Five hours later the beans were all done and the dust was beginning to settle. It was chicken hour. The birds moved around more than the people. The people, having worked, and then having eaten (the beans), were asleep in shade wherever they could find it or squatting with newspapers over their heads, proprietors of shade, unable to sleep. The chickens were cleaning up. The dust was still.
Had it been any other day we might have walked on. All this might have been a passing scene to us, the birds making low noises as they scraped through sand for grains of rice and pellets of shit, backlit with the red glow of sand caught by sun, as though they were movie stars in Hollywood films, instead of chickens. The reason these details stuck in my mind was because I was sitting with M under a sheet of newspaper. We were on our way to the Khomasdal Total to meet a guy to take us to the camp. No staying here, no surrender.
Under the newspaper I was at chicken height. That was that. Nothing could be done, no word spoken, no thought followed nor even really begun. The sun spread its hand over everything and pressed.
M and I watched the scene the way my baby cousin used to sit and watch the washing machine back when we lived in a city, before washing and water and machines were not ours anymore. My cousin never liked TV. He watched the sheets spin. Kill-you kind of heat all around and he’d sit in nappies, just watching.
I believe his watching, like ours, allows the world to arrange itself in silence, like an audience before an orchestra, fading to nothing as the performers walk onto the stage, holding its cough as the conductor raises his arms, until—it can be yours, it can be mine, it is my cousin’s, it might be M’s—euphoria.
I was not euphoric and neither was M. We observed what appeared to be a great absence of events. Two, then six, then ten days of trekking in this godforsaken heat and for what? To watch chickens eat their own shit.
M says this to me a lot. And for what?
What is it about some afternoons?
The conversation ten minutes before had gone like this, over beans and rice on enamel plates, at a junction on the road from the South.
“Should we walk on?” I asked.
“The Khomasdal Total.”
“Are you mad?”
“We’ve been trying all day.”
“Only since morning.”
“Well that’s all the day that’s been.”
I waited. “So should we?”
“Let’s just wait.”
“Let’s digest, man!”
She’d been having a real problem seeing my side of things. She cannot be persuaded. What do I have to offer? Nothing. The Khomasdal Total—that’s it. If the guy shows, if the bakkie starts, maybe it’s alright. I don’t know, I know shit.
“Gimme survival, man.” I said it to the chickens.
M said, “Be quiet.”
So we squatted. The sun got hotter. The woman who sold us the food passed us a newspaper. In town they are allowed to sell food. Everybody gets it portioned out with water. We know this because we’ve been watching them. Five years on the farm and we didn’t want to trust what we knew before anymore. But nothing had changed.
This woman, the bean-seller, she got extra. On a chain round her neck was a licence. She didn’t just get a one-person quota of food, she got maybe fifty or something, however many people the authorities had worked out rely on her for a meal once a day. What they paid her in tokens she paid the authorities again. Perfect, just delightful. Bureaucratic cable tie. M and I escaped it for a while.
The bean-seller indicated a man across from her beyond the shade of her thorn tree— which was, I noticed with envy and respect, exactly the right size and shape for her, her pots, and nothing else—she indicated the man so we would copy him and resist the sun. We did so. M went silent. The chickens came out.
After a while, M said, “We better try again.”
The chickens had moved on. We had to get to the other side of town. It was unclear which side we were on. The woman with the beans stood up to gather her plates together. Time had passed, I was certain of it. M, too.
We must move on.
The imperative was there, in front of us, right there, so we had to follow it. Night would fall and then what.
The woman said: “Where are you going?”
Nobody mistakes us for locals. That is the first danger.
M said, “To the Khomasdal Total.”
The woman jerked her chin up, went back to her task. A nod.
“You know it?”
“Hey,” said the woman. “Sure. Go on down that way—”
A wide road.
“—and when you get to the prison building, turn onto the big road, go to the end, you will find it.”
“What does it matter?”
“How do we know what it looks like?”
“A prison is a prison.”
The wide road was empty of people. We struck out, confident like early risers—get in quick while the going is good. The eternal hope. It was half past three. The pavement was unpaved. The wide road took us away from the roundabout where the woman was packing away her kitchen—an early riser as we were, a sure bet in the evolutionary race, a woman to survive whatever befell the rest of the town. It all came down to good planning. That was the slogan of the authorities. When it came to passing through without detection you had to pre-empt the crowds. Even the assessors take naps.
It’s that or you learn to clean up. Get in first (like the woman, like us, walking down the road while the city remained stupefied in the midday heat) or get in when everyone is gone (like the jackals, the undertakers, and the married-on aunts).
I was thinking at that point we knew, for certain—absolutely certainly—where we were going. Which is all you need, ultimately, isn’t it, that certainty?
Just make sure you have a believable story to tell, that’s all people want from you.
That’s what I told M. She did not agree.
Her mood picked up once we got moving. She liked it when people told us where to go. And they kept doing it, intervening to direct us, which was wonderful—like the bean-seller. I can remember a whole lineage of guides in the towns and villages who came to tell us the way to the Khomasdal Total we had yet to reach—before the bean-seller there was yesterday, and yesterday was the butcher in the market with the sheep’s heads on his white-tiled market stall and his white boots. He’d been pretty busy with chopping and cleaning and things, it was still morning when we’d stopped to ask him. The market was not busy—not empty, you understand—but not yet like vultures, as it would be at four, when everyone came to swap tokens for food for the night. He had looked around to see if he had any customers and, having none, had said, “Ok, let me show you.”
He did show us: with the meat cleaver pointing down the aisle, striped cap on his head.
But that was in the morning. He’d told us to “go along and along and along” and we had.
Now we were doing it again.
Until—we got to a corner with a mosque and a corner shop – a bakkie went past, carrying assessors in uniform.
It all comes down to good planning.
M said, “They’re going to know us.” She did this once every day. Did it after the meat cleaver, too, thought he was one of them. By the gates of the mosque she stopped dead. “No papers, nothing in the system on us. If they ask us where we have been living, they’re going to know.”
That’s how it was then. Things were tight—all things. Everything was accounted for, water, food, manufactured goods, paper, petrol. If you eat or drink or shit what belongs to the state and you don’t tell them they send you to a desalination plant to work until you’ve worked back whatever you consumed in the time you went undetected.
I kept on walking. M said the same thing every day. What was I going to change by answering.
Nothing but lorries and a couple of riverbeds.
We were lost. There was nothing else that could be true anymore except that—a fact, alongside similar facts such as drought, the death of the last goat on the farm, the death of the last borehole too, and the presence or absence of mothers. All categories of facts indisputable, whatever way you looked at them.
“Couldn’t we string ourselves along and follow someone home,” M asked. “Or just follow someone. Get someone actually to take us there.”
What she said made sense. With the clarity of defeat M was coming up with excellent solutions. “We should get a taxi,” she said. A fine strategy. No more talking to strangers. Someone else would be doing the work. Perfect. We could listen to the radio and sit back and let the rain air wash over us like gentlemen on a city sojourn.
It would never work. The truth was we had to walk there. Onward to the Khomasdal Total.
The crucial reason we had to walk was that we were free: M was free and I was free. Even the feeling of being lost enhanced our freedom. So it’s true, freedom kills. But I cannot pretend I do not enjoy the fall off the precipice into chaos. In the camp we would be free too.
“M,” I said, “we are lost and we will just have to keep walking until we get there. It is not possible that we will walk every street of this city and not find the Khomasdal Total. All we have to do is persist.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Obviously that’s true.”
The corner shop and the mosque. A bunch of guys lolled around on the pavement.
“What shits,” I said. “Resource-eaters.”
I hate indolence. Probably they had nowhere else to be. M pointed this out to me and said I was being harsh and unrealistic. “Remember the reality of things, remember?” Her eyebrows were seriously raised, very high. I knew she meant business now, not just about the men on the pavement—there were so many of them. I wondered if they had gathered there on purpose. They read newspapers or talked quietly to each other, shaking their heads.
Why do women never loll on pavements? Or do they do so in other countries? I have never seen it.
A bakkie pulled up. It was the assessors. One got out, grey uniform. She walked up to one of the pavement-lollers.
“ID.” He passed it up to her. She scanned it with her phone. “No food, three days.”
“Ja,” the man said.
M was shaking. We could hide in the mosque or in the corner shop.
The assessor took another ID. “You ate yesterday,” she said. “And used ten litres of water.”
“Ja,” this one said. “I worked for it.”
“I can see that.”
The woman checked them out. “You want more work?”
“Yes,” they said together.
Work meant water.
“Come.” She spoke into her phone. Two ID numbers, and then: “Breach of social contract, no labour. Sentence, social death. Period, four days. Location, Desalination Plant 6, Walvis Bay.” She stopped and looked at them. “In the bakkie.”
“Mosque or corner shop,” said M. “She’s moving.”
“I need a Fanta,” I said by way of decision. Does Fanta still exist?
“Fine,” said M. She walked into the corner shop. I followed.
The floor: a wild orange linoleum like squashed apricots, blue chairs, a mirror lining one wall, a counter. The opposite wall was lined with photographs of the Pope—the one they called the new, hip Pope. He’s dead now. Behind the counter a young man stood with one hand resting on the till, the other hand on top of it. His eyes were bored and his wrists were beautiful. There was an instant coffee machine behind him with a stack of styrofoam cups next to the fridge.
“Coffee please,” said M.
“And a Fanta,” I said.
“We don’t have Fanta. Only soda from Angola. Our boss goes there sometimes. He loves it.” The boy smiled again.
“Can I pay for it with ration cards?”
The boy shrugged. “What else are you going to pay with, my friend?” He turned and pushed a button on the coffee machine. “You want lemon flower flavour or fig?”
Fig. Was he fucking kidding? Nobody for ten thousand kilometres had eaten a fig for a decade at least. They were banned—too much water to make them grow. I don’t even know what the things taste like.
“Lemon flower,” I said. “I’ve never had that.”
“It’s my favourite.” He smiled and passed me a bottle with a hand as beautiful as his wrist. For the first time that day I felt a sense of purpose.
A tall man in a white robe came through a beaded curtain behind the boy as M was passed her coffee. “Huh,” said the man to the boy. “Guests.”
The boy nodded at him. The man nodded at us.
“Hello,” I said, and so did M. I passed the boy four coupons marked Liquid sustenance. Citizen: Unnamed (unrestricted). Category: Retail only. Angolan contraband was cheap; water cost six coupons each.
“Unnamed,” said the boy. “How must I enter it into the system.”
The man, probably the owner, studied my face. He looked at M. M’s collar was turned up high. She had not washed her shirt since we found a water plant near Mariental and climbed into one of the tanks at night. She smelled good, though, rubbing those picked herbs behind her ears every day. Man, if any creature deserved to survive it was her.
“No names on your tokens,” the man said. “Where did you say you were from?”
“South,” I said.
M was going to do it. I could see. She was going to take a fucking gamble. She looked at the man’s robe. It was white, long. She looked at his hand on the shoulder of the boy. Something in his face turned her on—I could see it too, there was an ocean in that mind, behind his round gold spectacles—he was a man from the old times, when there weren’t tokens. She was going to tell him. She was mad, insane.
“From a farm, where we lived. Alone.”
He nodded. He gestured—open palm outward toward the shop, the street outside, and. I could not help my rush of hope: the Khomasdal Total. “Have a seat,” he said.
We followed him to the window. There we found two small tables with blue chairs, blue like an accident of the weather. We sat. Looked out. The bakkie was gone. There were no people outside anymore.
“Herman,” he said to the boy. “Bring me a coffee.” To us he said, “A good afternoon for company. Tell me, where are you going?”
“Well, said M, “we are coming from the outskirts of town, and before that from the mountains and before that, well, it isn’t easy to say really, but quite far away—”
“To the Khomasdal Total.”
“You know, the petrol station.”
“Do you know the way?” I asked.
“I have been there.” He cocked his head a little and looked out to the street beyond us. “Have you heard the news?”
“What news” I asked.
“It isn’t good. There has been some unrest, as they call it. It spreads quickly and suddenly in the morning all the roads are closed and nobody can get anywhere. We have nothing to do but sit and read about what goes on elsewhere which, apparently, is nothing.”
“What kind of unrest?”
“Ah, daughter.” He can tell we’re from far away. “It isn’t your war, don’t bother with it. My point is, you may find the route you are on somewhat unfeasible.”
“There’s a war?” M said, like she didn’t know. What kind of idiot did she take this guy for.
“Yes. You don’t know? A new one, or an old one, it is hard to tell. One would have to trace it back with a fine-toothed comb, pick apart the papers for a long while, burrow yourself into the past. Nobody wants to go there. I have other matters to attend to.”
“Isn’t war distracting?” asked M.
“Not for me. War is not an event. How is the lemon flower?”
“Wouldn’t we have noticed?” M asked. About the war?”
“That depends. How intelligent are you?” He was silent for a while. Then, in a voice low as the tide: “The Khomasdal Total does not exist.”
“Yes,” said M. “We know.”
“Ah. Then you know what you are doing. You will find it across the riverbed. They will be waiting for you there.”
The dust was cool in the silver evening, soft as sea foam. M stood. I stood. We bowed to the man, and left.
Olivia Rose Walton is a writer from Windhoek. She works for a feminist law firm in London, United Kingdom.