By Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio
Magulu, 28 April
She doesn’t speak any English, but somehow we communicate. Gladness is proud of the Goodnight Bar and Inn. It seems to be her own business. When she shows me the room, she walks around it pointing out its many features in loud Swahili. But it is the gestures and the enthusiasm I understand: Look, the windows have bars on them, the bed has a net without holes, the cupboards are roomy. Here is a small sink and mirror. Here are the towels. And a complimentary pair of green rubber flipflops. Down the hall are the bathroom and the shower. Baridi, she says, turning the knob so that water trickles out. I check my Swahili-English dictionary: cold. She picks up an empty bucket, "Moto." Hot. The hot water comes only in a bucket.
She does the cleaning herself. I watch her in the bar area, bent double so that her torso is almost perfectly parallel to her legs, dragging a damp rag over the floor. She wipes down the plastic table cloths and the plastic chairs. She polishes the glasses behind the bar. She waters the plants on the veranda. Her industry stands in contrast to the sloth of her customers. They lean back in the plastic chairs and stare at the television and drink beer after beer. The TV is on mute, while a radio plays African rap and whiney Swahili gospel. "Mwanza fresh!" the announcer burbles. "Mwanza poa!"
Mwanza, I remember the name. Melinda was looking at the map with her endless questions and pointed to one of its larger dots. "Mwanza. What happens in Mwanza?"
Jackson shook his head disconsolately. "A bad place. Mwanza. The people there burn old women as witches."
"How awful," Melinda gasped. "Do they really?"
"They see the red eyes of the old women and they say they are witches, and they lock them in their huts and set the huts on fire." He tapped his head. "The Sukuma people are very superstitious. But me, luckily, I am Christian."
Melinda wanted to know more about witches and about black magic, but Jackson quickly became reticent. I think he was ashamed, insulted even.
Now I’m sitting with a Coke on the veranda. The local policeman appears, PC James Kessy. His uniform is immaculate. He speaks very good English, and this makes me think that like Doctor Dorothea he comes from somewhere else. He says he needs my name and passport number. I produce the document. He peers at my passport photo.
"This is you, Mrs Pilgrim Lankester?"
I think to correct him. Not Mrs Not Lankester. Anymore. Yet, the truth, that versatile palimpsest, will lead to more questions, will unravel Arnau. "Yes," I say, instead. "That is me."
"You have traveled a lot."
"Ethiopia. What were you doing in Ethiopia?"
"My husband was working there."
"My husband was working there."
"He is UN?"
"International Red Cross."
Kessy nods in a knowing way. "There is always a war. Refugees. Famine. Always employment."
Yes, I think. Always a large report documenting what humans can do to each other. Always a case file marked Atrocity.
"And where is he now?"
"But he did not come with you?"
Why? An image of Elise flashes in my mind, her frizzy, badly cut hair, her small, sharp features. Her nose is slightly red, as if she has a cold. She is holding her baby. Their baby. Tom and Elise and the baby, like an image on a greetings card. "He is busy with work."
"What are you doing here?"
"I am on holiday."
"Holiday?" he laughs. "Without your husband? In Magulu?"
"I think you are confused. Maybe you want to go to Zanzibar or Ngorongoro." He looks closer at me. "No beaches here. No wild animals."
"I don’t want those things." I can see how badly he wants to ask but doesn’t: What could you possibly want in this forsaken place?
He hands me back my passport. "How long will you stay?"
"Then you will return to your husband?"
I nod vaguely, the best I can do. Perhaps he thinks I’m one of those women looking for a young African man, a Masai warrior, a hunky tour guide. Indeed, PC Kessy keeps his eyes on mine, discerning. Half of the truth is part of a lie. But which half? He’s not quite sure.
"I hear these NGOs have very good benefits," he says. Then he walks past me, and takes a seat inside at the bar.
In my room, I wash my face at the sink. The water is cold and I imagine the dark walls of the well and the smell of the damp stone encasement. The bed is too short so I have to lie at an angle, from corner to corner. I turn out the light, but the room is not dark. Light from the hallway shines over the top of the doorway. There is no ceiling above the rooms, only the pitch of the roof. So the walls are no more than privacy screens. Light and noise breach the walls with ease. It is impossible to sleep as I can hear the men drinking in the bar, low banter and laughter and the loud wah-wah of the radio.
Then, about ten, the generator cuts out. The darkness is sudden and complete. The radio stops and the voices mute and an entirely new layer of sound surfaces. The wind shaking the leaves of the bougainvillea bushes outside my window. The scuffing of feet and chair legs on the floor in the bar. A cough from one of the other rooms I didn’t know was occupied.
After a while, the men in the bar finish their drinks and wander out into the street. I can hear them talking as they walk away and the conversations fade or end one by one as they diverge into the night. "Exactly," someone is saying in forced English, "that is my point exactly."
There is a brief hiatus of silence, then a dog barks. And a faint, rhythmic squeak begins, as if off stage. It grows louder, approaching, and I know it’s a bicycle. I have in my mind that it is the man in the pink shirt whom I saw on the way here. I get out of bed and go to the window. But he has passed and there is only the empty street and the long, deep shadows of the moon upon the dirt road that goes nowhere, to nothing.
Magulu, 29 April
Gladness is sweeping. The dust particles tremble in the sunbeams. I am eating breakfast: tea and a greasy chapatti. Even though the menu is extensive, Gladness admits only the chapattis are available.
"Not even a blood-pressure cuff," Dorothea says, sitting down. Today her wig is a red pageboy and she wears a black-and-white harlequin trouser suit. She orders Gladness to bring her a Coke, and I note Gladness’s hesitation. There’s something in the doctor’s tone she resents. A touch of superiority? But she obeys.
As Gladness puts down the Coke, Dorothea announces, "Everyone here has an STD." Gladness accidentally spills the Coke, grabbing it before it tips all over Dorothea—who continues regardless: "Gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital warts. They are all infested. They are all having unprotected sex. I don’t know about AIDS. What is the point of testing? There are no retrovirals available."
Dorothea is so small that her feet, in worn-down kitten heels, barely touch the floor below her chair. The silky red strands of her wig sway in opposition to her almost continuous movement. She cannot sit still.
I turn my head towards her. This is encouragement enough. I learned through my years with Tom—dinners, cocktails, luncheons, barbeques, embassy functions, speeches, gatherings, get-togethers, Christmas parties—that most people require only the slightest response to believe you are listening. The flicker of a pulse, really, is sufficient.
"Do you know I chose to come here? I chose it! Yes! I believed it was my duty. All the others in my year, they wanted postings in the cities, in big hospitals. Me, I said, “It is my duty, it is my responsibility to provide medical care to the poor people in the countryside.” Do you know our first president? Julius Nyerere? Mwalimu. Teacher. He was a teacher, a humble man and he wanted a nation of humble people. He sent people from the cities, he forced them to go and live in the country so they would not think they were superior. They would know the life of a peasant. But the joke is that I have no blood-pressure cuff. Sometimes I don’t even have antibiotics because there is no distribution. The government pretends we do not exist. I gave my last Ciprofloxacin to your friend." She pauses to order another Coke from Gladness, then hurries on. "How can I get some? Anything? Betadine. Antimalarials. There is no vehicle, not one in this town, not one for many miles, and the District Medical Officer never sends anything to me. What kind of medical care can I provide? How can I be a doctor? Can you tell me?"
I mumble the sympathy she must be expecting.
Dorothea hasn’t finished: "I cannot treat people so of course they do not come to me and they continue to go to their mganga and so nothing changes. We are still living in a primitive time and they believe if they take tea from this root or that tree bark it will cure venereal disease, will cure glaucoma, will make it possible to have a baby even though the woman’s uterus is full of infections. Her ovaries are scarred. No eggs can come out."
Now she sighs, leans back, and again I am struck by the physical dichotomy: her neat, doll-like features belong to those of a young girl, but her skin is slack at the jaw; she’s older than I had first thought.
I realize that I’m quite glad of her company, for she apparently requires nothing of me. She doesn’t want to know. She just wants to talk, to complain, and her voice is like an idling car; it gently pads the otherwise blank air. I drink my tea, tear at the chapatti and wonder where to wipe my greasy fingers.
The dust lifts from Gladness’s broom, sparkles, and the stillness revolves around me and I’m in the middle of it, sitting very still. But there is something beyond it—movement, and I feel a tiny quiver at the base of my spine.
On the periphery there is the rushing.
On the periphery there is glass bursting.
Little bouquets of flowers.
Mrs Gassner trying to tie her shoelaces.
A little girl moving like a beetle on its back—
"Friend? Would you like a Coke, friend?" Dorothea says.
I wade back towards her. I see her clearly and precisely in the chair beside me, her head cocked to one side, smiling, but also with the same look of concern she had for Melinda. I feel a momentary rush of gratitude, as if she’s pulled me from rough water. I want to touch her small hand to confirm she’s here, I’m here. The dread in my stomach uncoils.
"Do you have a fever?" she peers from under the red pageboy. "You look somehow unwell."
She laughs, a little snort, "And what could I do anyway! No stethoscope. No antibiotics!"
Later, I look up the word mganga. It means witch doctor.
Magulu, 30 April
Evening, around five, and I decide to go for a walk. To follow the nowhere-nothing road north. I intend to go a few miles and turn around. I walk past the clinic, which is shut—no sign of Dorothea. There are then the two half-finished buildings, which precede the edge of town. Immediately after: the bush. It is a matter of feet to step between the two worlds—this awkward human outpost and the stuttering, fidgeting bush.
The road bisects the green, drawn with all the certainty of a three-year-old’s crayon, wobbling, but indelible. I can’t understand why it’s a road at all as I never see cars, and there isn’t the trace of a tire track on the earth, even where, hard packed, some imprint might remain from the rainy season. There are, however, many bicycle and livestock tracks and footprints, some bare.
I walk for about ten minutes before I see the children. They are still some distance ahead—perhaps five hundred yards. I see they are playing with a puppy on a string. I wonder where they live, for there are no huts nearby, none that can be seen, only paths that diverge abruptly into the bush. I think how much is hidden.
As I come closer, I realize the children aren’t playing with the puppy, they are torturing it. One drags the puppy along the dust, the rope so tight around its neck it cannot breathe or squeal, while the other two hit it with sticks. They are so involved with their game, laughing hysterically as they hit and hit the puppy, that they don’t notice me until I shout, "Stop it!"
Immediately, they look up. Their faces express a strange and shifting mixture of emotion: fear, excitement, and something else I can’t quite register. They abandon the puppy, which has urinated and shat all over itself, and rush towards me, dancing around me.
"Mzungu! Mzungu!" they scream.
"Pen, pen, pen!"
"Mzungu! Pen! Mzungu! Give me, give me!"
They circle around me, laughing, their bare feet stirring little clouds of dust. "Mzungu! Give! Give! Give!"
I feel sharp little fingers pulling at the pockets of my skirt. "Give me!"
I grab the girl’s hand and push it away, "No!"
They move quickly, their dexterous little hands poking and pulling. And dancing, they laugh, so I can see their little pink tongues and sharp, white teeth. "Pen, pen, pen!" I smell them, their unwashed clothes, the rags that pass for clothes, their filth and sourness.
"Stop," I say again, but they do not pause or care.
One of the boys slaps the back of my thigh and screams with laughter. The other reaches over and pats the front of my skirt, my groin. I try to back away, but they move with me, patting and slapping now, pinching, dancing, laughing, chanting:
"Mzungu, mzungu, mzungu, give me!"
An angry shout, a male voice.
In an instant they scatter, and are gone. Absorbed back into the bush.
It is PC Kessy. "They are animals," he says.
"They’re just children," I turn, holding the tremor in my voice. "They don’t know what they’re doing."
Kessy raises his eyebrows, "They touch you like that and you think they don’t know what they are doing?"
"They don’t really know what it means."
"And when they do know, do you think they’ll stop and become civil?"
Kessy laughs. "You should not stay here."
"Because of these animals?" I say it with a kind of challenge in my voice.
"Because you don’t understand."
"They are just children." I repeat this as if to convince myself. Yet, I wonder: what would they have done to me if Kessy had not come?
He is silent a moment. "Please, Madam, walk back to the town with me."
"No, I want to walk on. Not far. To the top of the rise."
"But the view is the same from here as it is from there."
I start to walk anyway. He shakes his head and falls in beside me.
"I don’t need a police escort."
"I am just walking this way. To the top of the hill."
So we walk, saying nothing. And from the top of the rise I see the land rummage on. In the distance are more hills.
"That is Kenya," Kessy says. "Less than twenty miles."
"And the road goes there?"
"The border is closed. People must only use designated border crossings."
"But they cross anyway."
"Of course. Smugglers, Masai, local people. Who is going to stop them? Me? With my club? My torch?" He laughs at himself. "My laws?"
We stand for a while in the low wind. I’m thinking about the children. The way their teeth chattered and snapped. They are a rendering of this place, of the hidden, dark huts and the weary violence that breeds there, and ends up, one day, in a report on the desk of a human rights lawyer marked Atrocity.
Walking back, we pass the place where they disappeared. I can make out their footprints in the dust, a fandango, and here and there the tiny paw prints of the puppy.
"What are you doing?" Kessy asks.
"Looking for the puppy."
"It has gone. It has followed the children. Look." He crouches, shows me the tracks.
And I’m washing my face in the sink. It is later now, after dark, and the generator has quit, so I have only a cheap candle and this wavering, narrow light. I’m washing my hands, surprised at how dirty they always are. I look at myself in the cracked mirror above the sink, push back my hair. I’ve lost weight, it shows in the hollow of my cheekbones. The children—of course, they are just children. Their gender and their number are a coincidence. A girl and two boys. From huts in the bush. But there, again, is the odd loosening, the wavering, and I force myself to look in the mirror. Here I am. Here. My hands on the sink. The solidity of things. Touch my face with my fingertips. Feel my skull under the skin.