5 October – “Thabo.” Someone is knocking on my door. Still caught in that liminal state between being sleep and wakefulness, I roll over and shake off the disturbance. The knocking comes again. “Thabo.” And again, the knock and the call. “Thabo?” Finally a call comes that I cannot ignore. “THABO!”
I roll over and fumble for my glasses. The clock reads 6:30 am. I grumble to myself, throw on a shirt, and stumble to the door.
The sun has been rising earlier every day. Squinting at the east-facing door, I find Magogo, my elderly neighbor, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. “Thabo,” she asks, “O robetse biyang?” giving a sidelong glance at my unkempt hair. “How did you sleep?”
Distracted, I try to bring some order my hair. “Ja, ja, ke robetse monate, ke a leboga,” I reply, “Yes, I slept well, thank you.”
My answer seems to satisfy her. After some small talk, she excuses herself on the pretense of looking after her grandaughter and I crash heavily back on my bed.
That’s it, I think, I got to get out. However, with no errands to run, I have no excuse to go to town. Besides, the trip would set me back too many Rand. Furthermore, I have no chores to occupy me at home. The blue skies, puffy cumulus clouds and fresh air beckon, so I throw my camera and compass in my backpack and set off for the sekgwe, or forest, surrounding the village. As I disappear into the forest, I hear cries of “Thabo!” increasing in exasperration. Without being able to get on bearing on the cries, I continue walking deeper into the thorny trees. Finally, student from the secondary school catches up to me, overweight and out of breath.
“Where are you going, Thabo?” he gasps.
“The forest,” I reply simply and without explanation.
“Alone?” he incredulates.
“Yes,” I reply, again offering no explanation.
“But,” he continues, “Alone? Why?”
“Yes, alone,” I answer.
“The principal say we can’t let anything happen to you,” he protests, “You must not go.” I laugh to myself. Mr. Moidi means business. When he makes a decree, the students listen.
I hold up my compass. “Ke tla sharp,” I insist, “I’ll be fine.”
“Food and water….you have them?” he asks, obviously still worried.
I curse silently. I had forgotten those things. Still, I had no intention of reversing my course. “Of course,” I say.
“Cell phone…you also have this?” he continues.
“Yes,” I lie again.
“But….can I go with you then?” He still seems worried.
Without denying him outright, I simply express my preference. “I’d like to go alone,” I say, “But thank you.”
Though I feel a small pang of guilt for spurning the eager company, the feeling soon wears off. Anthropologists are sometimes described as professional strangers; the description applies just as well to Peace Corps Volunteers. Living alone within different culture can bring a special kind of loneliness, especially within a community as small as Arundodaleng. Village life rarely affords you the opportunity to be truly alone. One finds themselves immersed in conversations spoken in an unfamiliar language, people laughing and ululating over unheard topics. While my Tswana name is in some ways a measure of my integration within the community, it also serves as a reminder that I am a different person here, my given name mispronounced and soon forgotten.
My eager friend fades into the tangled woodland as I press forward. I lose myself in the broad, dry valley of the seasonal river, navigating stock trails among the needly acacia trees and the orange Protea flowers growing in the arid forest like misplaced sea anenomes. As I stray from my compass bearing, following the mindless whims of generations of cattle, the sounds of the village – the bellowing of cattle, the repetitious thump of house music from the shebeens, the reckless rattle of taxis down the dirt road – disappear into the young, soft foliage and keen, harsh thorns of the forest. The dry winter is slowly beginning to ebb to the flush of spring. Alone with my own thoughts for the first time since landing in South Africa, the feeling of loneliness subsides. Soon the heat of summer will make midday walks like this unbearable. But for now, the day is fine and this wilderness in my backyard belongs to me and to me alone.