Friday, June 30, 2006
BELOW THE SURFACE
Polite smiles, yeses and nos, perhaps a few words in answer to the usual questions. Is it hot here in summer? How many cubs does a lioness birth? Where does your family live? I want more. Do you have siblings? How many? What does your name mean? Not your English name, the one for white foreigners. Your real name, the one that links you to this place. It means “not the same way.” He, our guide, is the youngest child. Seven of the eleven adult siblings are dead. They were sick, he says, when I ask how. In naming him, his mother wards off the sickness. This child will not be taken from her like the others.
We stop talking, still in our tracks, like the impala we pass each day. Alert to danger, to realities that keep us apart. Read about in books, perhaps, or gleaned from other inquisitive questionings.
The silence lingers, overtakes us. The relationship—between guide and tourist, man and woman, black and white—has no words to touch his sorrow. Yet in parting, the young guide steps toward me, leans forward with open arms. I move into his embrace, unanticipated, generous, as innocent, I think, as my questions had been. Between us, a vast landscape of human experience remains untouched. Where words can’t go, a gesture of affection has taken us below the surface, to the region where understanding lies and where hope burns. I climb into the tiny aircraft that will take me to the next camp, wiggle my fingers in farewell through the crack of the open window, and train my eyes on the waving arms below until all human form blends into the dun colors and broad sweep of the bush.