I don’t have cell phone service near my house so pretty much every day I walk 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) along the paved road through town, up the dirt path past the hospital, and up a hill to a rock outcropping where I can get 0-2 fluctuating bars of service. On an average day it goes something like this:
I close up the green metal windows to my house with an unsubtle slam and screech—there’s no way to close them quietly and my neighbors always know when I’m on the move. After padlocking the green metal door I briefly survey my yard—a week ago it was completely overgrown because my machete had broken. I went to buy a new machete from the coworker of a nearby volunteer since there were none in my town. But they were horrified to hear that I planned to cut my lawn myself and the other volunteer’s coworker drove over to my town with four of his plantation workers and proceeded to machete my grass, weed my overgrown garden nursery, ruthlessly prune the bushes that fence my yard, and dig up a broad swath of bare dirt in front of my porch so I could have a “real yard”. I don’t really understand this last practice—it turns to mud every time it rains—but it’s no use dissuading them and I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I walk off my porch and am promptly spotted by the easily excitable neighbor children, who start screaming “Roy-ANNE!! Roy-ANNE!!” MBOLATSARA!!!!!” (Hi.) I return the greeting once but they cheerfully keep up the chorus til I’m out of sight—there is, after all, not too much else going on, so I’m the entertainment.
It’s the cold season now, and drops to about 65 at night, but it’s still hot enough during the day that I regret not checking my messages earlier. It’s also the windy season, and the kids along the road are taking advantage of the breeze with surprisingly sturdy tiny kites made of discarded plastic bags and twigs. Some of these miracles of home construction get 40 feet in the air.
All along the road there is vanilla and rice drying in the sun. In the shade, women are oiling and braiding each others’ hair. One woman crouches on a straw mat and whacks what looks to be a pile of hay with a stick—she’s trying to get the last of the rice off the stalks. I occasionally greet some of the adults, who continue to stare at me despite the fact I’ve been living here for almost a year and a half. The screaming chorus of Roy-ANNE continues from the kids, sometimes from several rice paddies away. I greet the kids who properly greet me. Some still yell Bye BYE when I pass despite the fact that I’ve been correcting them to say Hello for a year. Bye Bye is more memorable and fun for them to say, though.
A drunk reels over to me as I pass the taxi brousse stop, wasted at 9 am from a local moonshine that occasionally puts people in the hospital. He insists on shaking my hand and doesn’t want to let go so I twist out of his grip and continue on to snorts of laughter from the men sitting at the taxi brousse stop. Thanks for the help, guys. Nearby, the local crazy lady (there really is one in every village) is picking at her shaved scalp and murmuring a sad little song about how she wants to go to the city. I say hello and she mutters hello back, staring over my shoulder. She continuously tries to stow away on taxi brousses, so one of the ‘jobs’ of the men at the stop is to hold her back while passengers get on and off. The drivers sometimes tip them for keeping her from breaking off their mirrors as she does sometimes—it’s their main source of income.
One of the shopkeepers yells hello and asks if she can braid my hair again and I say soon (probably on a day when I’m leaving town, so I can take them out without hurting her feelings—I can’t see how anyone sleeps with that many lumps on their head). The vice-mayor is sitting at a mini-café nearby and says the bookshelves for the library are almost ready. When can we see them? Soon. Has a librarian been chosen yet? Almost. When can I meet with the librarian? Oh, not long now. I nod and move on—it would have been rude of him to say no to any question that I asked, but I interpret his responses as such. But I’m holding the books hostage in my house until the librarian and I can organize things a bit, so there’s not a problem with the project languishing.
On the way to the cell service area, I check in on some houses to see if I can discuss projects with people—an English teachers’ workshop, a table for the library, a STI/AIDS presentation for a women’s group meeting. But everyone’s out—and since they don’t have phones, the only way to reach them is to keep passing by their houses.
One of the vanilla cooperative presidents runs up to me to say hi and I ask if there’s news on the harvest. He says no but he’ll send me a letter if there is. How shall I contact him? He lives in the forest and has no cell phone, so he scribbles down his address, something like: RAKOMATAMBANA Jean Pierre, President du Cooperative FiToNaTA, Morafeno. “Just give it to someone and ask them to get it to me, it will get there.”
I pass the hospital and wave to the friendly toothless guard, who has the only bicycle pump in town that can inflate my bike tires and is always willing to do so. One final climb and I’m on top of a rock outcropping where I can turn on my cell phone and survey the green valley and the mountains beyond as I wait for the text messages to register. Maybe I’ll buy some bananas on the way back home.