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Tuesday, 06 February 2007

Home Again in Africa

Written by Ryan Krogh
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memeWhen I first met my new sister, she was afraid to touch me because of my skin. She had never seen a white person before. Her name was Rautia and she was six years old. When we were introduced, Rautia cowered behind her mother’s legs, only stealing quick glimpses of me from behind her mother’s turquoise dress. I said ‘Hello’ in Oshivambo like I had practiced, but it only frightened her more; she didn’t like a white person speaking her language. That first day Rautia followed her mother around like a skittish cub, careful never to stray too far from her side.

The boys in the family were much more cavalier about it. They tried to rub the whiteness away with dirt, or scrub my blonde hair in soapy water, hoping the color would wash away. Simon, the youngest at four, liked to press on the back of my hand with his fingers and then release it, watching the blood rush back into his white thumbprint. Alfeus, who was eight, was particularly perturbed by my feet. The African sun had tanned the skin around my sandal straps a leathery brown, leaving the skin underneath nearly translucent in comparison. He was teaching me how to wash myself, per his mother’s instructions, in a dented tin basin they used as a bath. At first he was perplexed, then frustrated that my tan wouldn’t wash away. He finally yelled for his mother to come and see, telling her that it wasn’t his fault my feet wouldn’t come clean.


For Rautia, however, my whiteness was much more distressing. On the second day of my three-week stay one of Rautia’s aunts noticed her reluctance to approach me. Kneeling, she spoke to her in Oshivambo, trying to coax her into touching me. Rautia stubbornly resisted. Finally, her aunt grabbed her hand and pulled it forward, forcing it upon my arm. Rautia shrieked and yanked her hand away. She ran, crying, to her mother’s side. Afterwards, the women laughed and teased her.

The family lived in rural Namibia, twenty minutes from the Angolan border, and during my stay I found it particularly difficult being the only white person in the region. I had come to Namibia to study African history and culture at the University of Namibia. The school had arranged for my stay with the family. When I left for the North, I had little idea of what to expect and no clue that many of the people had never seen a white person before. Day after day neighbors would come by to see me, the funny-looking American student, as if I was a circus attraction. Many of them wanted to touch me. I was constantly aware of my whiteness. Away from home for the first time, even amongst so many people, I often felt alone. Many times I even felt uncomfortable in my own skin.

At first, Rautia’s mother was amused by all the attention I received but eventually she grew tired of it. Sometimes she sensed my unease and tried to make me feel at home. One night after Rautia refused again to say goodnight to me, she explained that Rautia was afraid of white men because of the things her father said. She seemed apologetic.

“My husband works in a mine and does not have good things to say when he comes home. He tells Rautia that white men are not nice, ” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “I understand.” She smiled at first and then looked at me intently, as if she wanted to say something more. Instead she merely held my shoulders in her hands and kissed my forehead goodnight. “Sleep well, my son,” she said. “Good night,” I told her. It was the first time she had called me her son.

A week before my stay with the family ended, as we ate breakfast, one of Rautia’s aunts rushed her little girl to our homestead. Her name was Aamu and she was lifeless in her mother’s arms. The women quickly set her in a nearby chair and disappeared outside without a word. Alfeus and Simon continued eating their buttered bread as if nothing happened. Rautia, however, retrieved a damp towel and applied it to Aamu’s forehead. I looked on with concern. Rautia, who had finally begun talking to me, motioned me over to feel Aamu’s forehead. When I touched her forehead, it was disturbingly warm, like a heated bowl, and she moaned as my hand moved over her face.

“Malaria,” my mother explained when she returned. “Not good.”

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “I will need you to watch the kids.”

“Of course,” I said, quickly realizing her intentions.

I had not yet met my mother’s husband, nor would I—his work at the copper mine only allowed him to return every six months—but as one of the few workers with a supervisory role my family was comparatively wealthy. In addition to the traditional rondavels—round, wooden huts with roofs made from millet stalks—our family had two short, cement houses covered by corrugated tin. Furthermore, our family was one of the few who owned a vehicle, a small, ochre-colored pickup truck. Aamu was brought to my mother because of the vehicle; they would need to drive to Oshakati for medical treatment.

When the women were ready to leave, Alfeus and I were ordered to push the truck down the sandy, two-track road so that my mother, who was sitting behind the wheel, could pop the clutch. When the engine finally stuttered to life, Rautia’s aunt jumped into the bed of the moving truck, Aamu jostling in her arms, and together they roared off down the road. As they disappeared into the veld I suddenly realized I had been left with no instructions for the kids. I had no idea what we would do for the day, or what we would eat. I was left in charge of a family without a clue what to do.

For the rest of the morning, the kids seemed content to play at home, kicking a soccer ball against the wooden spikes of the palisade surrounding the ehumbo. By the afternoon, they grew restless. Simon yanked on my shirt and told me he was hungry. “I know,” I said. “I’ll figure something out.”

storeWith no idea of what else to do, I decided to take them to a nearby collection of huts next to the main road. My family owned a bare, cinderblock store in the ramshackle settlement and they sold beer and soda to travelers from a chest freezer inside. I knew from past visits that someone from the extended family was always there. When we arrived, it turned out to be Peter, Rautia’s eldest cousin.

“Nawa, nawa,” he said, greeting us effusively. He motioned us inside and reached deep into the freezer to retrieve a tepid Fanta. Peter was younger than I but he quickly took charge of the kids, giving them the soda and telling them to go play. Before long the glass bottle was empty and the boys were enveloped in a game of football. Rautia wandered off to play with her younger cousins. Peter told me that he had been wondering when we would arrive. Our mother had stopped by on her way to Oshakati. He had been waiting for us all morning.

Throughout the afternoon, Peter and I sat talking in the shade of a giant sausage tree, its brown pods hanging around us like dead bananas. We talked of Namibia and the United States, Peter wondering about American movies and I asking him about African music. Late in the day, Peter’s mother came by with fried chicken and mahangu—a gritty paste made from ground maize—and Peter yelled for the kids to come and eat. We sat in silence and ate with our fingers, dipping balls of mahangu into a gravy-like sauce made from the chicken. After eating—the kids ran off to play again. I watched as Peter broke the chicken bones in half and sucked the marrow out. As the sun sank I began to wonder what we would do when night fell.

My mother returned just before dusk. She hugged and thanked me profusely when she arrived. She was sore and dusty from the ride and had come back alone. I asked her about Aamu but again she said “not good” and I was left wondering what would become of her. I wanted to press my mother and enquire further but she seemed impatient. “Come,” she said, hurriedly, “It will get dark before long.”

footballMy mother yelled for Rautia and she waited while I collected the boys. I had to interrupt their soccer match and jokingly wrestled them to the ground to get them moving. I even carried Simon back on my shoulders. My mother smiled as we approached and said that she was happy the boys had an older brother now. She told me it was my turn to take care of them. Suddenly I felt sad. I had only a few days remaining with the family, yet I was finally feeling comfortable in the region. For the first time since arriving I had forgotten that I was white. It was no longer an issue. I was just part of the family. I was sad because I knew I would be leaving soon.

After we had gathered around my mother, she grabbed Rautia’s hand and quickly took off marching amongst the scrubby mopane trees. Before long we were enveloped by darkness.

Along the way, Simon grew tired and began complaining to his mother. Without stopping she picked him up, letting go of Rautia’s hand, and carried him cradled against her bosom. She held his head to her chest as she ducked beneath and around stray branches, weaving innately through the veld. Occasionally she would turn and smile, checking to see if I was still behind her. kids

As we walked, a branch snapped behind Rautia and she jumped at the noise. Startled, she lunged forward and crashed into me. Her eyes peered into the blackness behind her, looking for the cause of the sound. Her hand quickly searched for mine in a panic. When she found it, she looked back at me in confusion, as if she suddenly realized what she had done. It was the first time she had willingly touched me. She pulled quickly away, holding her hand as if she was in pain, like she had been burned. She stood still and stared into my face, looking for reassurance. She asked me about the noise.

“Don’t worry,” Alfeus said, teasing her. “It was just me. I threw a stick.” He was laughing and Rautia pushed him, embarrassed.

“Ryan,” my mother commanded me, “hold your sister’s hand.”

“Yes,” I said and held out my hand for Rautia. At first she turned and demanded that Alfeus hold her hand as well. She didn’t want him to frighten her again. Then she insisted on our mother holding my hand so that we wouldn’t get lost. Finally she looked at me again. I smiled at her and told her that it was all right, that it would be fine. In the faint light I could see her nod and smile back. Then slowly and carefully she placed her hand in my open palm. I closed my hand gently around her tiny fingers and told her not to worry. “Come,” my mother said, and yanked on my hand to get us moving, “the night is here.”

And so, hand in hand, with our mother leading the way, we walked back home again, my family and I.

© Ryan Krogh

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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