For two years Alan Barstow taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia, but he learned much more than he taught. Six months after Tomas completed his homestead, Alan met a woman whom he would later marry. They’ve been together for seven years, and she supported him while he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming. Alan’s work has appeared in The Sun, American Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.
Marriage in a Time of AIDS
Tomas could stare his students into silence. While I had to plead, Okay, let’s get started, please sit down, please be quiet,
all Tomas had to do was fold his arms, sweep his eyes across the class,
and wait. At Hallelujah Combined School in Namibia, Tomas started his
teaching career three years earlier, and I had started mine as a Peace
Corps volunteer just six months ago. But now Tomas stood before me
silent and unsure. He looked over each shoulder, then settled his eyes
on my feet. The morning break had begun, and we stood in the staff room
away from the windows that opened onto dozens of blue-uniformed students
swapping stories and snacks.
“The short one,” he breathed, using his girlfriend’s code name, a Namibian take, I guessed, on hip hop’s shorty. “She’s pregnant.”
Soon after Tomas moved to Aakwetu village to teach, he and the
short one began dating in secret. If their paths crossed at the cuca
shops, the corrugated metal-roofed shebeens that made up Aakwetu’s
center, or at the public water tap beyond the school’s gate, they passed
each other without even a wave or greeting. I saw her for the first
time only a month earlier. In line to buy fried bread, a local delicacy
called oshikuki, Tomas took my hand and gestured with his chin to
a young woman sitting on a blanket, doling out the oily bread wrapped
in scraps of newspaper. A mound of silver coins grew beside her.
“Her aunt has gone to town,” Tomas said, “so the short one is working her business.”
She, in her early twenties, and Tomas, twenty-five years old, had
similar features: both were short and stocky, had round faces with
prominent cheekbones, and kept their hair shaved to the scalp. While she
wore sandals, cut-off khaki shorts, and an old T-shirt with pockmarked
fabric, Tomas wore a neon yellow Arsenal jersey, dark jeans, and leather
shoes. Without acknowledging her presence, nor she his, Tomas bought
our snacks from another woman.
But in the last month everything changed. On the sand court behind the grade eight block, they played volleyball, together. Tomas talked to the short one, in public.
At the water tap Tomas was seen hoisting her five-gallon jerry can onto
his shoulder and carrying it in the direction of her father’s
homestead. And last week he even led her to me and said, “Alan, you know
“Pleasure,” she said. Big, round eyes, the irises as
dark as the pupils, focused on my feet. Unsure of her English, she
covered her mouth with a thick hand. She’d failed the nationally
administered grade ten exam years earlier, a test that only 50 percent
of tenth graders typically passed, so she wasn’t eligible to enroll in
the eleventh grade. Her schooling over, she worked in her father’s
fields, pounded grain into flour, cooked the local staple oshimbombo, millet porridge, and brewed traditional beer at her father’s cuca shop.
“Of course I know Maria,” I said. In the traditional way, our left
hands held our right forearms as we shook. She bounced at her knees; I
nodded. She wore a meme dress, an unflattering, one-piece, billowing frock that old women wore.
And now, as Tomas still focused his eyes on my feet, everything—his nervousness, her meme dress, their public encounters—made sense: they were pregnant.
Tomas said, “I’ll go at the weekend, ” meaning that on Saturday
he’d travel to his father’s homestead, a hundred-mile, four-hour journey
by foot and taxi. “I’ll tell my father we want to marry.”
“That’s fantastic news,” I blurted. I was twenty-four years old, and
marriage to me was an abstract inevitability. I’d never had a serious
girlfriend, but I had no doubt that I—that everyone—would one day marry
and slip seamlessly into adulthood. I reached out to embrace Tomas, but
he shrugged and stepped away.
“It is fantastic,” he said, but
his tone was flat, as if he spoke of the heat or a staff meeting. He
turned to the window, and I, confused, stood beside him. Through the
burglar bars we watched students amble towards their classes, girls
holding their girlfriends’ hands, as was customary, and boys holding
their friends’ hands.
* * *
Come Monday, all Tomas offered of his discussion with his father
was, “It’s done. The wedding will be in December.” On the verge of
marriage and fatherhood, he didn’t look at all happy or excited. Love
and relationships, it seemed, were as inscrutable as AIDS, which in 2003
was said to plague one out of every five Namibians.
Yet I believed that love was the only reason they wanted to marry.
In Aakwetu, because weddings were expensive affairs, marriage was
uncommon. The groom’s family had to pay for an extravagant engagement
party, a formal wedding ceremony, and lavish feasts to which the entire
village was invited. Traditionally marriage meant the bride left her
family to join her husband’s, so the groom compensated his in-laws with a
lobola, a bride price, paid in cattle, grain, and tools.
Most couples chose to raise their children out of wedlock. In fact,
half of Hallelujah’s teachers had fathered or mothered children with
people whom they had no intention of marrying. Children were a sign of
adulthood, a measure of masculinity, femininity. Childless men were
rumored to be impotent; women who weren’t mothers were said to be
sterile or have diseases.
It would’ve been common for Maria
to raise the child on her father’s homestead. Tomas would’ve sent money
for doctor’s visits, clothes, and school fees. The child would’ve spent
weekends and holidays with Tomas. If, in the future, they still wanted
to marry, Tomas and Maria would’ve had the opportunity to save money so
the wedding expenses would’ve been better absorbed. If not for love,
then why else would they marry so soon?
As the wedding
approached, Tomas lost weight, his face became gaunt, and he no longer
played soccer or volleyball after school. Students and colleagues
avoided him. His free time consisted of transporting cattle from his
father’s farm deep in the bush, amassing food and refreshments for
hundreds of relatives, and borrowing more and more money from his
family. He and Maria needed a home, so Tomas bought an undeveloped
section of the mopane forest. After long days of teaching during the
hottest times of the year, when simply talking, eating, or sleeping was
difficult, Tomas cleared his new land of brush and trees. Out of blocks
he mixed himself from sand and cement, he built an okambashu, a
hovel with a concrete floor, single window, and corrugated metal roof.
No more than one-hundred square feet, his home was just big enough for a
pallet, trunk, table, and chair.
In December, summer and the
rains burst upon northern Namibia. Night awoke with the chirp and whir
of insects, with choruses of frogs like mallets on a wooden xylophone.
Once dry pans swelled with rainwater, and cattle and goats grew fat on
wild grass. As families plowed and planted, Tomas’s relatives crowded
into his father’s homestead. When I arrived, a hundred people had
bivouacked around the cinderblock buildings and grass-roofed huts. From
the homestead fence fluttered a white sheet tied to a pole—the symbol of
efundula, a wedding.
Tomas met me at the homestead gate. Around us goat meat braiied on half-a-dozen cook fires, and Tomas’s relatives laughed and drank bottled beer or a sour traditional beer called omalovu gwiilya. Caught up in their emotion, I slapped Tomas on the back and said, “Are you ready to be an omusamane, a husband?”
“I haven’t slept in three days,” he said. He raised an index
finger to massage his temple. His eyes were sunken and his shoulders
slumped. Sweat marks traced down his filthy ankles. He stank—the ripe
onion smell of sweat; the grainy smells of wood smoke, grilled meat.
He said his days and nights had been a blur of traditions and
celebrations: drinking and dancing, speeches from aunts and uncles,
ritual cleansings with traditional oil. And each night, while his family
slept, he and a handful of siblings struck out into the village. They
woke up neighboring homesteads with dance and song until the families
allowed Tomas to catch one of their chickens and hobble its feet with
string, to add to the wedding feast.
introduced me to his family. We found his father with blood up to his
elbows, eviscerating a slaughtered cow. He was a short, stout,
kind-faced man—unmistakably Tomas’s father. He hacked off a foreleg and
handed it to me.
“A good cut,” Tomas said without smiling.
All night the family drank and ate and danced. It was the eve of
his wedding, and Tomas was surrounded by family and friends, but he sat
alone, morose and glum. Something more than exhaustion fueled his dark
mood, I knew, but the family’s energy infected me, and all night I
partied with them, celebrating Tomas even though he abstained. At some
point I fell asleep with my shoes on, the tent flap unzipped, oblivious
to the mosquitoes that feasted on me.
I woke at sunrise to a
750-mL bottle of beer and a plate of beef cubes in a light gravy. Three
sips and I was drunk again. While the family bathed and dressed, Tomas,
already wearing a pressed tuxedo and shoes polished to obsidian, sat in a
plastic chair. His shaven, moisturized face looked as fragile as glass.
“Want some meat?” I called.
“I’m sick,” he
whispered. “High blood pressure.” His blazer hung open, the tuxedo shirt
unbuttoned, and he held his right hand pressed against the flesh of his
Midmorning everyone climbed into a caravan of bakkies
until the pickups were so overloaded the wheel wells sat an inch above
the tires. Men wore suits and cowboy hats, and women wore multi-colored
frocks with matching head wraps and carried short staffs with horsetails
mounted on the ends. The caravan crept onto the two-lane, undivided B1
tar road. Children blew plastic whistles, men sang hymns, women ululated
and waved the horsetail staffs—everyone cried, “Iiyaloo, Tomasa! Efundula, efundula, efundula!
Congratulations, Tomas! A wedding, a wedding, a wedding!” Despite the
songs and ululation, Tomas dozed, his head lolling back and forth.
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