Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beginning goodbyes…

My African spinach (amaranth) going to seed.

For many days during my Peace Corps South Africa experience, I wondered whether or not I would be able to remain in Africa and complete my Peace Corps service. This African world is very different from mine and I’ve had a hard, hard time adjusting. If a volunteer chooses to end their service early, before the 27 month time commitment is finished, the official term for the volunteer’s Peace Corps status is “Early Termination.” There have been times in my two years in South Africa that I’ve contemplated “early terminating.” When I would think thoughts of going home early however, I realized that if I did terminate my service early, that I would need at least six months to tell everybody goodbye, so I might as well stay. I would need at least six months to disassemble my house and distribute it to community members and I would need at least six months to mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepare myself for the return home.

Obviously, as I’m still here in South Africa, I haven’t terminated my service early. As you may not know, I’m now within my six-month window of officially returning home. Official in that my service contract with Peace Corps officially ends September 16, 2011. So, I have six months to tell South Africa goodbye.

I am saying goodbye to my last summer and last rainy season in South Africa. The rain has transformed our little college campus into a vibrant, bustling wetland: dragonflies buzz by my open windows; the South African weed, blackjack, is taller than I; my equally tall amaranth is turning to seed; the black-headed heron is perched on a telephone pole outside my doorway each morning, surveying his domain; the grass is growing so tall and so quickly, the job of cutting it has overwhelmed the regular campus yardmen and the task has been contracted out. The blooms of the wild zinnia are fading and a lovely, lovely weed that smells like marigolds--is in bloom. I never did learn what this weed is, but I love it and I and delight in it. This will be the last time I see it. The field beside my house still bustles with butterflies pollinating the late season African weeds and the moths with the big eyes on their backs swarm into my house each night, attracted by my reading light.

My last African garden is fading and I’ve harvested the last of my tomatoes, okra, and wild spinach. There are watermelons yet to be harvested, however--they’ve come from volunteer seed that very much enjoyed my trenched bed. I hope I enjoy the watermelons as much! They’ll have to ripen before the killing frost, which will probably come mid-April. I’m not sure there is enough time for them to ripen.

I’m trying my best to sit with each one South Africa’s dramatic sunsets and hope to not miss a single one. Of all the things I’ll miss most of South Africa, I believe it is the South African sky that I’ll long for. There are very few days that pass in South Africa where the sky, in and of itself, isn’t completely engrossing in its dramatic beauty. I’ve spent many a late afternoon/early evening just sitting and staring at it. I’ll also miss the spray of the Milky Way that I can see outside my windows at night—so many stars! It is so, so beautiful and reminds me of the magnificence of the universe. I hope to spend time with each remaining full moon in Africa before I come home as well. The swell of the full moon in Africa makes my heart ache. And I will be careful to rise with each African dawn.

The heat of the South African summer has almost ceased for this season. So I’m saying goodbye to the hot African heat! Many would think it unbearable, but it was not for me. However, I love the hot, humid, sticky heat of the Ohio River Valley as well! At times, it would be very, very hot, but I wouldn’t notice until I picked up my phone and wondered why it was hot to the touch; or turn on the tap water, and wonder why the water was hot. I would, however, notice the heat of the African sun in late afternoon, when it would become so hot I would flee my caravan home in fear of baking myself alive. In these last few days, I’ve noticed in late afternoon, “The fan is not on and it’s 5:00 pm, what is wrong with this picture?” I know that summer is fading and I need to tell it goodbye.

For both of my summers in South Africa, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending a spider. For my first summer in Africa, I befriended an amazingly dramatic garden spider, situated up nicely in a thick bush of lavender. She was green and yellow like our yellow/black garden spiders, but her body had jagged edges instead of a smooth, oblong shape. I would visit her each day and delighted in her and in her web “spring.” She looked ferocious, but I knew that was a part of her strategy to deter predators. Although she would certainly harm a fly, she wouldn’t at all harm a person—other than with fright! I remember feeling sad at the end of that first summer, when she expired, as all spiders do. And I missed my evening strolls to check on her. Similarly, I had a spider friend this summer, a different kind of spider, who spun her web outside my living room window. I would spend my evenings watching her repair her web. I don’t know what kind of spider she was, but she was brown and chunky with red markings on her belly. She would disappear during the day, and just as night began to fall, and without fail, she would drop down and begin her evening of acrobatics backlit by the dramatic African sunset. I enjoyed her company very much. One day this week, she was out earlier than usual and hanging in her web in an unspiderly fashion. “Uh, oh,” I thought. Yep, her time had come too. I still pull my chair to the window each evening to watch the sunset, but I feel lonely without her.

Bad shot of me--nothing but nostrils--ok shot of Ounaai, but you can tell she's afraid of the camera. 
This was our last day together.

I had to say goodbye to another of my companions this week: I let go of my little girl dog, Ounaai.

My aunt has had dogs in her life, but when she lost her last one, over 10 years ago, she said, “No more.” When asked why, she replies, “Because it hurts too much to lose them.”

When I first read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, I was horrified at learning she wanted to shoot her African horses and dogs before she returned to Denmark. I remember thinking to myself, “What a cold and heartless woman.” However, I did not understand Ms. Dinesen’s motive; I did not understand it at all. I believe I’ve come to understand her motive now: She didn’t want to leave her beloved animals behind to suffer neglect, cruelty, starvation, or mistreatment. She would rather have shot them then worry of their suffering.

Ounaai became very dear to me very quickly and it was painful to let her go, but I knew I had to find her a home before I left Africa. Yes, I could have brought her home with me to the USA, but such a choice is simply not practical.

Ounaai has gone to live with a friend who owns a farm about an hour from where I live. His yard is fenced (so she’ll be safe) and the house is home for my friend and his mother, and they have a dog and two cats. Ounaai knows and loves this friend—he feeds her grilled meat!—so she’s not gone off to strangers.

The day before she would be leaving, I spent as much time with her as I could and took care to play with her lots and love her up well before she left. She, of course, did not know she would be leaving, so was completely unaware of the cause of my extra attentions. I don’t think she noticed my breaking heart either. I realized I had no photos of her and I together, so I tried to take one. Ounaai is very, very afraid of the camera and hates it very much, so I only took one shot instead of tormenting her on our last day together. Sorry, the photo is terrible of me—nothing but nostrils—but somewhat good of her.

The next morning, her new owner drove up and she was very happy to see him. I walked her to the car, picked her up, gave her a few extra smooches, and placed her in the car, and she was off! She was a very good dog for me, and I hated to see her go, but I knew it best.

I was unprepared for the hurt I would have at her loss. I hadn’t realized what a sentimental old goose I am, to have become so attached to this little dog. I guess there is a lot to be said for a creature who provides consistent love and affection to another creature who lives in a world she feels unwanted and unloved in.

I moped and cried for days feeling overwhelmingly blue. Fella, a neighbor’s dog, who has kept me company in Ounaai’s absence, even brought me a gift hoping to help cheer me (I’ll spare you of telling what the “gift” was.”) He was missing her too.

I miss her very much and still find myself looking for her, more than a week later.

I want to thank my parents, publicly, for helping pay to have her “cleaned up,” especially for helping me have her spayed. Although I hate the lost expense—and her spay was very expensive--I don’t believe my friend (or anyone else) would have wanted her if she weren’t. So thanks Nan and Pap, for helping me get my puppy a good home. She was a very good companion for me and had a lot to do with my finding happiness in Africa. Memories of her will be favorites from my Peace Corps experience.

So I’m saying goodbye to my last African summer, saying goodbye to my last African rainy season, and saying goodbye to a few of my important, South African friends. I have another South African winter to get through—Brrr!—but it will too be a last for me, so I don’t want to miss a moment!

See you in Aug/Sept,

A decent shot of Ounaai: she's unaware of the camera. 
You get a sense of what a happy dog she is.

1 comment:

  1. Your writing is moving. I can imagine that African sky and I feel the loss and love for your Ounaai. Lifes cycle - but to be so aware.
    We will be glad to have you back. In the meantime thanks for sharing your journey.