Whenever Marwizi would put down his beer and start winking at those heavy-set ladies of the night, I’d try to slip him a condom before he slipped to the back of the bar. Who has the time? he’d say. I’m practically on fire. The closest my loins ever came to fire was when parasitic snails burrowed through my feet, infiltrated my blood stream then settled in my bladder. It burned so bad to pee I thought I’d caught the clap. Still, on those days when it was too hot to leave the shade of my house, when the only entertainment was to sit in my kitchen and set up wars between the termites and ants – intimacy, come evening, promised some relief from the aggressive boredom of the bush. And though sex under a mosquito net was awkward – all that netting caving in on you, laced with insecticide, was the laciest thing around.
It wasn’t just boredom that got aggressive – I remember a man beating at my door, one night, begging me to pay dowry for some girl he’d knocked up, who, having shamed her family, sat shivering beneath a blanket on her knees. And while you could calm a man with some cold hard cash, insects, come summer, were unrelenting. Fire ants would attack your toes as you walked to the borehole, piss bugs would leave trails of blisters along your chest while you slept. To protect ourselves from malaria, we took weekly doses of Mefloquine – a drug whose side effects included vivid, violent nightmares. For some reason that not even the nurses understood, those pills gave Maureen wet dreams. When the rains would die down and busses begin running again, we’d all head to town talking about the three-month itch and looking for a warm body. Except Maureen, who, depressed that her wet season was over, would offer us the chance to sleep with her in exchange for our extra doses of Mefloquine.
In Malawi, men would balance planks on their heads, grunt their way barefoot down a mountain for fifty cents a day. I longed for my own set of heavy demands back then– but whenever I’d overload my arms with bricks on the way to a funeral, say, there was always this unnerving awareness that what ended in death began with an itch. Or wink. I remember a boy showing up at my door, once, with an old man, insisting I check inside the man’s ear and down his throat. I took one look at the open sores covering his legs and drew them a map to the clinic. And had the boy not asked to borrow my wheelbarrow then, had I not almost dropped the old man as I helped load him on then watched the boy struggle to steer him down the steep hill, I could have gone back to my couch and finished reading my book. But after they left, I felt this need to walk to the borehole and fill my empty jugs. The water, as always, spilled and trickled down my calves as I returned unevenly home. It was the same old balancing act – the strain, the light tickle – but it was beginning to take over my entire body.