Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Grave in Red Dirt

It happened so casually that day as we walked back from a homestead visit, around the edges of the rocky trenches that looked like they once held a river and through the thorny brush. We had walked what must have been about a mile to get to the homestead, escorting hoards of children with us, trying desperately to keep the little ones (some barely able to walk on their own) from tripping off the narrow ledges we walked on and tumbling down that treacherously steep fall into the ravines. Now, on the way back to the CarePoint, free of small hands clinging to our own, our progress to our destination was going far more quickly.

Vile (pronounced Vee-lay), dressed in a tight black skirt, and navy business jacket, sporting sleek ballerina flats on her feet, leapt from one side of a trench to another, carefully sliding down the steep inclines with so much ease that she looked like she was flying. I, on the other hand, found myself scaling the edges of the ravines with about as much grace as a football player trying to do a grand jete. I clambered up and down the steep stretches of rock-laden dirt as fast as I could, not wanting to lose sight of Vile somewhere in the middle of the African bush, but I often lost my footing and slid down, down, down into the trenches. It took all of my will power to scramble myself up and continue, sweaty and covered in red dirt, to follow after my guide.

Thirteen years of dance training didn't seem to have any effect on my ability to travel through the wilderness of Africa, and Vile found my lack of agility to be of great amusement. She laughed hysterically as I tripped over a rock and skated down the dirt as if it were ice, landing in a small ditch.

"You Americans don't even know how to walk!" Vile giggled as I pulled myself off the ground once again and climbed to the top the ditch.

She watched cheerfully as I pitifully attempted to dust myself off, my face now covered in so much dirt that its features were barely recognizable. Vile, as clean as ever, took a step away from me jokingly, as if the filth on my body might jump off of me and latch itself onto her wrinkle-free clothes.

She smiled and said in a mock-soothing voice, "Don't worry my sisi. We are nearly there."

And she was right. As I looked up, I saw that we had made it out of the trenches and had gotten back to a flat path. I could just make out the CarePoint we were trying to reach through the clusters of trees and bushes. I started down the path with Vile, a new burst of energy in my steps with the prospect of soon being able to get rest and a drink of water.

We had taken no more than fifty steps, when we came across a large pile of smooth stones, resting by the base of a tree, smack dab in the middle of our path. Vile skirted around the pile without a second glance, but I paused. Even for all of the unusual things I had seen in Africa, this pile of stones, caked elegantly in soft red dirt sitting in the middle of my path, captured my interest more fiercely than a black mamba catches its prey.

"Vile?" I called slowly. She was already several yards ahead of me.

"Vile, what is this?"

She turned and saw me pointing down at the assembly of stones.

"That?" she asked, seeming uninterested.

I nodded.

"That is a grave," she said, shrugging nonchalantly, then turned and kept walking.

I stood motionless to stare at the smooth stones, painted in red dirt, lying among the gnarled roots of that leafless tree. How many times, I wondered, had death crossed Vile's path for her to consider a grave in red dirt, stuck in the middle of a path, to be commonplace? How many times had she come across death, skirted around it, and kept on walking forward, straight through the thorns?

The sun was getting low in the sky, casting glowing rays through the mass of brush. I lingered for a moment longer, then turned to walk on after Vile.