Fits and Starts

Perhaps, one day, even this will seem pleasant to remember.

Virgil – Aeneid

It’s the school holidays and I am unexpectedly waking up earlier than usually do. The school has quickly turned into a relic of the past term with all the teachers dispersed back to their homes or various trainings. One teacher has been snared by the government to help with the census, meaning that one class will be without a teacher for a minimum of two weeks at the beginning of next term. The beginning of an unsupervised end.

I rise at dawn. I write ‘dawn’ to sound romantic and unspecific, but in truth it is 6:15 when I get up from my outside bed, with the hard digital voice of my Nokia alarm reminding me. I ride down to the ghost school, past the baobab trees, looking like a child’s monstrous version of elephants, distorted and fat and grey. As I am extracting the correct key from the ridiculously plentiful bunch of keys for the school, Allagie, the hunch backed nightwatchman, my English speaking sometime savior, is peeling himself up from the slither of bamboo bench that he spends the night on at the school. I unlock the storeroom and take some increasingly brittle watering cans and some continuously breaking hand tools out to the garden.

And I begin pumping.

Pumping water consoles me. The harder you pump, the quicker the water comes out. The pump works everyday, children can’t destroy it, however much they try. And I carry on pumping. My neck begins to ache, children flit in to assist and water their beds. Allagie, in one of his grumpier moods, has found a sanctuary of mottled shade to launch chastisements at the children for not working hard enough or coming early enough.

I keep on pumping.

Entranced by my control of the streaming pillar of water, everything else is mere detail, unremarkable in comparison to the simple equation demonstrated continuously in front of me – up + down = water

Then the outside world pierces my aquatic algebra. A girl is sprawled in the dirt by the nearest looming baobab, her gaudy plastic water carrying panos scattered around her body. A crooked, greying man is calling her name. He is thin, but sturdy. She looked flaccid, even from one hundred meters away. I rolled out of my back and forth pumping motion and scurried over. The man was grunting her name as a mantra:

‘Aminata, Aminata, Aminata, Aminata’

As I came closer I realised her flaccidness had been an illusion, her muscles were twitching, uncoiling sporadically. The old man, perturbed by her unresponsiveness, gently leaned down and shook the girl by jerking her body by the shoulder, whilst his mantra increased in crescendo.

We moved her into the recovery position. Her breathing was shallow. I thought to check her pulse before realising that I didn’t know what I was doing. There was a flicker in her eyelids, her tongue had pushed through her teeth, a moist obtrusion. Her young hands seemed to be holding onto something. They were violently clasped shut, the fingers rusty locked hinges. I thought of rigor mortis, my unmedical mind trying to bring something scientific, something educated, something useful to the situation. I thought of death. I shamefully, selfishly thought what this fourteen year old’s death would mean for me.

Allagie came over with a watering can and sparsely watered her wilted body. We were three men curiously squatted around this fourteen year old. A larger lady was upon the scene, with a crooked smile filled with skepticism, as though she only half believed what was happening in the dirt in front of her. She began picking up the water panos, exchanged a couple of sentences with the older man in Fular, and then headed for the pump.

Allagie filled me in on what had been said. It turned out this woman was the girls mother and she had said her daughter sometimes has falls like this. The women’s seeming indifference and contempt for her daughter lying in the dust, unconscious, appalled me. I told myself it was a coping strategy of a confused powerless woman. My mind tells me many things I don’t believe here.

The girl had been unconscious for 8 minutes. Another man came and joined our squatting conference of concern. He began massaging the girls face and hands assuredly. I would later learn he was her uncle. He blew lovingly in her ear, slicked back her hair and began sending flecks of white spittle out from his crumbled mouth onto her forehead, her ear and her neck. Her eyelids flickered. They vacantly opened and she lay motionless for a couple more still and stubborn minutes, with her uncle still stroking her hair. And then she sat up in a daze. And then she was walking back towards her hut. She didn’t speak a word.

I went back to the pump and carried on pumping.

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