Friday, March 29, 2013

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

I returned to Mandama a week ago to find my village sweltering under the oppressive regime of high hot season.  Having been gone a full week and a half longer than I had originally planned, I spent my first two days back shuttling sweatily between my high-strung neighbors, reassuring them that I had not moved back to America and reigning in their penchant for hyperbole ("I was NOT gone for three months, Yusufa, that would mean I left in mid-December.")

Everyone appeased, I settled into the new rhythm of life in a 109 degree furnace.  I wake, dehydrated and unrested, before 6:00 A.M.  This is the last cool part of the day (cool being a relative term).  I often step onto my front porch to enjoy it as I guzzle a 2-liter bottle of water to try and coax my swollen throat and leather tongue back into some semblance of function.

Anything that's going to happen occurs now, in the early morning; by 10:30 A.M. everyone's back inside.  Having broken fast early, they lunch early, at 11:00 or 11:30.  The next three hours or so-- the dead heat of the midday sun-- are spent laid out on the ubiquitous woven plastic mats used to cover earth floors.  It's a strange sensation, walking around the village between noon and 1:00; the place is a ghost town, and glimpses through doorways of compounds reveal only bodies sprawled out, as though the village had ben stricken with a plague.  People conserve energy, dozing, talking quietly, or merely staring with a fatalistic patience, waiting for the heat to subside.  Animals have equally succumbed to the drought.  Goats hunker into the shade of trees, panting; cows are gaunt, ribs poking through skin like frame through canvas.

These seasonal restrictions in combination with severe supply chain ruptures to the health center have made working next to impossible, so I find myself once again with ponderous amounts of time on my hands.  I while away most afternoon siestas reading on my stick bed; I tried napping, but finding it singularly unpleasant to wake in a pool of sweat, I tend to eschew daytime sleep.  I broke out some oil paints one afternoon and began abstractly blending colors until I realized I was dizzily painting ocean breakers, over and over.

Certain rituals become intolerable in this kind of heat-- running, hot coffee.  I have begun taking hikes in the morning and the late afternoon, when the sun's glare is tempered.  I started doing so to stay active, as I am battling the very real fear that once I stop moving in this heat, I won't start again until the rains come.  I continued hiking, though, because there is beauty in the stark asceticism of bare piles of rock, colored only by rainbow-hued lizards who scuttle erratically from one sunning spot to another, pumping their biceps up and down like unfortunate recruits assigned pushups.  There's a certain satisfaction to reaching the top of a peak and gazing back over the dry fields spread out below like so much parchment, the far horizon obscured by dust that hangs heavily in the atmosphere.

Tempers are short in hot season.  When I do hear my neighbors raise their voices to address their children, their tones are squabbly and discontented.  I think of Camus' The Stranger, the scene where the protagonist, driven to desperation by the blinding Algerian sun, shoots a man.  A college French lit professor read this as deep allegory and misplaced psychoemotional connection indicative of the character's place vis-a-vis society.  At the time, I was inclined to agree.  Now I think maybe this professor had just never been farther south than Toulouse.  There's nothing allegorical about it; I'd shoot a man in this heat.

Things smell worse these days.  Everyone sweats more and bathes and launders decidedly less, as water is a scarce commodity; two of the three wells in town have run dry.  As for my latrine-- well, you can imagine.  120 degree heat does no favors for an already-noxious pit of putrifying poo.

And on that mental image, I bow out.

Bony cattle being led past a dry river bed in search of water and food. Game over, boys. This is what global climate change and overgrazing inevitably lead to.

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