Lesson in Survival

red boat on water near green trees

Jamy Bond

            I’d lost my lover to heroin: lips like small blue balloons, skin like frosted glass. I needed a new life. A purpose. So I quit my job and volunteered to teach English at a boys’ school in Mozambique.  I boarded at the school in a small room at the end of narrow hallway that often smelled of mildew and sewage.  My students walked for miles from the slums of Namaacha, their pale blue uniforms neatly buttoned, shirt tails tucked in deep.

            One day, I put a list of English idioms on the blackboard. I hated teaching idioms, but they were part of the appropriated curriculum. My students lived in huts made of reeds and palm and corrugated tin. They did not understand what it meant to climb the corporate ladder, be a couch potato or the cat that got the cream. Their days were about dodging disaster and disease.

            I chose idioms I thought they could get their minds around: bad apple; when pigs fly; never in a million years. They knew what it meant to be a chicken

            “Be brave,” I told them, puffing out my chest and standing proud, “don’t be a chicken.” I pushed my fingers up into my armpits, flapped my elbows, bobbed my head, and circled the front of the room.

            They giggled wildly.

            I told them to choose an idiom from the board and draw a picture that depicts its meaning. Excitement rushed in. They were delighted by the Crayons I passed out, rolling each one between their long, black fingers as if it were one of the diamonds their fathers mined for in the open pits of Kimberly each day.

            Goncalo drew a boy and a girl about to kiss, their belly buttons circled by a string of blue butterflies: Butterflies in My Stomach.

            Lira drew a woman made of sticks, standing before a wall with an ominous black bus headed her way: Driving Someone Up a Wall.

            Mathe drew a thatch-roofed hut surrounded by waves of blue water and dozens of cat and dog faces, dark circles with pointy or droopy ears: It is Raining Cats and Dogs.

            “You’re a good artist,” I whispered into his tiny ear.

            “Yes, Miss,” he said. 

            I had grown fond of this delicate boy with a look of cold steel in his eyes. 

            Last year, another teacher told me, Mathe’s parents were killed by a rebel faction that kidnapped his brother. Mathe survived the attack by wrapping his body seamlessly into the branches of a Baobab tree.

            Last year, I wanted to tell him, I found my lover splayed out on the bathroom floor, mouth open as if in a scream, a river of foam flowing down his chin.

            Everything changed after class that day. The sky dimmed, black clouds swelled above us, and the rain rushed in. The Limpopo River burst its banks and sent a torrent of water through the village, uprooting trees, toppling homes and market stalls. It rose quickly up the walls outside of the school, briefly turning our windows into submarine views of floating cattle and human detritus.

            We climbed to the roof where we sat for days, the sun assaulting us from above. Our mouths dried to ash. Our lips cracked and bled. The heat pulled a pungent stench from our skin. I could feel my insides turning to liquid, my throat closing up.

            At the hush of dawn one morning, a helicopter emerged from the clouds and we rushed to its hovering roar, pressing our bodies into one pulsing plea to be pulled up. Women waved their children high into the air.  Some of us stepped onto the backs of others in a scramble to get to a ladder that dangled just beyond the roof’s edge.

            Inside the chopper’s hold, Mathe and I touched our noses to the window and stared out at the wet, muddy expanse where life and land had once been. The chopper lifted and turned east. People screamed and clutched the ladder’s rungs. They would not let go. We pulled up all that we could fit inside, and watched the rest drop down, one by one.

Jamy Bond is a fiction and nonfiction writer. Her work has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal, Furious Gravity: DC Women Writers, The Rumpus, The Sun, Wigleaf, X-R-A-Y, The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Peace Corps Writers and on National Public Radio’s The Sound of Writing. She received a Fulbright grant in creative writing and spent three years in Mozambique researching and writing a memoir. Most recently, she spent a year in Iraq working for the United States Agency for International Development.