Facing the Sunset

Charleine Sell

© Copyright 2021 by Charleine Sell

Photo by Sean Peter on Unsplash
Photo by Sean Peter on Unsplash

A story for Luke (10), Anna (8), and Natalie (4) about what happened to Grandpa while he was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1971 in Swaziland, as told by Nana.

When your Grandpa Jack was a young man, he lived for 2 Ĺ years in another country far away in Africa. One day he was busy preparing for a two-week water project in the bush. He also was expecting a package of work boots from his sister in the USA, and he hoped to get them before he left. The project involved stomping through grass with snakes like deadly cobras and mambas and walking across low streams. Parasites lurking in the water could burrow unseen into his skin and make him sick. The boots would help protect him.

When the box arrived in the mail, he was disappointed to find only one boot. His sister was supposed to send him a pair! Your grandpa laughed when he realized she had thought of a way to prevent his boots from being stolen. Mailing them in separate boxes at separate times would be a good way to make sure he got both of them. Since one arrived ahead of the other, he had to begin his first week in a rural community called Jacks, without them.

On Monday, he was able to get a ride in a government Land Rover to the project location. The Land Rover inched along bumping up and down on the narrow washboard dirt road. More than once, he quickly placed his hand on the ceiling of the Land Rover to keep from bumping his head as the Land Rover hit potholes and ridges. Dust swirled out behind the vehicle, and he was constantly tossed back and forth during the long, tiring, 5-hour drive to Jacks. Eventually, the village of a small cluster of huts constructed with wattle and mud and plastered with cow dung came into view. A few chickens ran around pecking at bugs in the dirt. Nearby was a small community store with limited supplies like eggs and canned sardines. A small concrete block building nearby housed the elementary school. He planned on staying in a government owned house above the village.

In a previous year, the government had installed a sand filter at the top of the hill to provide safe water for the village. There was a convenient, but untreated dirty stream that flowed along the bottom of the hill near the village and the school. The people preferred to use the dirty stream for their water source rather than climb the long, long hill to the cleaner water of the sand filter at the top. Grandpaís job was to survey a path down the side of the hill, about ĺ mile in distance, to determine where to lay a future pipe. The goal was to connect water from the sand filter at the top through a pipe to faucets at the bottom of the hill, which would provide a more safe and convenient water source for the people.

The concrete block house where he stayed had originally been built for the agricultural extension officer. A thick layer of red dust coated the outside, and it appeared to have been vacant for some time. The view stretched far out over the low veldt, and every evening Grandpa enjoyed the scene while relaxing on the front stoop. He had brought propane for the stove, cooking utensils and food: Spam, canned meatballs, an onion and some bread. No electricity, of course, but there was running water, which he boiled before drinking, just to be safe. He was pleased to discover a real indoor toilet, but quickly realized it had no innards. He had to pour a bucket of water in it to make it work, which was annoying. An outhouse sat a short distance away, facing west. Fortunately, inside the house was a cot with a mattress on it, but everything was dusty, so he put his sleeping bag on top of the mattress. There was a bit of furniture here and there; a wood table, a couple of chairs. It obviously hadnít been lived in for quite some time, as there were no cooking utensils or supplies.

The first week, as he began the survey, he realized that he was having a hard time seeing down the hill with his survey level mounted on a tripod, because of the tall, thick brush that covered the steep hillside. One of the teachers suggested the young school children could help. Over the next few days, for one hour at a time, your grandpa watched as a class of young children, dressed in navy blue and white school uniforms, chopped at the brush with machetes, swinging them high and wide. After cutting down the brush for an hour, they would return to their classroom and resume studies. Promptly, another class would come out and continue the project, swinging away, eventually opening up a path all the way down to the bottom of the hill. And yes, they ran into a few snakes, all of which managed to escape those swinging machetes.

After a week of surveying, your grandpa managed to get a ride back to the capital, Mbabane. To his delight, the second boot had arrived. They were made of sturdy leather and would protect his feet and ankles. On a late Sunday morning, he was ready to return to the village, so he began hitchhiking on the road out of town. Soon, he was picked up by two young white men who had traveled from their home in South Africa, a country which was known for a racist policy at that time called Apartheid. They were on vacation in Swaziland, and Grandpa was pleased to hear they were on their way to a town in the northwestern part of Swaziland and would pass right by his turnoff to Jacks where they offered to drop him off. They were quite friendly and told him all about their vacation. After a while they asked Grandpa why he was headed to Jacks, and he told them that he was a Peace Corps volunteer working on a water project in the village. Grandpa told me they suddenly became strangely quiet and then started talking to each other in Afrikaans, a language he didnít understand. When they came to a cross road and stopped, they explained to him that his destination was straight ahead, while they intended to turn right. Grandpa was puzzled that they would be turning and not going as they had originally told him. With his backpack in hand, he climbed out of the car. To his surprise, he watched as they drove straight ahead, not taking the right turn after all! They had dumped him in the middle of nowhere, a cloud of red clay dust from their vehicle slowly settling on him, as they disappeared from site. Your grandpa was at least 20 miles from where he needed to go, and not a soul was to be seen. Standing there, it gradually dawned on him that maybe being a white Peace Corps volunteer working alongside the local Swazi people did not sit well with those two young men. He was only guessing, but racism was what he suspected. It seemed very strange to him that they would leave him in the middle of nowhere without any transportation. Since it was Sunday, there was no traffic at all, so Grandpa began to walk, and walk, and walk. The hot sun beat down on him, and he was glad he had his hat and water. After six long hours of walking, he finally made it all the way to Jacks by evening. His backpack felt like a ton of bricks, and he was limping in his new leather boots. The journey for him wasnít over, though. After a brief rest to prepare for the next ordeal, he proceeded to slowly climb up the long hill, one heavy step after the other, first passing the small elementary school, followed by the little community of thatched huts with the small store. Finally, he dragged himself all the way to the top of the hill, to the unoccupied house where he had stayed the first week. His legs felt like floppy noodles, and he was exhausted.

All Grandpa wanted to do was drop his gear on the table and prepare to settle in for the night. He told me he doesnít even remember eating dinner that evening. Before climbing into his sleeping bag, and to avoid carrying a heavy bucket of water to flush the toilet, he opted to use the outhouse. It consisted of a small wood building with a wooden bench to sit on, its hole over a deep dark pit. There was no door, so as he sat there relaxing after an exhausting day, he noticed the colorful sunset. A peaceful feeling settled over him. He thought there was nothing like being treated to a view of the setting sun, while sitting in an outhouse. Who else in the whole world could be so lucky? As he sat there staring at the pink and orange colors, he was startled out of his reverie by the fluttering of wings. His heart jumped in his chest, and a whisper of air fluttered against his bum. He leaped off the seat and ducked down as several bats flew out of the hole! Obviously, they thought his bum was the setting sun, and night had arrived, so they took off to catch the night bugs. He almost fainted with fright. Pulling at his britches, he stumbled to the house to look for his shaving mirror. Had he been scratched by a rabid bat? Was he going to die of rabies? Would he have to go through the painful rabies injections? As hard as he tried to twist around with that little 2-inch mirror in one hand and his flashlight in the other, he could not see if there was a scratch.

Yes, Luke, Anna, and Natalie, the panicky feelings finally subsided, and Grandpa eventually calmed down. He did not get rabies or even have the injections. He finished the surveying project that week and headed back to his house in the capital, Mbabane. Your grandpa returned to the village several times over the next few months, but he told me he never used the outhouse again. Instead, he was quite willing to carry a bucket of water every time he needed to flush that toilet.

Even today, your grandpa is not a fan of outhouses. Or bats.

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