat cafés, reading the BBC News and brooding instead of planning my lessons.
Then I realized that when I fell into you, you were never supposed to give way beneath me like a big feather bed
That wasn’t it at all
I had to sculpt the key to fit into your lock
You wouldn’t speak to me in my language, so I learned yours
You wouldn’t let me start my day with warm showers, so I learned to enjoy the cold
You wouldn’t let me sit back and read while my clothes washed themselves, so I rolled up my sleeves and learned to hand-wash.
You wouldn’t let me carry a dozen things with me, so I learned to leave them behind.
You wouldn’t let me plan, so I learned to improvise.
I had a curtain of thick, sweaty brown hair that was totally inappropriate for the climate
So I chopped it off and felt free.
My instincts, which stuck out like French wine at a corner kiosk in Buterere
(50 times the price but not even as good)
eventually resculpted themselves.
Every moto-taxi ride became an adventure
Every meal a joy to be shared
Every power outage a party
And every misfortune, misunderstanding, bâclage, cafouillage, fuck-up
A story to be told and laughed at and washed down with Amstel beer
In the bottles as long as my arm.
I left with the memory of your eyes
staring across from me at that table in the neighbourhood bar in Mutanga
along with the stray cats who chased after whatever pieces of goat meat, liver and cow heart that fell from our plates.
I left and I felt like I was falling all over again
not into the feather bed I’d waited for and idealized
but into a whole other kind of hard, dreary existence
and when I cried, it was for you.
I came back two more times
and especially the last time
I leaped into your hot, thick, humid, dusty, diesel-smelling air
and felt like a fish rediscovering water
like a thin-lipped briefcase-carrying Western fish
rediscovering what it felt like to be hugged and loved and supported by people who weren’t blood kin.
The third time I left
I knew there was going to be a fourth time
You get used to these sorts of things.
Especially when you have an address and a SIM card full of contacts.
I was going to come back last month
when I heard your father died
But I had sprouted these annoying things called roots
which take some time to un-dig.
In that time, who would have thought
that the fragile peace you had built for ten years
That the smoky pall of cooking fires that covered Gihosha like a blanket
would be darkened with the smoke of burning barricades?
that the beat of the ingoma drums
would be replaced by the popping of gunfire?
that roads I knew well
would be criss-crossed with barbed wire
and the jogging songs that woke me on Saturday mornings
would become protest songs?
That “my” radio, its office as familiar as my bus stop and its jingle regular as sunset
Would be taken off air in the night, computers bashed in, mixers melted
a shell of a studio patrolled by armed guards
and all of the studios torched one by one
until old men, market women, visiting relatives and students home from school
stood in silence, heard the far-off guns
and wondered who was shooting at whom?
They thought that killing the radios would reduce the people to silence
but they were wrong
the songs of protest spread slowly but surely into the bush
and roadblocks, like tides, lapped up the privileged hills of Mutanga
leaving withered businesses, abandoned homes, closed schools and youth centres in their wake
Each side fighting for a country that the life is slowly being squeezed out of
I want to come right now
with a shipping container full of gently used sound mixers and foreigners’ good intentions
but I have to wait, to see when it can do the most good
If all our tools were burnt and torched again
then we’d be right back where we started
I have to wait until the flames have died down
That could be two days, two years or ten years
Your tiny nephew could be old enough to vote by then
I have to wait, but there will be a fourth time
Buja, my Buja, will I even recognize you when I come back?