“The Namib was born of God’s forgetting. He’d always meant to come back and put something here, but alas, he didn’t.”
Where is this empty land? Namibia, (formerly South West Africa), was a German colony ruled by the apartheid regime of South Africa before struggling to independence. Like neighboring Angola, it fought a “proxy war” during the Cold War era: the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) continually fought against South African rule from 1960, becoming Namibia’s ruling party in independence in 1990. These are the early years, when stories of bravery and sacrifice along the Angolan border still echo across the arid, breathless landscape. But “Namibia never made the BBC.” Never remembered, always forgotten.
That is the “where” and the “when.” But who is Mavala Shikongo? She is a war hero, a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army. Tall, unsmiling, carrying a mustard-colored suitcase, she strides determinedly across the sand, into the lives of the staff and students of a remote boys’ boarding school, Goas Farm. She is the principal’s sister-in-law, a kindergarten teacher, returning to the school after a brief absence with an unlovable and unexplained infant son.
Her freedom fighter status lends her a mystique; her fellow (mostly male) teachers regard her with awe and admiration – and they fantasize about her. She begins an affair with a volunteer teacher from Cincinnati, Ohio, Larry Kaplanski, the sometime narrator. The narrative is broken into small, and even smaller, episodes, moving from one Goas inhabitant to another, their lives barely touching.
Goas is a lonely place. The teachers are all great storytellers, seeking to fill the void. Their stories are somewhere between fact and fiction. The Head Teacher, Obadiah, indulges in strange, elaborate monologues. “Why are there times,” he asks himself despairingly, “we’d rather want than grasp?” He yearns to resolve his unrequited desire for his wife Antoinette; she only cares for the boys, her sense of order, and God. The obese and often profane Math teacher, Erastus Pohamba tells wild, improbable stories; he regularly visits the local town, where he seeks to assuage his appetites. There are war stories, and drought stories. The silent, devout Vilho has stories of his own that he keeps to himself.
Mavala Shikongo does not tell stories. She reveals very little to her lover, whom she meets on weekdays by the graves of two Boers outside the school, which descends into a sweaty, uncomfortable siesta every afternoon. Their conversation is languid, overly sparse at times. “Her voice alone, I tell you, could slow an afternoon,” observes Larry.
Each chapter of their meetings is headed simply “Graves.” Not a promising place for romance to flourish. Mavala Shikongo remains as elusive and unconnected as the land – forever a land of tribulation. There are fierce winds, ice-cold mornings and melting hot afternoons; this is a climate of longing.
Goas’ far-flung neighbors – Auntie Wilhelmina and Krieger – are disturbingly eccentric. One day, a dog escapes into the veld, is stung by a puff adder and brutally euthanized by a man with a hammer. Life is harsh. But the teachers’ lives are laced with a wry humor that delights: during one of their regular power cuts, Erastus Pohamba uses a boot with the laces tied up tight as a candle holder. A visit from a political leader, former war hero (combat alias: Ho Chi Minh) and alumnus of the school is tinged with farce. The Principal tends a solitary patch of green in front of his house, which he calls “Ireland.” A neighbor drives across the middle of the football field while a game is in progress.
The book begins and ends with the pupils, the happily innocent, barefoot boys of Goas. They are referred to in groups, as the “Standard Fours,” the “Standard Sixes.” They are the continuous backdrop to the restless, episodic narrative of their teachers’ lives.
And does the drought lift in Goas? Occasionally, yes. But then…the long-anticipated rain leaves, “as if none of it ever happened.”
Author Note: Peter Orner was born in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1990, took a law degree and participated in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. He is currently an associate professor at San Francisco State University. His book of short stories, “Esther Stories” (2001) won the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction. His first novel, “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” (2006) is partly based on his own experience living and working in Namibia. It won the Bard Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Orner’s recent non-fiction book, “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives,” is the third in the Voice of Witness series on human rights, focusing on illegal immigrants (http://www.voiceofwitness.org/).
- Namibia Designates Entire Coast Line As National Park (huffingtonpost.com)
- You: Pohamba Unhappy With Women Representation (menafn.com)
- Cheetah of Namibia (news.bbc.co.uk)