Chelsi lay on her couch, alternately coughing and blowing her nose. I might not have malaria, but I’m still pretty sure I’m dying. Her now week long illness had left her chest sunken in, nose raw, and vision blurred. She couldn’t read, she couldn’t sew, and she wished with all her heart she could skip the laborious tasks of fetching watering. But if there is one thing I know I’m absolutely supposed to be doing its drinking water. Just get up now, go, get back and you can spend the rest of the afternoon lying around in comfortable, quenched misery.
She was shuffling around, unsticking her bike from its corner when she heard the sounds of an engine rumbling forth. Not a motorbike, she knew, and the sound wasn’t diverting off towards her host family’s house as she was a custom. Grabbing her hat, she poked her head out the door.
“Good grief.” Daisy was barking and jumping around a silver minivan, one she knew all too well belonged the head master of the secondary school in Mitukutuku. A man she strove to avoid. She stepped out of the house and started towards the car, it’s engine still rumbling. Chelsi had stopped making regular visits to the secondary school nearly a year ago after deciding the teacher there where only interested in harassing her and not educational programs. The few times her and the head master had run into each other since Chelsi never stopped walking away while he talked to her, and always saying that if and when he was interested in programs he could come and find her. “And now he’s come to find me.”
“It doesn’t bit now does it?” the sheep faced man asked from behind the stirring wheel.
“It’s vicious, you should probably stay in the car,” she didn’t want him getting comfortable.
“No, is it,” he replied, faining disbelief.
“Well, if you’re not going to believe me than why ask?” but her question was rhetorical, and so he continued.
“How are you?”
“I’m sick, how are you?”
“Oh, me, I am fine. But we have not seen each other, you have not been coming down by the school.”
“No, I’ve been sick, and busy. And you all that side don’t seem all that interested in working.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, I don’t have a car, going down that side it like an all-day activity and I have better things to do. You have a car, if you wanted to come see me before it’s like ten minute drive.” Chelsi voice was thick with annoyance, and grumble from the phlegm in her chest.
“Serious!?” Chelsi coughed. “On this side, you have been working on what?”
“We’re planning an environmental education camp for October, and fixing my roof, but mostly I’ve just been sick.” She thought that maybe if he got the hint that I’m ill, he’ll leave me alone.
“You’ve been sick, seriously?”
Chelsi coughed up some phlegm and spit it out on the ground beside her, “Yes.”
“Ahh no, no, no. A beautiful woman like you can’t be sick.”
What an idiot, if there was one thing the head master was good for it was a heavy dose of sexual harassment. He smiled at her with an open mouthed grin, Chelsi fought the urge to reach in a shake him.
“So woman, beautiful or otherwise can’t be ill?” She continued on quickly, “Why? Tell me, why is that?”
“Because you are young and beautiful, so you are healthy. Ahh, maybe it is just some of the dust now that it is getting hot and dry. It make all of us cough. But it’s just the weather. It’s just the air.”
“A plague of miasma would still leave us all consumed and dead.” As inevitable, Chelsi could feel her nature become sour and embittered. The head master continued to stare at her plain and grinning, and Chelsi craned her neck to see her comment on the other side of his head. “I’m not sick from the air, I caught a virus from my friends. You know viruses, germs. The major reason people become sick.”
“No, no, no. A pretty lady can’t get sick.” What kept Chelsi from just walking back into her house was the bafflement, that this was the person responsible the education of some 300 children. She knew there were people dumb enough to believe this train of thought reasonable, people who refused to use condoms even after their partners disclosed their HIV positive statues because ‘she was too pretty, she couldn’t possibly be positive.’ But also what could only be blatant racial bias. He panders to me because I’m white. Or maybe he just doesn’t have one iota of thought for the feelings of his wife. He’ll just hit on any skirt that walks past.
Either way, you disgust me, “Look, you can’t talk to me like that,” the hoarseness of Chelsi’s voice didn’t well reflect the sentiment, but the backchat had gone on a year too long and had found her to close to home. “It’s incredible unprofessional, and quite frankly makes you sound dumb. If you have meaningful business to talk about that’s fine.” She stumble over some more coughing and phlegm, “But hanging around to make comments about how I can’t be ill because of the way I look is inappropriate. You shouldn’t be making any comments to me about the way I look or don’t look for that matter! And you can’t make comments about how I should love you or do love you or love between you and me of any kind. It’s not okay, and if that hasn’t been clear to you before, consider this notice and if you continue we’re not going to work together.” Chelsi noticed now that she had been looking at the ground, and when she reverted her gaze back up at the head master, his features withdrew. He sat quietly, sullen. He’s probably never been talked back to in his adult life, Chelsi figured. “So do you have any actual business to talk about?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh, yes.” He fumbled for his cellphone in his pocket. “My colleague, Mrs. Ngoma. She works at the extension for the University of Zambia. She has a plot by the dam there in Mitukutuku. She wanted information on how to build some fish ponds. I said that I knew you and that I would drop off her information so that you can call her and come that side to show her.”
“You took a lot of liberties that weren’t yours.” You can’t tell someone I’ll go work with them without asking me first. “Give her my number, tell her if she wants to learn about fish farming she can call me to setup a time to meet me at my house. I’m done wandering around looking for people and their plots, I have other things to do. But still give me her number so I can put it in my phone. I don’t answer calls from unknown numbers.”
“You will have to give me your number again, I think I might have it wrong. The last few times I tried to call there was no answer.”
You are incredibly dense, “and the network here in the village is terrible,” Chelsi added sourly. She followed it up with her phone number.
“You said she should meet you here? But she doesn’t have a car.”
“So?” the word shot a pain through Chelsi’s chest and she gripped it in a fit of coughing. “You have one, give her a lift,” she was snide and feeling tired. “Or you’re always suggesting that I come that side when all I have is bicycle. You’re adults, I’m sure I’ll figure it out.” He passed a strip of paper with Mrs. Ngoma information on it through the window. “Is that all?” she took the slip of paper and folded it up in her hand.
“Yes,” there was no smile, no banter.
“Where are you going?” Chelsi voice was stern, but she was curious.
“I have a farm on this side.”
“Alright, well if you’ll be driving by often stop by if you have business.”
“Okay, okay.” The head master revved the engine of his minivan. Chelsi took a large step back.
Good, she decided, no comments about love or angels. He looked defeated. So hopefully that will be the end of that, and I really hope I never have to have that conversation again. But her doubt nagged her; she was still young and at the beginning of her career. And now that she thought about it, it hadn’t even been her first. Not in American, and not in Zambia, but she rarely handled the sexism and harassment so bluntly, though it was rarely in such sharp relief. She shuttered thinking of all the times men had referred to her as an angel, and she subsequently wanted to remind them that they were not friends. What I really want it to be referred to and treated as a human, but if my choices are between angel and dog, I choose dog. Dogs are at least recognized as have needs, wants and character of their own, while angels are nothing but projections of the believer’s imagination.
“And we are certainly alive in the world,” she smiled at her darling Daisy, who now took up the place the minivan had been. “Come on, let’s go to the well.”