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LAND [image, unknown] Living in the wrong place

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For many Third World youngsters, the city is the place to be, the place to live. So those ‘banished’ to the bush feel a sharp loss as well as the solitude and the monotony. Jeremy Wohlers tells the story of one young schoolteacher who sought solace in....

TOTOTO I HAVE BEEN in the bush, the Zimbabwean bush, long enough now to be accepted by. the people I live with and long enough to have become something of an enigma to my friends in the city. ‘But why out there, in the sticks, in the bundu?’ It’s too much trouble to explain to confirmed city dwellers; far easier to remain the butt of gentle jokes.

But why not live in the bush? I won’t be here forever, and it is a rare experience. It flushes all the toxins from your system, all the artificialities and needless profundities.

No running water, no electric lights, just an unadulterated night sky that ripples in the waning light, then drops suddenly. Twilight is miniscule; there are no formalities here when entering the darkness.

Little changes, everyday life sinks into the same rhythms. The slow grind and the long periods of inaction are reljeved only by the weekend’s ‘wild parties’. Drums and homemade instruments have now been replaced by battery-operated radios but tototo still calls the tune. Tototo — African whisky distilled out of anything that is available. The local blend of petrol is often used, the end result being pure ethanol.

There are still many strong, fierce old men, gnarled and bent, tilling the land. And many powerful, determined mothers holding communities together. But the solitude, the loneliness, the tedium, break hidden legions.

The teachers of bush schools feel it more than most. They live for school holidays and then flee to the cities. They know another life of electric lights, television, cinemas, nightclubs; all the fun of the fair that sustains by diverting and wins countless addicts.

Yet holidays can never compensate for long terms, when all endeavour falls victim to the oppressive heat. Come the weekend, with virtually no other interest to sustain them, the bleakness, the sparseness of their surroundings weigh oppressively on their minds and tax their meagre resources beyond endurance. There is little else to do but take tototo.

And for me? Well, it’s all fresh I'm enthralled, like a child with a new toy. But then I’m not a prisoner of my circumstances.

Saturday nights are times when entire villages, wearied by the immutable bush, plunge into darkness. It is a desire to escape the bush that holds no comfort for so many trapped there by dire necessity. There is always tototo, instant release, instant oblivion.

One Saturday night the inevitable happened. We received a message from a neighbouring school that one of the teachers was seriously ill Our headmaster is the only one with a car in the area The logical ambulance.

Apparently the sick teacher had been vomiting blood, then passed out. No-one could rouse him. But someone needed to know what to do in case he stopped breathing. Dredging my memory, going way back to my days in the Parkdale Life Saving Club, I volunteered. There was no choice.

So we set out, I desperately trying to coax back to living memory what I had learnt so long ago. ‘A.B.C., airways, breathing. circulation. Place something under his shoulders, catch his tongue. The half-remembered phrases swirled.

The mud-hut was crowded with people. The stench of vomit and alcohol was overpowering. I took his pulse. Too nervous to count I then took mine and compared the two. His seemed strong enough. Well, he was alive, so I lowered the quivering candle nearer his face and oh . . .

So young. a serene childish face, smooth and flawless, dribbling. a gap between his front teeth. How could anyone maintain any detachment when confronted by a face like that? How old was he, nineteen, twenty? But he seemed much younger, a sleeping child. And he was deputy-headmaster. We hurriedly prepared a bed in the back of the utility, the headmaster repeatedly muttering. ‘man, he’s young.’ When we returned to the tent we witnessed the absurd spectacle of friends struggling to dress the unconscious man as if he would walk to the car and take his place by the driver.

We learnt his friends had helped him in other ways to. They had forced porridge down his unconscious throat; after all he had not eaten for three days. And they had tried to induce vomiting by giving him an African medicine, Isihaga

It all had a nightmarish quality, as if it was a dream where the sleeper, caught and bound by a mysterious immobility, was at the mercy of his tormenters. And now his pulse had fled while my back was turned. For the sixty-kilometer trip I never would find it.

At least he was breathing, that was something. We thought of nothing, just crouched numbly. By torchlight, in the back of the bouncing car, I examined that face for maybe the twentieth time, listening to the fragile whisper of air through the gap in his teeth. And then it stopped.

In that instant my only thought was 'do I have to put my mouth to that stinking mess?’ But I opened his mouth, held his tongue, and felt his warm breath on my hand. I rolled him on his side and fluid drained freely from his mouth.

That’s how I remained, for forty minutes, crouching in an ever-spreading puddle of vomit, my fingers holding his tongue.

The hospital lights were blinding as we emerged from our darkness. I derived a perverse pleasure from the fact that even the nurses found it almost impossible to take his pulse. So it wasn’t totally my ineptitude.

As we put him to bed in the ward, we disturbed an old man with spindly legs and match-stick arms. We coughed and groaned and whimpered for attention. He was one of the patients suffering from a lack of food and too much tototo.

Our patient, attached to his saline drip and given injections, recovered. Weariness seized us, and in our relief we silently cursed the boy whose pointless stupidity had brought fear and discomfort to our lives. We returned to our deep night.

I persist in calling him ‘that young face’ even though there is little difference in our ages. And there is no anger now. He was flung into the bush, compelled by circumstance, while I chose, always with the option of escaping.

Jeremy Wohlers is an Australian teacher
who has been working in Zimbabwe.

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