It rained in the night.
What is it about us?
This is August, the southern hemisphere’s winter, the dry season.
It seems wherever we venture in the Northern Province we act as rain-bringers. Last time it was at a rock shelter with painted walls. We went in, came out, it rained. It was, we learned later, a traditional rain-making site.
Here, there are no rock shelters, just dry, leafy ground and a few trees.
Our tent is pitched on a small incline, heads up, feet down – and a stream flowed under us last night. Our trusty, carry-all ‘Ratbags’ were sitting under the flap at the front. On the ground. The wet ground. Now we have damp sailcloth – and damp clothes.
I turn the bags upside down and leave them in the weak early sun to dry as the day grows warm.
When I go to make tea I see we’re running out of water. What with cooking, dish-washing and diluting our orange Mazoe – plus everyone using it, of course, to fill their water bottles.
Rude Man, naturally, balks at using the pan to fill his drinking container. Perhaps he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t just dip the bottle – hell, why not his hand? – in the water.
I say nothing, just watch.
But what to do about the water?
Fill the barrel from the river, add nasty water purifying tablets, hope for the best?
No, not yet that desperate.
Our two Zambian colleagues volunteer to go to town to fill the barrel from the communal tap. They’ll buy more charcoal too. But their vehicle just happens to be the one I’m using as my kitchen.
Everyone else heads off to dig, or sample, or survey – or whatever activity his or her particular expertise demands.
I set my body-motor to resigned/automatic. Trudge to and fro with tins, plates, cutlery, tea bags, onions, coffee, oranges, potatoes and so on – and so on.
I stack them on the ‘table’ in the thatched shelter.
Then I decide to bathe.
There’ve been complaints about me going down to do my ablutions with Anthro-man at the end of the digging day. They think I should be going with the other two women, to save daylight-bathing time.
So I’m taking my vertigo in both hands, forcing myself to go it alone – while they’re gone and the caretaker’s watching the camp.
I tread carefully, one step at a time, down to the waterfall’s lip. Edge nervously along the bit nearest the fall itself, where the water swirls with that enticing ‘follow me’ rhythm.
I strip off, dip into the pool of cold water, dunk my head beneath the surface, lift it in a panic. Last night the soap floated away, right over the falls. It’s not a good thought.
By the time I return the caretaker’s gone. And the first children are arriving.
How do they know I’m here and alone?
I slide into our tent, stow my night clothes under the sleeping bag and crawl out again with my notebook.
A small crowd’s gathering by the replacement kitchen. A bench outside is already full of little boys.
A man and woman, she with breasts uncovered, peer at our provisions. Inquisitive, their hands reach into the shady thatched shelter. I realise I’m going to have to sit there.
I drag myself over, perch on the one empty, hard bench, against the wall, inside, out of the warming sun. The day starts cool here – and my hair’s wet.
The woman’s red-rimmed eyes are a blurry grey where they should be white. I take the charitable view that she’s not well, but he has definitely been at the beer this morning. I’m guessing it’s Saturday, given the presence of so many school-age children.
It’s like a weird reality show. I’m sitting in a box, a rather dishevelled presenter, but it’s three dimensional. I’m on view all round.
The couple’s still here, grinning.
They ask for water, I refuse. Part of me doesn’t want to leave my sanctuary. Part of me’s worried about when we’ll have more water. Part of me just doesn’t want to encourage them – or the others. I know, it’s awful, I‘m ashamed.
Eventually some of the spectators weary of my inactivity and leave.
A few boys remain – and soon become bolder, braver.
Little faces appear at the gaps in the walls and stare at me.
They’re so cute I can’t help but smile. They scurry back to their bench.
It’s not long before they return.
One of the taller ones reaches over and points.
‘What is this?’
‘Ah, you speak English?’
He nods a shy nod.
‘It’s a carrot.’
It’s as if I’ve performed a miracle. An excited chatter ripples around the little gang. Their eyes light up. They stare at me with something less like fear and more like wonder.
‘Can I take this carrottee to show my teacher?’ asks my little friend.
Of course he can.
They go back to sit on the bench, swinging their legs, murmuring, passing the carrot around. Eyeing me most of the time, as if by keeping an eye on me they will stop me from biting.
The head-boy comes back and points at a pear.
Not such an ‘ooh’ this time, but still the fascination.
I let him hold the pear, but take it back.
We only have four and fruit is precious. I know – precious for a bunch of healthy, ungrateful westerners?
But at least he’s seen a pear. That boy is going places. I talk to him as much as I can – his English isn’t bad but he’s young, his vocabulary limited. He tries to tell me more, frustrated I don’t understand his language.
As morning wears on I’d like to pee but can’t leave my post – or feel I can’t.
Just as I’m worrying about lunch, about opening the vehicle with the bread in the back, a man on a bike rides up, wearing Dunlops (Wellingtons to us Brits).
‘Abram!’ I greet the deputy caretaker with relief.
On the back of his bike is a yellow container of water. He offers me some. I drink it neat.
Have you heard songs of sweet water?
Believe me, they’re true. I’ve never tasted such water.
It comes from a spring. Abram says he’ll fetch more if we need it.
He looks around, asks where the caretaker is. I shrug.
He’s angry, the caretaker left me here alone. But I’m no longer worried.
Abram is here.
Praise the Lord.
I have been released.