Et in Arcadia Ego
“You know, Nhlanhla, in our culture, rain is a blessing.”
I’m sitting in the repurposed kindergarten room that now serves as my primary school’s office, fumbling through one of the many farewell conversations of the last few days. The deputy principal, my counterpart in the life skills club we ran together for close to a year and a man of extreme – some might even say excessive – faith, and I are talking about the weather earnestly: they’re the first rains of the wet season and, despite being early, it’s the kind of rain that falls long and slow, in rhythmic waves, imbuing it with a sense of inevitability.
“And these rains, they’re wonderful, you know, because there’s no thunder, no violence: they stay for days,” he says, personifying the weather. “Yes, yes, it is a blessing from God, and a blessing on you and your journey. God is saying thank you.”
For a man who I’ve come dangerously close to throttling for invoking religion in any difficult situation, his ability to elicit raw emotion from me is no less keen or those instances infrequent. It would be dishonest if I did not admit to myself that, at times, I wonder if this is my penultimate lesson, the keystone of my service: a well-rooted patience for a perception of life that does not always adhere to my own interpretation.
Some days, there is also the fleeting, lambent sense of accomplishment, when a man greets me artlessly in town or, on one of my daily runs, a child jogs alongside simply to feel the rush of air on his face, to share that exhilaration with me. Mostly, though, I feel the conspicuous turn of the earth, the distinct awareness that somewhere out there the world is ageing and moving on, and here, in the village, we are all waiting.
My Swati family had been waiting for two weeks for my host father to get better. He came home from an operation at the private hospital in Nelspruit two weeks ago and, instead, became progressively weaker. The lymph nodes on his neck ballooned to the point where they formed a ring around the base of his jaw, again, and he started to vomit blood. On Monday, we marshaled a private car, filled it with petrol at considerable expense, and drove halfway to the city to meet the ambulance on the highway. As the smell of citrus blossom infused the air on the side of the road, I watched my father handed over to the ambulance technicians and driven away.
Only two weeks before, I had driven to Nelspruit with my host Mom and brother to visit him after the initial surgery. They had taken him to the private hospital because, as I was told in a freakish instance of jejune irony, even though the expense was greater, the government hospital was “where Africans go,” and so, it was inferred, the quality of care was inferior. (This was, I learned later when my other host brother was treated for pneumonia there, no exaggeration. The floors were unwashed, chipped walls exposed the cement underneath, one particular hallway was entirely unlit, and the ceiling was crumbling in parts: with minimal effort, its mis-en-scene could have been made to resemble the war-torn set of a Hollywood film.) The operation to “drain the swelling” was determined a success, by whom we were never told, and my host Dad was discharged a day later. At the time, I felt his stay conspicuously brief, and was alert to the pungent odor of minimal effort that hung furtively in the air.
On the drive home from that first visit, in a disquieting display of emotion, my host mother, plainly attempting to master her own consternation, thanked me for accompanying them on the trip. “You have done a good thing today, Nhlanhla,” she said to me. “You have shown that you are a real member of this family.” And then, after a short pause: “It means so much to me.”
I’ll say goodbye to her tomorrow and, if possible, to my host father (now in the ICU ward of the private hospital) for what is likely the last time, as I pass through Nelspruit on my way to Pretoria to close service. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to find myself above reproach for leaving, but the quotidian battle ahead belongs truly to family, and death has an inveterate knack for exposing the vain and dull absurdity of the teleological.
The painful truth of life is that it is defined by a continuous series of relationships and that this process does not stop until you reach the end. We thrive on these connections. The difficult trick is learning to love them while we can, to let them go once they’ve ended, and to keep them from bankrupting us for the next one. (This is why, after a tough breakup or, even worse, an amicable one, the most important thing is, as they say, to get back on the horse.)
Life’s regnant joy, of which human beings especially enjoy – besides self-consciousness and thus imagination and introspection – is the development and maintenance of romantic, familial, and friendly relationships. Perhaps the most difficult thing is letting one go that is, theoretically anyway, within our control to persist. But such is life, and to really honor that connection and, not unimportantly, to continue as a happy human being, we must will ourselves to the next one. We are not forgetting it, nor that part of ourselves, but building upon them as stepping stones that lead eventually to a crossing.
Yesterday, as I rode the public taxi home from buying groceries for the last time, I sat watching two women in front of me talk, their gestures animating the expressive looks of mirth and joy on their faces, and I began to understand the truth about people: we are indeed all of the same earth. The shallow, loamy bits change with space and time. There will always be societies in which the treatment of a subset of its citizens clashes with another’s concept of justice and equality. It’s pointless to dispute such a fundamental cornerstone of ourselves, just as there’s no real substance to such a callow observation.
It is the granite bedrock beneath, unbreakable and extraordinarily deep, which underpins our humanity. There is nothing trite in acknowledging the sodality of being human. This foundation is, if anything, at risk from the erosive blend of cynicism and lassitude that commonly masquerades as pragmatism in most conversations about “others.” It is far too easy to dissuade ourselves of such a commonality, to accept passively labels and characterizations, when we cannot shake hands with the complexity of another human being, feel the fervor of their passions and beliefs, and sense that inexplicable emanation of mortality so redolent of ourselves.
Luck too easily discounts both inaction and intention, but there is something akin to chance at work in the way the world developed. That it is Africans who suffer persistent epidemics, relentless poverty, and drought and starvation on the largest scale is by no means simply a roll of the dice, but there is nothing unique that qualifies the continent for such an ignoble role, no trace of predetermination in the substratum of its peoples.
It is disarmingly easy, however we characterize our sociopolitical leanings, to assure ourselves of a magnanimous acceptance of alternative lifestyles. It is quite another thing to recognize the hidden prejudices within, the ones that no human need ever know of, that quietly cohere into a passive yet sustained disregard for an “other.” It is far too easy to turn a blind eye, to forfeit patience.
I do not know if the shift in fortunes of geopolitics that began more than a decade ago and has accelerated in the last few years will ultimately signal the decline in power of the West, nor do I much care. What interests me is the egregious inequality of life that persists around the world, East and West, developed and underdeveloped, first and third, from which there appears little relief. Conversations that abstract the visceral nature of this divide through obtuse notions of economics, politics, geographic happenstance, and the like do us all a disservice, as they serve only to obfuscate the facts, foment controversy, and obviate consensus.
And perhaps it’s only now, as I pack the same two bags I arrived with 27 months ago, feeling the emotional and literal weight of each item I choose to include or leave behind, that I begin to understand the connection between those worlds: the consumers and the consumed. The gift of service, whether in a foreign land or your own neighborhood, is the temporal bridging of that divide and the recrudescence of real, substantive relationships. It is our relationships that define our lives, bring meaning to them, and empower others to develop their own.
It’s true what they say, that they don’t tell you how to say goodbye. Peace Corps gives you a million and one tools, for everything from integration to persuasion. But they never tell you how to appreciate; or what to savor; and which fleeting glimpses of your life from the past two years you will miss the most. There is no user’s guide to saying goodbye to your PCV life, to the people you’ve grown to love as your own blood, to the extrication from an experience you’ve spent two years purposefully filling yourself up with. When it comes time, you just don’t know what to do with yourself. Do you say goodbye? Write letters? Give a gift? Shed tears? Or, perhaps, because no gesture or speech can possibly carry enough gravitas, does one simply shake hands and take care to shut the door behind them?
It’s been raining for four days now. The first rains of the wet season: a blessing on my journey.
I wrote the above only seven weeks ago, but already it seems a lifetime. At the time, amidst the complexities of closing service, helping my host family cope with my host father’s cancer, and a slew of personal issues that included my own Dad’s health and my application to the Foreign Service, I didn’t know how to finish it. I know now.
My host father died four days before I left South Africa for South America. My host brother, the one to whom I was the closest, called me in Cape Town late one night. He had been drinking and was riding home from the hospital with my other host brother. He told me Babe (Dad) had passed. I asked if I could talk to Mom, but she wasn’t there. They sounded happy, but they weren’t celebrating. They were grieving, the way they knew how – the way I remembered from the other funerals I’d attended with them.
In some morbid way, it feels fitting that my service ended with a death – like it was some Shakespearean tragedy set in a faraway land. In the most crass sense, I felt my experience still inchoate, as though I was missing a seminal Peace Corps moment. I understand now, though, that this was because my Peace Corps service was, like my host father Jabulani (Happiness) himself, characterized by an indomitable patience, an understanding that all things come with time. Or they don’t. And if they didn’t, then that was okay, too.
When I left, despite the rain, the trees in my village stood still like brown midday shadows, waiting underneath a clearing spring sun. Their solitary forms were the only things that interrupted the baked carapace of the scorched veld. Like the blackened grass, they were waiting for that water. And so South Africa waits. Like Jabulani waited resolutely for treatment; like my host mother waited for a tincture of hope; like I waited to witness the fruits of my labor.
We wait for host brothers to pay lebola and for our host nephews to grow up without their fathers. We wait for test results, and then perhaps for ARVs. We wait for exam marks, acceptance letters, and job interviews. We wait for babies to be born. We wait for the change to come that was promised, for the roads to be repaired, for the hatred to die. In the morning, we wait for the sun to set; at night, for it to rise. We wait for vindication, confirmation, forgiveness.
Like Persephone returning to her mother, the rains did come, and my host father finally succumbed. Though Steenbok was no utopia, the relationships I nurtured there, that nurtured me, were the only human response to such a mortal place, and they alone succeed in comforting those who remain. But for those whose leave takes another form, who flout willingly those relationships for new ones, perhaps there is only shame. Shame for turning a blind eye. Shame for running out of patience. Shame for fleeing back to an ignominious, consuming world.
Or maybe we can find solace in the knowledge that once something unique was shared. Maybe we assuage that pain, fill the lacuna of torn memory, with the meaning that comes from intimate experience. Maybe, in the end, that is what it amounts to, and our own stories cannot be gainsaid. The famed educator, Horace Mann, wrote “until you have done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die.” My host father, whose funeral I could not attend, passed away a man above reproach. Draped in mammon’s garb, I remain a mendicant man, in search of meaning, and a little ashamed to die.