Xi and I: Tales from the Kalahari

In the semi-blockbuster movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the protagonist, Xi, a bushman from Botswana, finds a Coca-Cola bottle in the Kalahari Desert. The bottle, dropped from a plane, is hitherto unknown to Xi and his people. As the story unfolds the mystery and newfound significance of this “gift from God” turns Xi’s uncomplicated world upside down. Separate characters appear and plotlines evolve–most affecting emotions and encounters Xi never had before–but the central theme is that the bottle’s discovery is a life-changing revelation for Xi.

 

In my tale, the protagonist is an American from Boston and epiphany begins as a Peace Corps volunteer on the eastern edge of the Kalahari in Serowe, an almost movie-set-ready traditional African village. A tad southeast of the Okavango Delta, Serowe is midpoint on the paved road between Gaborone, the capital, and Harare, Zimbabwe. When it rains, which doesn’t happen much on the grassland savannah, the mud walls and thatched roofs of rondavel homes turn deep coffee-browns and burnt-reds. After it dries and sun blues the open sky, the well-watered, fertile land of low sagebrush ripens to a rich, rustic olive-green and yellow-gold. Disney could not sketch a more perfect Technicolor backdrop.

 

Before Botswana, my life, like Xi’s before the bottle, is remarkably ordinary.

 

There are the usual characters and subplots: good parents, three siblings, split-level ranch and blissful suburban existence. Plenty of friends roll in an out with whom I endure early love and heartache. I don’t travel much; never been out of the States. All along I am an American with a pedestrian sense of society, tradition and culture. Self-assured? Yes. Stubborn? A little bit. But I cobble together a mental album of memories and anecdotes, secretly hoping, like some, that my oh-so-boring life one day adds up a life-that-matters saga, maybe a celluloid blockbuster where, like Xi, I get a couple of heroic acts.

 

Eventually, something inside me wants transformation. I long to test my sense of self and my relationship to life around me. I yearn to learn about a world beyond anything I’ve ever called home. Growing up Irish-Catholic in Massachusetts I am drawn to President Kennedy and the idealism of the Peace Corps. So I join for reasons similar to other volunteers: thoughts of altruism and adventure.

 

When I arrive in Botswana I live with a host family and train at St. Gabriel’s mission with my fellow, newly arrived volunteers. Carl is one of them. His host family lives halfway between my host family and the mission. Each morning I stop by Carl’s and we continue onto St. Gabriel’s. One morning, in the middle of Carl’s family compound, I encounter chibuku – southern Africa’s moniker for indigenous beer – fermenting in a barrel.

 

Nosey and curious, I stick my head deep inside the dank wooden container to inhale its contents. My reflection, distorted in the shiny, milky brown concoction of sorghum and maize, echoes back like a fun-house mirror.

 

Dumela” (the standard Botswana greeting), I shout to no one in particular when my head pops up. “Is this chibuku?” I  heard about the notorious homemade brew, popular among expats for its high-alcohol content.

 

The compound – awhirl with adults, children, a goat, several chickens and a stray dog seconds before – is now still. All eyes are fixated on me. No one moves. Not the mother pounding millet. Not the teenage boy brushing his teeth by the bushes. Even the father, hungover and thrashing about, eyes cherry-red from drinking too much chibuku the night before, is frozen.

 

It occurs to me I’ve done something wrong. But I’m an American and I smell my food. A whiff of pleasant aroma traveling up my nasal cavity and my brain says eat, drink, enjoy. A stench or malodorous fragrance and my mind triggers bad, stay away. Smell, like sight and touch, informs and protects me.

 

Carl joins me hovering over the barrel. He’s oblivious to the family’s sudden displeasure. “Yes its chibuku. My family has been brewing it all night,” he says. “See you later,” he tells the others as we head off to St. Gabriel’s. “We’ll try the chibuku when we get back.”

 

That morning I learn from a Peace Corps trainer that you don’t smell food or drink in Botswana. That it’s considered unhygienic to stick your nose near either. The chibuku is gone when  Carl and I return. His family discarded the beer once they saw my honker sniffing around; it was deemed contaminated, unfit to drink or sell.

 

I complete my training and settle 200 kilometers south in Gaborone to teach communications at the Ministry of Agriculture. Gabs, as it is endearingly referred to, is by all accounts a bustling, small developing-country metropolis. On weekends the city’s vibrant commercial mall is abuzz with shoppers gawking to and fro and curios hawking art and textiles meticulously arranged on multihued African fabrics. Malachite stone busts and jewelry glisten. Teak and mahogany chessboards entice. And exquisite sawgrass weave baskets, embroidery that Botswana is world famous for, seduce prospective buyers. There’s also the bank where I cash my Peace Corps stipend and the central post office where I pick up care packages sent from Stateside family and friends.

 

My first visit to the post office and I see chaos all around. Customers are jam-packed; haphazard everywhere. I stake my position in a long, zigzag line and wait my turn at the counter. I watch and the line doesn’t move. I wait. I watch some more. If only I could jump behind the counter, I imagine, I could fix this mess. I’m an American and my patience runs thin. I’ve done my time bagging groceries and processing purchase orders in corporate America. I know good customer service. Frustrated, I leave without my package to try another day. To my surprise the scene is the same when I return. Henceforth I’m never without a good book in line. I get lots of reading done.

 

One of my first assignments at the Ministry is to travel with my Botswana colleagues to Ghanzi, a preposterously isolated village deep in the Kalahari, to cover an agricultural show. It’s a brutal three-day drive through unforgiving desert sand. My hand muscles atrophied from gripping a handrail so long. My back aches. I look around and daydream its Xi country. I keep an eye out for Coca-Cola bottles. I see none but the driver throws a soda can out the window and I follow it in the rearview mirror until it disappears, swallowed in the hazy wilderness, mercilessly bleak and stunningly beautiful, where it will remain long after I’m gone; from Botswana and earth. The thought haunts me.

 

On the drive, Nyelle, one of my colleagues, pulls out a bag of what looks like charred, hairy caterpillars. They’re mopane worms, he informs me. He starts popping them one-by-one in his mouth like popcorn. The worms, once moths, he says, are found on mopane trees, a plant that grows only in Africa and is an important source of protein for indigenous southern Africans. Preparation involves squeezing the guts out, a little oil, a lot of salt, and toss in the oven. Nyelle offers me some.

 

My face grimaces at the notion of eating worms. I decline the offer. I am American, I tell him, and I don’t eat insects, especially caterpillar-like worms that were once moths on trees. I show Nyelle a picture of lobster in a magazine I’m scanning. “Lobster is a delicacy in my country,” I tell him. His face cringes. “Mopane worm is a delicacy here,” he says, “and lobster is just a disgusting, bottom-feeding big ocean insect.”

 

In the final scene of The Gods Must Be Crazy, Xi takes the bottle to the “end of earth,” in order to restore peace in his village, and throws it back to the gods. He returns to his village a hero and embraces a new life infused with insight that the world is at once good and bad, happy and sad, right and wrong; it’s all in the perspective. It’s an engaging tale.

 

When I complete my Peace Corps assignment I return to the States to begin graduate work. Many years working in international development follow and I even travel back to Botswana. In the coming years, some melodrama – ordinary and not-so-ordinary –unfolds: a love one dies, a financial hiccup, short-term job loss. Age slowly creeps, but so do good health, happiness and a shadow of contentment that comes along with acceptance.

 

My tale is by no means complete. In the chapters since Peace Corps I am an American seeded by epiphany unearthed in the Kalahari. A glorious revelation that sometimes it’s taboo for me to smell food, that patience is a mutable state of mind, and that I’ll try anything once, generally speaking, even wolfing down a few worms, gutted and baked of course.

 

There is no hero to my story, certainly no bottle from the gods, but there is a gift. The benefaction that what I once thought about the world is not what I now know. It’s the beauty in transformative irony; that exogenous truths and underlying truths are generally not the same. A blockbuster? Probably not. But it’s quite liberating.

 

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.