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close this bookThe Courier N 185 - March - April 2001 - Dossier: Cinema - Country Reports: Angola (EC Courier, 2001, 76 p.)
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Ukimwi

by Ingeborg Eliassen

translated by K. Stewart Kreisman

They gave me beer and said that those who drank of this brew never again yearn for home.

They said that a person such as I should not have heavy work, should lead others. But they let me pay for my indulgence with work. They let me get blisters on my hands and scratch myself on thorns.

They taught me the words, but I never learned enough to be able to laugh when they laughed. The whole time it was the others and me. They removed sand fleas from my toes and I handed out condoms. I planted grain and ate cornmeal with them. I listened to their stories and told mine. The entire time I waited for the big WE to fill my breast. I was lonely among people who counted me as one of their own.

I sneak away from the feast. Sit myself down and look up at the swarm of stars. First, I look at the nearest, then discover that further out there are yet more. Gradually I get more depth of vision. Countless stars of different size, with different strengths and at different distances. It is beautiful but elusive and foreign. I do not know it now.

My new people had nothing but good feelings for me and I for them, but I knew solidarity for only a short breath. This disappointed me. I decided to travel home. They asked how I could leave them. It pleased me that they wanted me there. They asked if the beer had not worked. I said that I had never been able to become accustomed to the taste - that I presumably hadn’t drunk enough.

We had to fetch a calf - a calf of a new breed which would grow and give more milk than the cows they had before. It was not my idea, but they wanted it. I thought that they perhaps would not be able to give the calf the care it needed, that it would get unknown diseases which they couldn’t cure. But they wanted it this way, so I pushed the thought from me. I thought instead how it would grow and live here after I had left. I thought that it would give nourishment to children, that it would breed new calves that would give nourishment to new children. I thought it would be a farewell gift.

It is a day’s journey by truck. In the grey dawn I pick up Kaijage and Boai by the large avocado tree. They fasten their seat belts. They know that I demand it. They know that I try to anticipate all accidents and unpleasantness. They know that I don’t leave anything in God’s hands. Through the foliage of the avocado tree we see the sun come up. It is me and Kaijage and Boai in the car. We have a fine day ahead of us. Kaijage has a bag of boiled sweets from his shop. We each have a eucalyptus drop wrapped in cellophane. I drive down the slope. The way is dry and clear. Down on the plain beneath us lies the town with three small shops, the bar, the post office and the hospital.

“Stop,” says Kaijage. They fumble with the belts. Kaijage must help Boai to release the button. They bid me stop. Here. Right now. They want out of the trunk. I ask them to explain. They point at a nurse in newly pressed white uniform who has appeared at the edge of the road. She waves. They must get out. I, too, step out of the vehicle.

“Come,” she says. Her black fingers grasp the air before me, as they do when they wave someone towards them.

On the slope down the road, in the shadows, a dark form is half sitting, half lying. A young woman. Her gaze is empty. Across her lap lies a wet baby. The umbilical chord from its navel pulsates.

Kaijage and Boai have disappeared. The nurse bids the young woman hold on to the baby while we lift her up. It’s a long way up to the truck-bed. She is slender but heavy. We must lay her down on the road in order to get a better grip. The nurse scolds her for not having a firm hold on the wet baby. We lift her into the truck.

I pull up outside the hospital. Other nurses come and take hold of the young woman and her child. I have a strange thought about the baby perhaps being named after me, or perhaps being called “She Who Came With Truck”.

“Blood!” I cry in my own language. I have blood on my dress and down my body. On my feet. “Help me, God!” I think. I have a scratch down on my foot from the thorn thicket.

I think of how I have been working during the recent clearing, shifting thorn bushes, and there been scratched, while people around me had thrown away condoms and infected each other. Half the population of the village had tainted blood.

I feel emotion swell in me. I want to be angry with her, the nurse who stopped me, who caught me up in this. I look at her; she stands with the incongruous pillbox hat on the frizzled head.

She, too, has blood on herself, on the white uniform-dress, on her hands.

“Blood,” I say. “Yes,” she says and goes inside. She comes back with cottonwool and a large bottle of disinfectant. I rinse my hands. The wet cottonwool ball absorbs the blood and becomes red. I pour disinfectant over the wound on my foot. I moisten a new one.

I rinse my arms and body. She stands by my side and washes away the blood from her body. My tears fall silently down and mingle with the disinfectant. I had better wash the wound on my foot again. Soundless weeping. Let the tears cleanse. Find a roll of toilet paper in the glove compartment, blow the nose.

“We should have used gloves,” I say. “Yes,” she replies “We should have used gloves... but I was on my way to work... just got there... didn’t think.”

Is it over now? I ask myself. The thought does not linger, it is washed away by tears. I hear the nurse rather than me - Msahada - the word means both “help” and “gift”. We take each other’s hands.

I drive home. Remove the dress. Wash the face, hands and feet. Will investigate the wound, check if I have more small scratches. I look at the wound but don’t know what I see. 1 feel strangely light. Put on a clean dress. Try to think about the young woman and the new-born child. The thought will not hold. They should be just two strangers on the road. But the nurse - we stood side by side and washed blood. I had taken care not to use too large cotton-wool balls. I thought they had so few resources at the hospital. It was just the two of us. Forever linked by the same dread.

I put the sandals in the wash basin and find a pair of shoes. Walk out to the vehicle. Climb in. Drive. Kaijage and Boai are waiting in the shadow beneath the big avocado tree. Kaijage takes out the crumpled bag containing the eucalyptus drops. I ask why they had disappeared. They say that a woman would feel degraded at being seen by a man while in such a condition. They say that this is their custom. But when you make the baby under a bush with a woman, I say, you have no trouble helping? They laugh. I tell them that I feel that this custom is very convenient for men. They laugh even more. I don’t mention the blood and the wound on my foot. Kaijage begins a new round with the eucalyptus drops.

The calf is a beautiful red-brown, like the cows at home. I watch while Kaijage and Boai and two youths lift the calf into the truck. The day draws to a close. When we pull up by the fencing the sun sinks in the western sky. The other cows come and greet the new calf.

I go into my house. Light a lamp. Think that I am tired, but that I will be unable to sleep. I lie down and await the angst. It doesn’t come. “UKIMWI.” I’m searching for words behind the letters: “infection which weakens the strength to resist.” I am of a mind to pit myself against it; it is their disease, not mine. There is a fifty percent chance that her blood was infected. I try to judge how great is the chance that my wound is vulnerable. Fifty, thirty or ten? I think that the chance is small, and if I take fifty percent from a small chance it becomes even smaller. I realise this yardstick is useless. I have no control over this. Not I, not the nurse, not the others. As for us, I think, we must take what the morrow will bring.