Novelin’ in Macha, Zambia
For nine or ten months, dread your upcoming time in Africa without knowing what, exactly, to dread, and assure your mother-in-law when she tells you, “I’m so glad you’ll be with her,” that If something bad happens, like spill-over-genocide from DRC bad, there really won’t be anything you can do because you’re, “Just some guy.” Distract yourself: gather a large supply of DEET, a mosquito net, Clif bars (30-50), powdered detergent, 1.5-3 lbs. granola (that will taste like detergent upon arrival), a sewing kit, a Gerber/Leatherman & Swiss Army Knife (the knife’s corkscrew will prove useful for repairing a calcified hose on your toilet), wristwatch (cheap so it does not attract attention), battery-powered alarm clock, visa: (do not tell customs you’ll be working in Zambia [even though it’s the truth, and you are volunteering at a mission and telling the truth would be the Christian thing to do] or your visa will be good for only 30 days) say you are a tourist, high-quality ponchos (that you’ll never need except for while walking on rope bridges high above Victoria Falls), instant oatmeal packets (30), instant soup packets (30), beef jerky (15), nuts (a variety of), The Brothers Karamazov, and that novel you’ve been working on: that thing about the boy who was molested and went to war and then became addicted to the taste of shotgun barrels.
Go to Africa.
Tell yourself that “Go to Africa” will never be an insult you use at cocktail parties when you return from Africa no matter how badly you may want to; the humor is dead to you. Avoid cocktail parties: not that you cared for them before you went to Africa.
Do not read True at First Light and expect it to be as good as A Farewell to Arms. Research a method to haunt anyone who considers publishing your incomplete works after you’ve died (or worse: before you’re dead). Upon learning that necromancy and necromancers are actual things in Zambia, decide to consult the local necromancer on matters of posthumous publication and royalties. Work on your novel and then decide against consulting a necromancer; focus on living this life.
Read Hemingway’s quote on the Jollyboy’s wall: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.” Did Hemingway mean that he felt relieved to be alive each time he woke, or is the sentence broken; he “never knew of a morning in Africa when [he] woke up that [he] was not happy.” What about the mornings when he woke up that he didn’t know of: was he unhappy on any of those? Do questions like this make eating a bullet seem like a good idea? Novel. Time.
Arrive in Macha. Filter water using a metal bucket with white tubes inside called “candles”; do not ask why you’d call something that filters water the same thing you’d call something that can illuminate a room or sets flags on fire. Store water (when it runs) in Sprite bottles and a yellow plastic trash can. This water will be used for toilet flushing, hand washing, shaving, and if things get stinky enough, bucket showers.
Do not drink unfiltered water!
At the first sign of tummy trouble take one 500mg tablet of Ciproflaxicin. Ooyu musamu uyoomuwasya ~ This medicine will help you. But it is unavailable to many Machans due to the distance they must travel to get it. Be grateful the medicine is there if you need it even if you never do. Work on your novel.
Do not go outside for more than one hour at a time to ensure that you’re not killed by something you are unprepared to face e.g., conversations with locals, traveling “goat meat” salesmen who haul large plastic sacks of gore, goats proper, cattle, guinea fowl, roosters that crow themselves hoarse (even well after midnight; God help you if there’s a full moon), rivers of migrating ants, locusts, termites that build mounds taller than buildings, tarantulas, cobras, and, of course, witch doctors, necromancers, sorcerers, pin casters, chiefs, and the suspiciously small bananas your neighbor leaves on your doorstep each afternoon.
Learn gin. Play gin with your wife. Enjoy the snap of the cards and the conversation. Don’t convince yourself that winning is the bridegroom of enjoyment. Is something burning? Aren’t you supposed to be working on your novel?
Thaw frozen chickens. Cook thawed chickens. Make dumplings with flour and filtered water and paprika (ingredients abandoned by missionaries who escaped before your arrival). Pick lemons but don’t submit to the stabs from the thorns of lemon tree branches even after your belly and arms are pricked so many times that you bleed all over your shirt; this is a minor irritation and you will make scabs, you will heal. Make lemonade without getting lemon juice in your wounds, avoid that fire, that pain, because you can. Eat Nsema (a flavorless paste made delicious by the juices of whatever meat is served with it) at the only restaurant in Macha that is still operating after the other restaurant closed due to embezzlement (or so you hear from the local missionaries who have no reason to lie to you: that you know of). Eat with your hands because there is no silverware, while the locals laugh at you; smile at them as if you get it and say, “Mwabonwa,” because it’s one of two things you know how to say, a greeting that translates to “I see you” and is the truth. Mwabuka, the other greeting you know, is a more personal greeting, and you don’t feel right being personal with people you pass on the red-dirt roads who you’ll probably never see twice. There’s not much point in getting to know too many people in a place where you’re basically a ghost.
Eat dinner with the medical advisor and the logistics advisor and his wife, with your neighbor who’s been in Macha for more than 20 total years despite an 8-year hiatus after being burnt out because all of her friends were dying of AIDS and some co-workers were dying of AIDS and some people at the church were dying of AIDS and: AIDS. Remember your dad’s sex talk when you were thirteen: “Wear a condom, son. I don’t want you dying of AIDS.” Eat three meals a day and know that each day as you walk your wife to work and mumble Mwabonwa to skinny children, men, and women that even if they don’t have AIDS, they are likely hungry. But unlike you, they don’t eat with the medical advisor; they might not be able to afford Nsema any old time they please. Drink six cups of Nescafé a day to keep the tummy-rumbling hunger that you put upon yourself at bay; this is cheating. Your hunger is a privilege. Work on your novel.
Do at least 100 push-ups and sit-ups each day. Walk your wife to work after lunch. Hug her. Tell her good luck; she will need it if she wants to be the first person to cure a six-month-old cursed by the trifecta of AIDS, TB, and Hepatitis. Work on your novel. When writing becomes too hard, read:
“Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them” —Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov.
Name the spider that shares your writing space Nelson. Name the gecko who hides in the bookshelves Stephen. Name the smaller spider that hides behind the kitchen door Fran. As you crawl under the mosquito net, ask your wife if it’s weird that you tell Nelson goodnight. “Yes,” she says. “Well goodnight, Nelson,” you say. And your wife shakes her head, rolls to face away from you and says, “I love you.”
Eat two eggs for breakfast. Be irritated that egg sticks to the pan because the pan is such low quality. Be irritated that you must use scouring pads that are caked with what must be years’ worth of food particles and congealed grease to scrape egg off the metal. Be irritated that you must cook with electricity and not gas. Drink Nescafé. Settle into your chair and work on your novel. There is a boy in that book who needs you. There is a boy in there who you can help.
Your Western Michigan University email account is locked down by the OIT Security team because you tried to login from an IP address in Africa; merely being in Africa is a digital sin worthy of email excommunication. Who needs emails from the university anyway? Is the water running? Should you take a shower? Should you fill the bottles. Is something burning? You should probably work on your novel; that is a thing you can control.
Become frustrated when a brownout allows the microwave to run well enough so that the tray spins but poor enough so that the water you need for your fifth cup of Nescafé remains unheated. You fly at the microwave! You beat your breast and literally shake with anger.
Write sentences that rely on Dostoevsky-(an) (en)(ian)(esque)(?) emphasis because at first it appears the only books on the shelves not related to faith are Crime and Punishment (Okay, so it’s a little bit about faith), Zeitoun (by Dave Eggers: Nein danke), and books on Tonga grammar. Gravitate to the thing you understand the least.
A Practical Introduction to Tonga.
Lesson One: Ba-ntu ba-fwa.
People-they die. The people have died, are dead.
Perhaps you should study something else.
Perhaps you should work on your novel.
Write a few pages. Become distracted when further bookshelf inspection reveals the Family Treasury of Great Biographies: Volumes 1 and 2!
Volume 1: Rembrandt Van Rijn (not a painter), Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (“Immortal Lovers”?), Benjamin Franklin (not a word about prostitutes or the fact that he wore socks that you find attractive on women), and Sir William Osler (Who?).
Volume 2: George Washington (a man made larger than life to inspire “We the People” despite being bled to death by doctors: a technique (which) witch doctors still use in Zambia, a fact you know because your wife tells you she’s seen children, women, and men with razor cuts on their bellies and elsewhere), Mahatma Gandhi (he ate meat at least once), Einstein (he was a large man, muscular), Marie Antoinette (let them eat cake?), and Mark Twain (Mustachioed Humorist).
—Why is the only person without a first name Einstein?
—Because a person who completely alters the way in which we view the universe doesn’t need more than one name.
Read about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Mahatma Gandhi. Become bored and then decide the biographies are not as great as advertised.
Ino muyanda mabbukunzi? ~ What kind of books do you want?
Search the shelves for different books. Where is that smoke coming from? Are you capable of doing anything about smoke anyway? Is there a fire in your book?
While searching for onion powder, you find the More-with-Less Cookbook. Discover that in 1976 people knew that each North American (including Canadians: which should be obvious because Canada is part of North America, but something compels you to note this anyway) consumed five times as much grain per person yearly as one of the two billion people living in poor countries worldwide. Also learn that in 1976, people noticed that Americans, an estimated 40 percent of them, were overweight.
—They knew about our obesity problem in 1976; yet you drank Dr. Pepper and ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast: as a kid! Do not blame anyone you love for this; no one can know everything, and even when presented with the facts, people often make irrational choices.
Stop! Remember you are not a preacher; you are an artist. It is not your job to report facts and data. It is your job to show the world as it is…without facts and data? No. No. Wait.
Sena bacumayila Muchiingisi na Muchitonga? ~ Is the preaching in English or in Tonga?
At church you are told God has a vision for all of us, and His vision apparently includes you in Macha, Zambia, un-showered for days, always in your steel-toed boots in case, “Shit gets real,” and drinking cold Nescafé. Unlike Jonah who was commanded by God to go to Nineveh (and who went somewhere else: hence the story), you drink cold Nescafé for Jehovah to avoid being swallowed by a giant fish/whale: even though there is no body of water around (that you know of or would be brave enough to venture to) large enough for anything other than mosquitoes to brood/live in, and you haven’t seen a single mosquito; you still sleep under a mosquito net each night. You still believe you hear them sometimes. Your skin itches, but you never see a single welt.
Learn more phrases: Sauli Kabotu? ~ Are you well? Should you ask people this? If their answer was no, what could you do anyway? Ask Bina Byuti, the woman who cleans each Thursday, the woman who rescued your shirt, blood-stained from the wounds you earned while plucking lemons from their thorned branches, and discover that the phrase seems much more serious than, “How ya doing?” Nevertheless, she is well (as in: her health is good), and you stay outside the house until she finishes cleaning the living room because the idea of a person cleaning your living space makes you feel ill.
Read The Brothers Karamazov, drink Nescafé, and try not to think about the liter of puss your wife extracted from some boy’s jaw because of an abscess brought about by years of poor oral hygiene. Lino lyangu lilibolede ~ My tooth is rotten. Where does the puss go?
Bina Byuti makes herself Roobio tea (because you offered her a drink and even then she boiled the water and steeped the tea on her own), and she asks if she can have some bread. You gladly share with her, but she eats her bread and drinks her tea in the kitchen, away from where you read. What would you have talked about anyway? Tiindakoona kabotu jilo ~ I couldn’t sleep well yesterday. Would she have said, You couldn’t sleep because you have too much free time? Would she have understood?
When she leaves and opens the curtains, you see smoke rising across the road but cannot see flames. If fire breaks out in the dry season, how do they extinguish it when the water isn’t running? Are there enough trash cans filled with water to extinguish the whole mission community, just the church, just the house you’re in? Best not to think on things you’ll never have the answer to. Better to work on your novel. You have a boy to care for there.
Can’t sleep again, eh? Read Einstein’s biography. Learn that he had nothing to do with creating the Atom Bomb aside from signing his name to a letter that the actual bomb creators wrote and needed to get into Roosevelt’s hands, an act on Einstein’s part which C.P. Snow writes: “Was not significant.” Einstein’s connection to the Atom Bomb was apparently too great of an irony for the taletellers to let it go, though. Today The New Oxford American Dictionary says: “…[Einstein] was influential in the decision to make an atomic bomb. After World War II, however, he spoke out against nuclear weapons.”
Back in another life, you dated a girl who lived in Fukuoka, Japan. She told you her city was the original target, but Hiroshima was decided on instead because a typhoon was soaking Fukuoka. Katubeleka ~ Let us work. Old girlfriends are just a distraction. Old lives are just a distraction. Who can you write about and save today?
Your novel isn’t even about Africa, so why the hell are you working on it while you’re in Africa? Shouldn’t you be experiencing Africa, soaking it in, becoming a voice for Macha, Zambia? If not write, then read:
“Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina…Egger’s tone is pitch-perfect—suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?”
—Timothy Egan on Zeitoun.
Is the water running? Sena tubanze tulalama? ~ Do scorpions bite? Oh my God! Are there scorpions here? Where have all the spiders gone? How could this happen in Africa?
Djakubi, the man who guided you and your wife to a fork in the road where, “You double your chances,” of catching a ride to Choma (where one goes to resupply), laughs and holds your hand to show his appreciation for your humor when you tell him, “My wife said we were going to Zambia, and I was like, ‘Where’s Zambia?’” Although holding another man’s hand feels strange, in this case, with his head thrown back to laugh uninhibited, you don’t care about masculine posturing. You enjoy his enjoyment. You feel connected. You feel real. You forget for a few moments about the boy, about your novel. But then a van arrives, and you and your wife climb inside and rumble on into town, and in the rearview mirror you can see Djakubi start back toward Macha for a moment, before he’s consumed by dust.
Don’t forget that you’re an artist. Stare at the wall for a few hours and try to determine what you’re capable of doing to make a real impact on the Machan’s lives. Eat at the local restaurant? Mope and feel bad for them? Pray even though you almost never pray and even though people have been praying for the Machan’s since the mission was built?
Leza nkuli nkwabede ~ Where is God? Isn’t that someone else’s question.
Say Mwabonwa to yourself over and over. Look in the mirror. Mwabonwa. You’re right there, staring back at you. The you is you and you’re engulfed by the whole of your you-ness. The is the The. What is the What? You is the You. Work on your fucking novel.
Drums? Locusts? Edible termites? There are two types of bananas here. Mwabonwa, Nescafé. Sauli Kabotu, It’s winter and it’s 90 degrees. At least it’s dry. At least there was already a mosquito net here. At least you’ve only seen one man crippled by polio who propelled himself along the sidewalk with broken broomsticks capped by tire fragments, and only a few children scouring the streets of Choma for bottles and cans while your backpack full of frozen chickens thawed and seeped chicken juice down your back. Only one shoeless boy scowled at you when he bumped his head on your backpack while rummaging in trash for bottles and cans.
Nsi-konzyi ku-fwa in-zala ~ You cannot die of hunger.
—Einstein’s favorite book, according to his biography, was The Brothers Karamazov.
—I think Vonnegut said that too.
—I’ll finish it this time; I swear.
—Nothing motivates one to read Dostoevsky like being in Africa.
Read The Brothers Karamazov. Hope to discover what Einstein and Vonnegut loved so much about it. Nes. Café. 1000 Kwacha fritters big as your fist. Alyosha running all over town for everyone but himself. Is that fire under control? How long should you wait before going outside to ask if you can help? How many days should a fire burn before it’s considered a problem? How many days can you see smoke rising across the road without seeing the flames that produce it? Could you extinguish the fire on your own? Is the water running? Remember you were writing a novel. Write. Oh God! Is the novel about you? Is that why the yard across the dusty road is smoking: because you’re writing a book about you? Write about something else. You don’t have to finish what you’ve started. That boy only needs your help if you choose to write about him. Abandon that book, and he’ll never need your help at all.
Nescafé. Buy fritters and rolls and Havana Cola for 9000 Kwacha because they have no Nsema today. Buy Milky Orange when they run out of Havana Cola. Milky Orange claims it is your best choice. Your wife says it tastes like “Milky piss.” You take her word for it; she is, after all, a Doctor.
Stephen may have eaten Nelson. Fran is missing too. If you see Stephen, check for a bloated belly. Discover Nelson in the bathroom closet behind the yellow trashcan filled with water used for flushing the toilet. Fran remains on the lam. A smaller spider you don’t recognize hangs out next to the clock. Name him Guillermo. The fire has died. White smoke billows behind the hedges and swirls off into oblivion. Work on your novel. Work on a novel. Work on something. Work.
Your wife watched a girl die today because the girl had strep throat when she was very young; that previous illness caused permanent heart problems, made the nineteen-year-old girl’s heart burst. Tell your wife it’s okay, and then tell her that you’ve extracted a chapbook from your novel because you can’t make any headway on the larger book because you hope that somehow your struggles with writing will distract her from the pain that surrounds her, because what you are doing is real to you.
Get her out of the house. Take your wife to the market behind the katuko ~ small fires. Families of those admitted to the hospital stay by these fires for weeks while caring for their ill loved-ones. On your way into this makeshift town, just beyond the House of Hope, hear wailing. See a woman in the red dirt. “She must be the woman whose husband died today,” your wife says. Walk on, point to rib-thin dogs that you are advised not to pet because of the recent cases of rabies. Smile when those people who pass give you the chance. Be disappointed by the selection at the market: unripened tomatoes, small potatoes, more shoes than you’ve ever seen in your life stacked on top of more shoes and more shoes: piled high as the lemon trees. Cell phones. A green fruit that you never identify. Were those shoes ever filled with feet, and if they were, where did all the feet end up?
When you slip between two buildings and are overwhelmed by an odor unlike anything you’ve ever smelled, your wife says, “That’s what it smelled like when we were draining puss from that woman’s stomach.”
Once out of the puss-stench-zone, you approach a yellow-brown dog, and unlike the many others you’ve seen since you arrived, he doesn’t tuck his tail and run; he allows you to get close. You desperately want to pet him, and he appears to want to be loved as bad as you want to love him, but you pass by because you don’t want to be stuck in Africa with rabies. You choose not to physically care for this dog because you can leave this place, because you can choose who and what you care for, because you are lucky.
The wailing woman is gone when you return to the gate that separates the mission from the katuko. All that remains of the woman is a smooth imprint of an arm, leg, and hip. Your wife says, “They must have moved her husband’s body.” Hug your wife and go home. Make half-assed butternut squash soup and try to forget that the night before you worried for a few hours that something might have happened to your wife: try not to see your privilege. You don’t know how the woman’s husband died: much less who he was. But does it really matter? Your wife is alive and you are alive. You’ll never see that woman again. If you did there’d be nothing you could say to her that would make a difference, even if you spoke her language. Mu-ntu wa fa kale ~The person is already dead. Some comfort those words are regardless of the syllables that send them out into the world. The only thing those words seem to mean in any language at that moment is, “I am as helpless in all of this as you.”
Stop thinking about privilege and write. You had strep throat yearly as a kid from age 11 till age 15. Remember gagging on throat swabs. Remember amoxicillin. Remember the fever, your father lowering you into a bathtub full of ice water, bathing you in water you could’ve swallowed without fear of dysentery even though you were in the Mojave Desert. Remember watering lawns. Remember Slip-N-Slides. Remember only being thirsty because coaches thought it made you tougher. Remember showering twice a day and the rash that spread over your sides because you were cleaning yourself too often. Remember not going to your grandpa’s funeral. Remember never even losing a pet. Fear the amount of loss that is inevitably coming. Stop remembering. Stop thinking. Work on your novel. The boy needs you. Someone you can help needs you. Are you really going to give up on him too?
Mwabonwa. C.P. Snow says, about Albert Einstein: “[Physics] remained the prime internal devotion of his life, he worked at it with the ultimate concentration which was one of his supreme qualities until he died at seventy-six; and almost all of his colleagues thought, and still think, that he wasted the second half of his life” (256).
Apply this reasoning to the missionaries who have been in Macha (in constant waves) since God knows when. They haven’t solved the water problem; they haven’t stopped the spread of HIV. They haven’t swept poverty out of the province. Women are still beaten. Women are still raped. Men still steal and want what other men have. Surgery that requires a woman to be sliced open from the base of her belly up to her sternum to allow puss to drain (the result of an incomplete miscarriage or abortion: you’ll never know which because no one was there to translate) is performed with local anesthesia while your wife squeezes the terrified woman’s hand, your wife as helpless to comfort the woman as the woman is helpless in her condition. This all happens as you bake chicken drumsticks and watch the clock and wonder where your wife has gone. She’s never come home after the sun has already set, but today the sun has set and she’s not home. You try not to panic. Try not to think about her being kidnapped and taken someplace horrible where you’ll never find her. You feel more intensely worried for her safety than you worried for your own when you were in Saudi Arabia right before the invasion of Iraq, or when you checked cars for bombs despite having no training after 9/11, when those boys circled you on the playground because you were white and had curly hair and glasses in sixth grade, when that man asked you if you’d ever seen a cock squirt on the night Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, and when your wife walks through the door, you know she’s not happy. But unhappy is so much better than any of the other things you’d imagined.
“Tomorrow,” she says. “That woman will be dead. And the last thing she saw was some strange white woman’s face.” You tell her, “At least she had a hand to hold and someone’s face to look at.” Because there is nothing else to say, except that the woman was alive the next day, and the day after that, and she was still alive when you left Macha with your wife to see about your mother-in-law’s sudden brain surgery. How lucky you are to be able to leave this place to be there for your wife as she is there for her mother. How lucky you are to be able fly home, to escape the pain of others, to confront the pain you choose. Work on your novel. Help that boy. He may be the only person you can help.
Mwabonwa. And you see me. See how I tell myself I’m helping you and at once I help myself. Ee, twabonwa ~ Yes. I see you. And you help me by helping yourself. But who do you help more? Does it matter so long as we help each other?
Einstein’s Unified Field theory (the theory of everything) has never been proven. He worked on it for 39 years. He wasted his life on a problem that he never solved when he could’ve potentially solved a million simpler problems.
—What good is it for a brilliant problem-solver to waste his life on problems that other men might easily solve?
—He could solve the easier problems and build a metaphorical ladder to the next complex problem from where other men might reach the answer to the more complicated problem after the genius has lost his ability to work.
—But if the genius sees a goal no one else is capable of seeing without said genius’ guidance, and he works toward that goal but fails to reach it, does that mean he’s wasted his life?
—There will always be people who think that what you’ve chosen to do is wrong. So what? There will be people who think what you’ve done is pointless. So what? There will be people who love what you’ve done, and that might make you feel good about the time and effort you’ve put into the work. So what? You must keep working. With each completed task comes another task until we can no longer work.
—This is so sentimental. And you don’t even believe this yourself all the time.
—But if I say it, then it becomes real. If I write it, it becomes sort-of permanent. I can later refer to what I’ve said I believe, and perhaps revise the things I had wrong or the things I’ve changed my mind about…or at least laugh at my self.
“Well-being and happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig.” —Albert Einstein.
—Pigs have ambitions?
—It must be logical; he’s Einstein.
Wonder how one can seek something more than well-being and happiness when those things are unattainable for that individual. Kamuvununa mpoto ~ Take the lid off the pot. What’s the point when we know it’s empty? Your wife comes home in tears. She’s on the phone and you know something’s wrong. But she’s okay. She tells you her mom has a brain tumor, a glioblastoma.
“What do we do?” your wife asks.
“Can you work?”
“No,” she says.
“Then we leave. We go to your mom.”
You call every contact number for an airline you can find. None work. You ask the neighbor, and she’s unable to help. You walk to the medical advisor’s house and ask his wife, she says she usually Skypes. You set up your laptop to share Internet and Skype with your phone, finally get the flights changed. And now what? Work on your novel? Go looking for fires? Take pictures of this place you didn’t want to come to so that you can prove you were in Macha, and that Macha is real?
Hear children playing soccer. Hear children laughing. Mwabonwa. Hear that there are children who are not hungry this moment and not sick this moment. Drink Nescafé and stare through your barred window. Children run down the road. They carry sticks, and they kick balls. Small children chase larger ones. Some stumble, and they push themselves to their feet and try to make up lost ground. Try and sleep well. Miss beer. Miss friends. Miss distractions. Take half an Ambien—wish you’d shaken the chief’s hand the day at church when your wife urged you to and said, “Now might be your only chance.” Wonder where this new dread comes from: is it fear you may never return to this place? Wonder how many of the happy children you’ve seen will be hungry once you’ve gone home to see about your mother-in-law. Wonder how many of those children will die from things most children and parents never have to fear where you come from. Write about it. Feel better about yourself for trying to make a difference; hate yourself for feeling good about the fact that you’re writing about someone’s hardship to improve yourself. Learn a Tongan proverb: Bantu baimana cakulya, twaambo pe ~ People finish the food. Talk does not. Hug your wife. If your mother-in-law has brain surgery and you aren’t there to see it, is it real? Work on your novel. Walk to the katuko after dark to try and distract your wife from what waits for you back home. See families huddled around flames. Hear laughter. Feel warmth. Your wife tells you, “I don’t feel safe here.” Hold her hand; walk away. Do not think about your privilege, how lucky you are to be headed home to deal with something horrible.
Mwabonwa. How do you say, “I see me”? Is the water running? Can I fill my bottles now? You ate Clif bars for dinner last night with a side of canned Peaches. You drank the syrup from the bowl. Your wife said, “Dinner sucked.” And she was right. You know this because even here you have always eaten well. Your neighbor brings you roasted ground nuts, and guavas, and little bananas, and ground bananas. She gives you rice when you have none. She gives you dish soap when you have none. You make chicken and dumpling soup with broth you made with the bones of a roaster chicken (something you learned to do at home because you wanted to, something you do here because that is the only way to get chicken broth). You give some to your neighbor to thank her for all she’s given you even though you needed nothing and could’ve lived comfortably without anything other than what you had. You leave behind a whole chicken and some drumsticks and Nescafé and carrots and potatoes and more that you hope will go to hungrier bellies than your own.
Work on your novel. Drink Nescafé. Watch children from your window. Walk your wife to the hospital after lunch. Make the most extravagant dinners you can with the minimal provisions (which are at once extravagant) that you’ve acquired. Say, Mwabonwa to the people you pass on the red-dirt roads. When you accidentally say, Mwabuka, tell yourself it’s okay, even if it is more intimate—even though what you mean is that you see them and you see their lives and that you’re merely going to write about them because that is what you do. Tell yourself Einstein didn’t waste the second half of his life, that the missionaries are not wasting theirs. Because a novel is a problem you create for yourself, and there is no solving it: even when it’s finished. Don’t let your fear of sentimentality get in the way of hoping for something better. Mwabonwa. Sauli kabotu? You really do care, and you don’t care who knows it. You are the boy and you are his hope. You can help the boy because you control the words. If you can finish this thing, then you can begin something else. Meso akabwenene taaindani lumwi pe ~ Folk who have once met do not afterwards pass by one another. You can do more than believe this. You can make this true.
BRANDON DAVIS JENNINGS is an Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran from West Virginia. Jennings is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault (Little Presque Books), and several bestselling Kindle Singles, including the novel The Bombmaker’s Wife. Winner of the 2012 Iron Horse Chapbook Competition, his short work has appeared in journals like Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Passages North, Triquarterly, and elsewhere. To see more of Jennings’ work, including visual illustrations and animations, as well as the ever-expanding story about the city of Riverside, you can find him at online. (@brandonsbass)