Sunday, October 28, 2007

Yesterday's jog past the graveyard - Cultural encounter series (3 of 10)

We had biked past the graveyard before. The first time I pedaled by the place, just less than a year ago, I did not know that dead bodies were buried there. It looked more like a quarry of some sort, or an unlikely rock garden. I say “unlikely” because I have yet to see a rock garden in Swaziland, and if there was a lonely gardener of stones, he or she would be unlikely to choose this exposed, treeless, featureless, eroding square of land.

Not the best place to bury something either, I suppose.

I did not point this out to the three men with shovels. On my next pass, a week later, they were methodically lunging toward an enlarging hole in the ground, moving earth and aerosolizing dust. Their shovels made the sound that cats make when frightened. Sometimes, when the tool’s metal hit rock, it made a different sound. A short-lived, lifeless one.

In the foreground, there was a prone, human-shaped shadow in the back of a carelessly-parked pickup truck. The able-bodied figure was awkwardly positioned and perfectly still. I did not stare, for the scene was already rife with indecency.


Yesterday, I jogged past the same cemetery. There were no grave-diggers there, or anybody for that matter. On the surrounding hillside, however, it was a busy Friday afternoon.

A few paces from the piles of dirt and rock, there was a child carrying a child. They were the same child, it seemed, but one was smaller. I believe they were sisters. They were at the base of the hill, walking up. Others followed, many of them students returning from the school in the valley below.

Further along, two men peered into the rusty bowels of an old tractor. One was crouched down looking up, while the other was perched on a tire, peering down. They both looked perplexed, as if there was no good reason for the ancient machine to be giving them so much trouble.

Ahead, two sheppard boys began waving their whips at a small herd of cattle that were slowly crossing the road ahead of me. Under the threat of the leather lash, the cows’ pace quickened. A calf, trapped between me and a hillside drainage ditch, leaped away from me in desperation. Despite the well-known nursery rhyme, cows are not able jumpers, especially on concrete. Shortly after a frantic extension of the front legs, there was slip, a buckling, and an awkward tumble. The calf regained its footing, seemingly satisfied with itself for having avoided both the runner and the whip.

As I began the two-kilometer climb to the top of the hill where I was to turn around, a child began to run alongside me. He was punching the air in front of him, like a shadow boxer, or, for those familiar, one of those miniature boxing nun novelty toys. I had no idea why he was doing this, nor did I understand why he was nudging me to the right side of the road. After a few seconds of fist-pumping and nudging, a four-wheeled cart sped by in the other direction. The child driving was holding a horizontal stick, like a water-skiing tow-rope. He was steering the vehicle with the same back-and-forth hand motions as my new running escort.

After the cart had passed, my gesturing protector smiled and asked me, “Want to ride it?” I answered “no thank you”, for it looked a lot like one of those old wood-and-red-metal Citizen Kane “Rosebud” sleds, and I crashed too many times as a child. (We rarely got more than an inch of snow in Texas, and this provides little cushion.)

I ran up the hill and turned back. I passed the graveyard. This time it was on the left. I crossed a bridge where a woman was washing her clothes in a shallow, smoky river. The water smelled of algae and sulfur. Five children shouted and waved from outside a shack built from corrugated tin and weathered wood. Their bubbly excitement when I waved back and said “hhheeeellllooo” made me feel happy but small, maybe even a little bit old.

I looked back at the hill I had just climbed. The rains have recently arrived to Swaziland, and the grass was rich and green, the color of a plastic turtle.

The graveyard was not green. It was brown and ruddy, the color of a place where too many young people are buried.

The children were still waving, so I shouted “Bye byeeee!”

Recognizing another of the few English words they knew, they were delighted, and each of them squealed the same word back several times.



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