ContentmentWhen you’re 27, and you have never crossed the border by yourself at your big age and you’re sick of your 9-5 which you’re also grateful for, when a stranger on Facebook [with whom you share 72 mutual writer friends] asks you to pack your bags and find the nearest border into Zambia, you say yes— I mean your yes says you; says you will be there a day before the festival; says you will open yourself up to the opportunity like dry, parched earth to any drizzle promising to drench— a making of softness. You have been working hard at this poetry thing, gracing every event you’re booked for, performing at friend’s and family’s functions for free, and every radio interview honored the way heads do to prayer, and so you said yes.
You are friends with her the way eyes are to each other— you have always known the other is there but focused ahead on your individual lives. This makes you more of acquaintances than friends but hey, you’re going to Zambia and you have her; that’s more than you could have asked for. She is from that bandwagon of friends who comment, ‘My favorite couple’ on you and your partner’s picture on social media. You broke up with that partner weeks ago. The wound is still alive, open like a mouth. You are holding your breath and talking too much to fill the lull in your conversations because you do not want the pain of heartbreak to seep in- floodwater through floorboards. She raves on about similar trips carrying poems to other countries, this is your first so you pray she does not spoil it for you with her expertise- her don’t do this, do that, don’t change all your money, get tested for yellow fever, don’t love the boys there. You thank God when she falls asleep; God must really love you because girl sleeps a lot.
There are 24 bus hours between you and the festival venue, the hours, a herd of animals you must shepherd into each other till they all yield arrival. None of you know this yet, but Lusaka will cradle you in her roach-infested cheap motel for a day where all night, you will hear the brotherhood you passed downstairs tell tales of their hustler life like to go to sleep would unmake all that work. You will both wonder if you made a mistake setting on this journey, even as the hours stay faithful to bridge the space between the eyes, swearing you into a closeness, the type between nail and finger. By the time Kitwe knows the weight of your feet, you would already know more than the white of each other’s teeth in laughter; you would have known the quickness of words when tempers rage.
People here call time as it is. Where you would read 1300 hrs or 1425 hrs as one o’ clock and twenty-five minutes past two, they just say thirteen and fourteen twenty-five. You realize this way later already in your allocated room, cracking your heads, wondering why the taxi driver said you would arrive at fifteen when you told her the plot number was 1285 Nkana North. And yes, you arrived at 3 pm.
The Facebook friend who invited you to the festival is the curator of the poetry sessions. He did the faithful work of corresponding with you, cementing your trust into loyalty from day one till you arrived. When you arrived, you met a man who called you comrade. Who jostled you off your travel fatigue faster than you could say, Muli Shani by his somber look, unkempt hair, and a fashion sense too searing to the eye. At the evening braai, where you meet everyone for the first time, he tells you a lot of people are against him, that because you came because of him they are against you too. ‘But don’t worry,’ he says, his smile, a vandalized piano with missing keys, ‘I have troops of armies for protection.’ The distance between the lush lawn where you’re standing and home becomes a blur.
It turns out our comrade is mentally challenged. Something about exile and loss of family toyed with his sanity till the territory of his mind became under siege. He calls you comrade and wants to marry you off to his son. He gives you his recently published poetry book. He gives you a copy for your mother too, despite your being so far from her. You think he must have seen the emptiness in your eyes, picked that you missed her, and cared enough to want to glut that gut with words.
*It is only day two and you are already homesick. The food here makes you nauseous but you are afraid you might seem like you’re refusing Zambia’s love if you don’t eat. You can’t come all the way here to reject the country you expect to share your poems with. You nibble at the food and to return the favor, the food gives you terrible diarrhea. Your bowels do not know how to behave at people’s houses, they have you asking for the bathroom before introducing yourself. You remember this particular homesickness that has an eeriness to it. You remember wanting to be with your mother even when distance was a school principal lowering her glasses and questioning your need for your mother at school with her whole body. All of a sudden, you are six — home alone with the gate locked because your mother could not afford a baby-sitter and she trusted your father to look after you. But your father has portraits to sell at Grandpalm and white people to talk to. He is learning their language and teaching himself how to write it. He will come back and show your six-year-old self how to answer the phone. ‘Hello…he is not around,’ because he will not be around when you have to answer it, even after you stick a 25t coin between your two front teeth so that a violent flower blooms red in your mouth, later, two white, pious little girls will shake till they fall from your mouth. He will not be around when you try to navigate the dessert of prayer without the well of faith, asking God to keep your teeth intact. You remember that feeling of needing your mother close. Willing the sun to eat the distance between noon and its setting so that your mother would be a gift given back to you again, to be yours alone and not to be shared with the endless isles of clothes at the retail store she works at. Oh, how many things our mothers have not been given, but here is a man gifting your mother a book. You read the poems, and hold a finger on the words your mother will struggle to read, recognize those as a gift her hard work gave to you. This is part of an education your mother paid for when your father would not, an education that polished you up for his shinning so that he can wear you as his pride cloak.
*In Zambia, one evening after shooting a short film; I mean after the shooting of a short film in which you were an extra, in which everything felt so familiar, the main conversation- your not being in it, the camera’s eye, brushing against the image of you in blurred afterthought- your girlfriend’s words are distant knocks on the door of your nebulous mind. You’re not sad, just realizing some things. That evening you go to float around at a night club with hearts that all pretend to know no ache. You’re drinking wine from your expensive K-Way water bottle like it all makes sense now why you always carry something you never use for its purpose, like your love, how you always give it away to the wrong boy, your waters, out to quench the wrong thirst, to fill the wrong empty.
*There is a girl who looks like you in the room, sitting across from you on the boardroom table all the 12 of you have transformed it into a dining table. She looks like a younger but wiser you, wide eyes, quick mouth and golden words. You’re being yourself— scanning the room before delving into conversations because engagements like this exhaust you, too many people, too many words, not enough time to breath but god, she is so much like you! The conversation is about self-care or self-care as a creative or self-care as an empath and you finally decide to join because it feels safe, later the girl will introduce you to Stephanie Lynn’s YouTube channel and return back to your country with you, will hold your breaking-down self through the phone for months to come and teach you self-love the way that works, through letting you pick the thorns of self-hatred from your skin yourself, helping you realize all that pain is not worth keeping. She is older than you and may just be wiser than you. She is a future you without this hunger to be bite-size and understood in every room, every conversation. She is what you took back home with you, a sisterhood you did not have before.
When you’re 27 and you have never crossed the border by yourself at your big age and you’re sick of your 9-5 which you’re also grateful for, when a stranger on Facebook [with whom you share 72 mutual writer-friends], when he asks you to pack your bags and find the nearest border into Zambia you say yes. You come back and you’re a small bird fluttering its wings for new things. This is a bird you cannot cage even if you could call its cage home. You will look back and always have a comrade to thank for your newly found epiphany, contentment.
Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa @Phodiso_Modirwa is Motswana writer and poet with works published or forthcoming in Selves: An Afro Anthology Of Creative Nonfiction, Agbowo’s Memory Issue, Jalada Africa: Bodies, Praxis Magazine Online, Ake Review, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Botswana President’s Award – Contemporary Poetry 2016 and her short story, The Healing Balm was shortlisted for the Botswana Tourism Fiction Award 2019.
Banner: Exposures, a digital painting by Katy Singleton.
Katy Singleton was born in London, UK and currently lives in Toronto. She is a writer and visual artist whose work has been exhibited in Toronto and elsewhere.