By Tej Rae
Wake to the smell of paper burning. Ashy and wooden, it settles on your bedsheets and hints redemption. Boil the water in the electric kettle and watch the white rocks of lime sink to the bottom. Stir in the Ricoffy granules. Your plane landed late last night and you walked down the stairs onto the tarmac into the open air instead of a box with four walls. If you needed any more proof your life was restarting, this was it.
The food in the kitchen is what the secretary has stocked. White bread. Eggs so fresh they make you wonder what you’ve been eating up until today. Margarine. A box of juice that pretends to be made in a valley in South Africa, filled with berries and apples. Make a face when you swallow the coffee because the water is still thick, as if ground peanuts have been mixed in.
Fill your pantry with things that are too precious to eat, because they filled half of one of your six suitcases. The peanut butter Power Bars will turn green with mold before you tear the foil open. In a few months, you will teach your maid to make bagels, though she can’t for her life figure out why anyone would put a mold inside bread on purpose. Why would someone make less out of more?
Stock your deep freezer. In your DC life, there were burritos in a truck on the corner and pizza slices bigger than your face, but here you have to be prepared. Buy homemade samosas, spring rolls, halaal chicken. Buy things that seem familiar but that taste completely new: rye bread, mushroom pizza, chocolate ice cream. Put those in the deep freezer too. Wonder how you will eradicate the roach colony that lives inside the rubber padding around its door.
Accept a new job teaching Lifeskills through soccer. That’s a bit of a stretch. You don’t know how to speak Nyanja, relate to children who grew up sleeping on a mat on the floor, or talk about AIDS with anything close to finesse. You will figure it out.
Fall too quickly in love with the kids who come to the soccer field every day, who are willing to play your games even though they can hardly understand your words. It’s the vowels that throw them off. No matter, they show unending patience for you, unlike your supervisor who looks like Barbie on coke, in bright blue contact lenses. She speaks too loudly and never stops for a breath. Cut her off each time: “Actually, my question was…”
Talk too much and lose your voice. Run a fever by the end of the week from exhaustion and too much sun exposure. Think about how to do your job better in your first waking moments of the morning, to override the strange dreams you have now, now that you’ve left your mother and your lover on the other side of the Atlantic.
Don’t give the doe-eyed girl in your group your old shoes, even though her toes pop out of her clear plastic sandals.
* * *
Take a walk every evening on the red earth roads. Walking alone is how you regain yourself. Give away biscuits, in plastic tubes, on paper plates, in baggies. Biscuits for the minute, like they’re going to make a difference. Wear your black clogs even though they are no longer relevant. It’s one of the only signs that you are still you, the girl in the black t-shirt, loose jeans and Danskos. Shadowed by a rain cloud, you might otherwise be unrecognizable.
Walk until your shoes turn orange. Stop and watch kids play soccer barefoot with undistilled joy. When you realize you’re attracting too much attention, move on. Walk in circles around your tiny house past dusk. When your walkman stops working, hide it in a bush so you can pick it up on your way back down Leopard’s Hill Road, which was named after real leopards that skulk in trees.
Plug in your ice cream maker with the wrong voltage and watch it erupt in a hot, sudden death.
Don’t try to imagine what goes on in the open kitchen behind your house, where five barefoot children sleep on a woven mat, in a pile. A spigot for a sink, a fire for a stove, and sex on a dirt floor, even when it rains.
Do things manically, and in spurts. Listen to your old CDS with new joy. Dance around your room, for the first time since high school and wonder why you stopped doing this in America. Turn the music off and listen again to the erratic whistling of the guards outside the house. Try to decipher their secret code. Wonder why the whistles come in short intermittent bursts.
Pick up the phone when it rings, not because it might be your ex, who was supposed to come with you. Make a note to buy an answering machine, which you never will.
* * *
It’s not hot, but for six months it doesn’t rain. Trucks churn up the roads and insects retreat to their homes. Everyone turns orange with dust. Let the dryness take over until your evening bath, cracking your heels, gathering inside your nose. Take a hot bath each evening, the earlier the better. Bring the only newspaper you have from your last day in DC into the water with you, the steam loosening the print onto your hands.
The hour after the bath is the best time of the evening, feet glowing from the heat with the tea tree oil filling up the second floor, an astringent arboretum.
Comb your hair back.
Let your shoulders drop.
It is so dry that you never sweat, and no matter how many days in between washings, your hair does not get oily. Put moisturizer on your face and watch your skin drink it hungrily. The sunspots won’t show up for another few years.
* * *
Accept all social invitations for the first three weeks. You are an unknown quantity and everyone wants to know what you will be to them. In DC, you were invited to one dinner party every couple of months; here you can’t possibly go to all of them. There was nothing about you before that was particularly noteworthy.
You were moderate in your talents. In Zambia, they will show up.
In your old life, you were too often alone. You had friends, but they all had functions. Friends you see at work. Friends you meet in soccer. Here, people spend time with each other because that is what life is about. Feel surprised at how hard it is to find people you genuinely like.
Pursue those people, but not too aggressively. Smile at the rest. Feel a bit sorry for yourself that no one truly knows you.
Write heartfelt letters on paper to your friends back home, the ones who used to be sorted by function. Email doesn’t work because the connection is too slow. Writing a letter on paper is soothing, even though you know it will take six weeks to reach home. Remember how wonderful your old friends were, and how you left them behind, angry and bewildered by your poor judgement with a married employee. Chide yourself for wanting a clean slate.
* * *
When you meet him, tell him you want to move into his house. One bar of soap in the bathroom. One painting on the wall. He will tell you he had one toy growing up, and you will find this reassuring. The world is not about stuff, after all. Platonically, but don’t laugh! It’s because you like his spare aesthetic. Try to convince him of that. As soon as you make your declaration about being friends, he will be on top of you.
He has been looking for a strong woman. Do not worry about how you will negotiate how many toys your future children will have. You can cross that bridge later. Do not flinch when he calls you his chick. He means it in the best possible way. It is too easy, too predictable, to marry someone from the same village. You bring something to each other that you were unable to get anywhere else. He is supposed to be the ambassador, the key to unlock the culture for you.
Tej Rae is a freelancer based in Addis Ababa, where she writes for the United Nations to support her fiction habit. In June 2020, she was awarded fourth place in The First Pages Prize by judge Sebastian Faulks for a chapter from the same novel as this excerpt: Salaula Sisters.
After teaching high school English for 15 years, she transitioned to journalism and fiction. Her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper in UAE, YogaLife Middle East, Necessary Fictions, Prometheus Dreaming, Typishly, Romeing, Spittoon, and Wanderlust, among others.
She is an editor for the literary magazine, Wanderlust, and starting an MFA at Queens University in North Carolina in May 2021. You can read more of her work at http://tejrae.com