Day 20. Friday. 2:15 PM. The first week of the term has ended. Exam results are not yet in, which means I have taught exactly zero classes. I have made few friends. I decide to get a drink with a colleague. His name is Mr Steak.
On my way to the bar I encounter some children. They don’t look at me. They goggle. Offhand murmurings of “azungu” ring in my ears like the low-pitched thrumming of an electrical generator. It is a constant, inescapable tinnitus that follows me everywhere. I try to ignore it. I fail.
The bar is conveniently located directly behind the church. Calling it a bar is a rather generous assessment, though. Even by the standards of the local bottle store, this place leaves something to be desired. It is a simple storefront; with a pair of large speakers on the bar and a steel cage in the back that appears to hold nothing but a few dozen boxes of Chibuku.
Mr Steak and I sit on a bench outside. Some crude walls of warped and crooked wood have been set up under the awning for privacy. In front of that is a thatched grass structure with a matching roof. Light streams between each slat of the timber, imprisoning us in vertical bars of sunshine. A black insect buzzes around. The sound it makes is not the usual buzzzzzzz of a housefly or a bumble bee, but a rather sonorous BUZZZZZZZ, as if it were overcompensating for something.
I try to ignore it. I fail.
Mr Steak is a large man – warm and doughy. His shirt frequently comes untucked and his belly hangs over the top of his trousers. He has a prominent gap in both his top and bottom teeth. “Do you take Chibuku?” he asks. I inquire on whether they have anything else. Before I can say another word, Mr Steak stands up and disappears inside. His movements disturb the insect and it adjusts its flight plan accordingly. I poke my head around the corner. I see five people. One of them looks to be about fifteen. His shoes are bright. His eyes are not. The others include two women who (maybe) work there, a man sporting a pink shirt that reads “I [heart] breasts” and another man with teeth the color of dried blood. Mr Steak returns, “They don’t have here but they will go next door,” he says before I can protest.
He opens up a carton of beer, takes a big swig and exhales deeply. He wipes a few flecks of millet off his upper lip. “Chibuku is the best,” he says. I am curious as to why that is. “It has maize. When you drink it, you get the energy.” Having the energy is very important in this country. Whether it is Chibuku, its non-alcoholic cousin thobwa, or nsima, it is all about the energy. Taste, nutrition, variety, these are expensive luxuries, not cultural norms. Carbohydrates are cheap. Carbohydrates keep the hunger away.
The BUZZZZZZZing is now directly next to my right ear. I roll up a piece of paper and try to swat the thing out of the air. It taunts me with more noise, this time on the left.
My beer arrives. More accurately, my three beers. I reach for my wallet as the woman hands Mr Steak his change. “I was only going to have one,” I say, embarrassed by both the quantity and that he has already paid for them. “Chibuku is one litre, which equals three Carlsbergs,” he says. Sadly, I cannot argue against his math. I receive a bottle opener that is most likely older than me. After fiddling with the thing for a few minutes I manage to clumsily dislodge the cap.
“Did you always want to be a teacher?” I ask him. He shakes his head. Teaching was not his first choice. He wanted to be a doctor. “They make a lot of money here,” he says. Unfortunately, his tests scores were lacking. He received good marks in English. He received good marks in Maths. But he had great difficulties with Science. His score was very low, so he was not accepted to the country’s only medical school. “What subject do you teach, again?” I ask. “Physical Science,” he replies.
The insect lands on one of the planks next to Mr Steak. “They like to make nests on the wood,” he says. Its body is bulbous at both ends and skinny in the middle. It reminds me of a balloon animal. However, instead of an erect, pink rubber poodle tail protruding from its backside, there appears to be a very long stinger. I ask if it stings. “I don’t think so,” he says. The tone of his voice does not instill confidence in me. If it were a little further away from Mr Steak’s head I would take another swing.
We sit. We drink. As I am fumbling with the rusty bottle opener on the second beer,
I congratulate him on his upcoming wedding. I ask if he is happy about it. “No,” he says, plainly. “Culture says I need to get married, so I get married.” The answer is as succinct as it is heartbreaking.
His future wife is a good woman, though. She works with the police. “So she is stronger than you,” I say jokingly. He replies that she is not stronger than him. No. She is definitely not stronger. He is stronger. Not her. He is very adamant about this fact.
The wasp continues its BUZZZZZZZing.
Mr Steak has finished his Shake Shake and eyes my final Carlsberg. I invite him to take it (he did, after all, pay for it). I am pleased that he has as much trouble with the bottle opener as I did.
“Do they have the women in bars in America? The sex workers?” He motions to the two women inside. I am not sure if he is impugning their reputations or just stating a known fact. I tell him that where I am from, seeing a woman in a bar is normal. And the vast majority of them are not sex workers. He thinks about this world of women in bars. A world of exposed knees, exposed midriffs, exposed shoulders. A world with (a little) less slut shaming. Where the bad behaviors of men are not (so often) excused, rationalized or uncommented upon.
“America is very different from here,” he says as he tips back the last of his Carlsberg.
He looks at his watch and stands. “I have to teach at 3:20,” he says. I look at my watch. It is 3:27. He smiles. I am not sure if the smile is a sign of friendship or inebriation.
“Tiwonana,” I say without further comment.
I sit alone, drinking the last slug of beer. I look over at the (maybe) sex workers and the glassy eyed boy. At blood teeth and the man who [hearts] breasts (but, according to the back of the shirt, he hates cancer). None of them take note of me. I notice the BUZZZZZZZing has stopped.
The wasp is crawling on the ground. A shadow inches closer and envelops it. A large black shoe descends. There is a pop and a soft crunch. The sound is small, but victorious.