Think of Me as a Country

From New England to Africa, distance is a lie.

Editors’ note: The author lived in southern Africa for five years and now lives in New Haven, CT.

I’ve gone whole winters with dust in the blood. Open the window and anything comes in: The humid wine-hour wind, coarse and carmine; the scent of coal-fires; the heavy musk of the cow-herd returning from the bush. All down Dixwell Avenue kids stand on corners in insulated jackets, their breath rising in smoke-white curls, but beneath this skin of urbanity the evening is a steady buzz of warm, rustic, purple commerce.

This is what I learned during my time in Africa: Under every city is a village; inside every frozen dusk is a dry season.

They get confused, these two. They merge and blur. Myths fluoresce. Memory transmutes. The past colonizes the present. The long view hides truths inside a thousand microscopic shifts — but they are, after all, truths. They tread the sidewalks like any beggar for change; they survive in spite of disregard, in spite of devotion. Walk alone through enough rainy nights and the world reveals to you its deep thematic sway. Wake enough mornings in unfamiliar rooms and you find yourself tangled up in the snarled comment of passing time — unsure of where you are or what specific day it is, but overwhelmed with the coherence of the world. You end up confused and clear.

It happens these days when you call a student by the wrong name, when you bite into a mango, when the afternoon shadows are stretched to their breaking points, when the old words for things sting your mouth like blood from your bitten tongue, or else they don’t come at all because that same tongue has lost its muscle-memory.

It happens when you hail a cab in the wintertime. Your driver could be Etieno or Anane or Okari, and in the rear-view mirror you catch his eyes in a Harmattan haze. He drives with the windows open and the frozen rain blowing in but all you feel is the warmth of the supper-fire. When you speak with him there is a common code that passes between you that says We are not here. We are leaning against the well-pump with time in our hands, talking to a girl in a head-scarf whose grandmother is waiting for cooking water. Around the two of you, the frigid weather is barely a notion, a fly that you swipe off the lip of your beer glass.

This driver pilots you through two simultaneous cities. Both contain the spell of post-colonial collapse, the heady overgrowth of neglect. Hydrangeas. Fever trees. Broken bottles. Piss. Black markets.

Avenues named after dead revolutionaries. Here is the flower-strewn half-wall marking the last investigation of an assassinated journalist. Here are the shrunken balloons and saint-bearing candles memorializing last month’s homicide. The abandoned shell of a compound that was once used to torture dissidents speaks an inscrutable graffiti: some things live forever, billy. One side of the Orchard Street market portrays armed cartoon characters beside a verse of poetry: I rise. I rise. I rise. What makes these places disparate? Only, it seems, a lie. And so the truth is geographically schizophrenic. It speaks multiple voices at once. It leads you to a mad lucidity.

Beneath the mingled beat of Fela Kuti and Common, your driver smiles: See it once, he says, and See it again.

That’s what Phumo told you years ago, the first time you went from the airport to the hotel, staring unabashedly at the policemen with AK-47s in their hands, drunken beside some roadside barraca. At the old men playing checkers with bottle-caps in the dirt. At the naked girl bathing in the aqueduct. And, half a world away, that’s what Jovan told you at the foreclosed row-houses and the women sleeping in barber-shop doorways, at the 24-hour floodlights that bathed each high-activity corner in bleached surveillance: See it once, brother, and see it again.

And so every time you look, you look twice; every place you leave, you stay behind. This is how you live now: Aching for where you are.

Article © 2012 by Dennis Wilson