David Gately

Xi and Me: Tales from the Kalahari

In Africa, Botswana, Peace Corps on February 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm

In the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the protagonist, Xi, a Bushman from Botswana, finds a Coca-Cola bottle in the Kalahari Desert. The bottle, dropped from a plane, is unknown to Xi [pronounced zee] and his people. As the story unfolds the mystery and significance of this “gift from God” turns Xi’s uncomplicated world upside down. Separate characters appear and plotlines evolve – most affecting emotions and encounters Xi had never before – but the central theme is that the bottle’s discovery is a life-changing revelation for Xi.

My epiphany begins in the Kalahari, too, but as a Peace Corps volunteer on the eastern edge of the desert in Serowe, an almost movie-set-ready traditional African village. A tad southeast of the Okavango Delta, Serowe is midpoint on the paved road between Gaborone, the capital, and Harare, Zimbabwe. When it rains, which seldom happens on the arid, grassland savannah, the mud walls and thatched roofs of rondavel homes turn deep coffee-brown and burnt-red. After it dries and sun blues the open sky, the well-watered, fertile land of low sagebrush ripens to a rich, rustic olive-green and yellow-gold.

Before Botswana, my life, like Xi’s preceding the bottle, is remarkably ordinary. Born and raised outside Boston, I grew up in the blissful, if not humdrum, suburban existence of the 1960s and 70s, in a split-level ranch with a hard-working father, a stay-at-home mother and three siblings. There were the typical cast of characters and subplots; plenty of friends rolled in an out of my life with whom I endured early love and heartache. I didn’t travel much; never left the States.

By my teens I was an American with a pedestrian sense of society, tradition and culture. Self-assured? Yes. Stubborn? A little bit. But I was eager to learn about a life beyond anything I had ever called home. I dreamt of somehow pushing the limits of my sense of self and my relationship to the world around me. I cobbled together a mental album of memories and anecdotes, secretly hoping that my oh-so-boring life adds up to a life-that-matters saga where, like Xi, a seemingly celestial transformation might one day change my reality.

Growing up Irish-Catholic in Massachusetts I was drawn to the idealism of President Kennedy and the thought of one day working overseas with the public-service agency he created, the Peace Corps. So I inquired, applied, interviewed and, to my delight, was accepted. I joined for reasons similar to other volunteers: altruism and adventure.

When I arrived in Botswana I lived with a host family and trained at St. Gabriel’s mission with my newly arrived fellow volunteers. Carl was one of them. His host family lived halfway between my host family and the mission. Each morning I’d stop by Carl’s and we’d continue on to St. Gabriel’s.

One morning, waiting for Carl in the middle of his family’s compound, I came upon a wooden barrel. Inside was a shiny, milky brown-grey liquid. Nosy and curious, I stuck my head deep down inside the dank container and inhale its contents. My reflection, a fuzzy distortion, echoed back like a fun-house mirror. I quickly realized the liquid was chibuku – southernAfrica’s moniker for indigenous beer – fermenting in the barrel. I had heard about the notorious homemade brew, popular among expats for its high-alcohol content, from our Botswana Peace Corps trainers.

Dumela” (the standard Botswana greeting), I shouted to no one in particular when my head popped up. “Is this chibuku?”

The compound – awhirl with adults, children, a goat, several chickens and a stray dog seconds before – was now still. All eyes were fixated on me. No one moved. Not the mother pounding millet. Not the teenage boy brushing his teeth by the bushes. Even the father, hung-over and thrashing about, eyes cherry-red from drinking too much chibuku the night before, was frozen.

As an American I had learned to smell my food and drink. A whiff of pleasant aroma traveling up my nasal cavity and my brain said eat, drink and enjoy. But it occurred to me that I had done something wrong.

Carl joined me hovering over the barrel. Oblivious to his family’s sudden displeasure he said, “Yes its chibuku. They’ve  been brewing it all night. See you later,” he yelled to the family as we head off to St. Gabriel’s. “We’ll try the chibuku when we get back tonight.”

But the chibuku was gone when Carl and I returned. That morning we learned it is taboo to smell food or drink in Botswana. It’s considered unhygienic to stick one’s nose near either, our trainers warned. Carl’s family had discarded the beer once they saw my honker sniffing around; it was deemed contaminated, unfit to drink or sell. I was mortified by the thought that I had deprived Carl’s family of potential income and humiliated that I had caused him shame.

When we completed the two-month Peace Corps training in Serowe, I moved 200 kilometers south to teach journalism at the Ministry of Agricultur in Gaborone. Gabs, as it is endearingly referred to, was by all accounts a bustling developing-country metropolis. On weekends the city’s vibrant commercial mall buzzed with shoppers gawking to and fro and sellers hawking curios meticulously arranged on multihued African fabrics. Malachite carvings and jewelry glistened. Teak and mahogany chessboards enticed. Exquisite sawgrass-weave baskets – embroideryBotswanais world famous for – seduced prospective buyers. There was also the mall bank where I cashed my Peace Corps stipend and the post office where, like a kid at Christmas, I gleefully snapped up care packages sent stateside family and friends.

My first visit to the post office and I saw chaos all around. Customers were jam-packed; haphazard everywhere. I staked a position in a long zigzag line and waited my turn at the counter. I surveyed the disorder and waited but the line didn’t move. If only I could jump behind the counter, I imagined, I could fix this mess. I’ve done my time bagging groceries and processing purchase orders in corporateAmerica, I thought. I know good customer service. My patience quickly ran thin. Frustrated, I left the post office without my package to try another day. To my surprise the post-office waiting line – or the bank waiting line – seldom improved. Henceforth I was never in a line in Botswana again without a good book. I got lots of reading done.

One of my first assignments at the Ministry was to travel with my Botswanacolleagues to Ghanzi, a preposterously isolated village deep in the Kalahari, to cover an agricultural show. It was brutal three-day drive through unforgiving desert sand. Eight- to 10-hours each day of trashing up and down in the backseat. My hand muscles atrophied from gripping handrails so long. My head throbbed and my back ached.

The drive challenged sense of adventure. I missed smooth paved roads and quick commutes. I felt a long way from civilization. I went from imaging the truck breaking down, to a frying death under a cruel sun, to being eaten by vultures. So I tried to recall what brought me to the Kalahari. I breathed deep and focused on meditation. I looked around and daydreamed it was Xi country. I kept an eye out for Coke bottles. I saw none but one day the driver threw a soda can out the window and I followed it in the rearview mirror until it disappeared, swallowed in the hazy, mercilessly bleak but stunningly beautiful wilderness where I knew it would remain long after I left Botswana. The thought haunted me.

To assuage my anxiety during those three days, I incessantly chatted up my Botswanacolleagues or nervously flipped through a strangely forlorn copy of an American Ladies Home Journal. One day Nyelle, one of my colleagues, pulls out a bag of what looked like charred, hairy caterpillars. They’re mopane worms, he informs me. He starts popping them one-by-one in his mouth like popcorn. The worms, once moths, he says, are found on mopane trees, vegetation that grows only in sub-Saharan Africa and is an important source of protein for indigenous people. Preparation involves squeezing the guts out, Nyelle extols, a bit of oil, a lot of salt, and a toss in the oven. He offers me one.

My face grimaces at the notion of eating worms. I decline the offer. I’m American, I enlighten Nyelle, and I don’t eat insects, especially caterpillar-like worms that were once moths on trees. I show him a picture of lobster in Ladies Home Journal.

“Lobster is a delicacy in my country,” I announce.

His face cringes. “Mopane worm is a delicacy here,” he says, “and lobster is just a disgusting, bottom-feeding big ocean insect.”

I snicker and roll my eyes. Then I concede and extend my hand, reluctantly, for a mopane worm. Just as I had thought it tasted like cardboard.

In the final scene of The Gods Must Be Crazy, in order to restore peace in his world, Xi takes the bottle to the “end of earth” and throws it back to the gods. He returns to his village a hero and embraces a new life infused with the insight that the world is at once good and bad, happy and sad, right and wrong. It’s all in the perspective, an engaging tale.

My tale is by no means complete. In the chapters since Peace Corps I am an American seeded by epiphany unearthed in the Kalahari. There is no hero to my story, certainly no bottle from the gods, but there is a gift. A beautiful transformative irony; the glorious revelation that sometimes it’s taboo for me to smell food, that patience is a mutable state of mind and that I’ll try anything once, generally speaking, even wolfing a few worms, gutted and baked of course.

By David R. Gately

  1. I remember your send off & home coming party! I was so proud of you…..I still am! Love you!

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