Cold, hungry, he bacame a companion

A scratched, faded Kodak slide. That was all I had of a young boy, maybe four or five years old. A grimy yellow shirt and gray hand-me-down shorts, hands clasped like he was on the verge of telling us something very important. We met during the winter of 1981, he stayed in the outbuilding behind Justus ||Garoeb’s house in Khorixas. Mornings, just as the sun was coming up, I would sit on the back stoop, hands wrapped for a bit of warmth around a tin cup filled with black coffee. Winter’s cold in the desert is sharp. For six maybe eight weeks of the year, cold takes control as the sun sets, dominates the clear star-filled night and lingers well past sunrise. For people accustomed to finding ways to stay out of the heat, those hours of cold are long. At night there was a fire to huddle close, then layers of blankets to crawl into so at least partial relief from the cold was found. But, in the morning, the blankets were left behind, a fire had to start meaning the thud of an axe breaking some wood, a few live coals to resurrect with some kindling, some water to get for brewing tea, and, if lucky enough to have food, some water to boil for morning porridge.

Iagub, that was the boy’s name, and I started sharing the mornings on those back steps. Light from sunrise was just scraping the tops of the trees, it would be a while before it slid down to ground level and gave us warmth. Next to the fireplace, Iagub shivered patiently while he waited for a fire. Tentatively he came over towards me when I called him. Black kids didn’t really know how to deal with a large white man. Some thought I was a doctor and was going to give them an injection -- this created terror. Some had never seen a white person up close. A piece of bread with butter and jam persuaded him to cross whatever threshold made him wary. Still shivering he gravitated towards my warmth. Propping him on my leg, I wrapped my jacket over him. He finished the bread silently while I watched the steam rise out of my coffee mug, and disturbed it once in a while to take a sip. His shivering stopped. This began our morning ritual.

Iagub was small for his age, but it was more than that. Skin wrapped loosely around his bones, he was too light, he was too small. There was not enough mass on his frame. The quiet, deliberate way he ate whatever I was having for breakfast on those cold mornings were never an antidote for the many days of hunger he felt in his short life. My school books talked of the long term effects of stunting and wasting. Would his chance to reverse these times of ever come?

Life takes us away down different paths. My work took me to Sesfontein, Otjimbingwe and places in between. Iagub too was carried on the tides of social obligation belonging to his elders; going out to the farm, to Outjo for a funeral, Fransfontein for a wedding. Sometimes in the following months our paths would meet again on the back stoop. Years later, on my second trip to Namibia, Iagub was in school. Still small, he lived for football. We no longer shared the stoop, he stayed at another house, closer to his classes. Work took me away from Khorixas, Iagub went to a different town for school. Independence came, we lost contact with one exception. The slide I took in 1981. Unlike the hundreds of slides stored and cataloged, his image worked its way into the collected tokens of memory that populate wherever I worked. Usually resident in a plastic box of paper clips, staples extra pens and a few other bits of memory, that slide moved from Khorixas to Windhoek to Boston to Allston to Windhoek to Khorixas to Otjimbingwe to Falmouth and a last time to Windhoek. Sometimes, when in a pause between chapters, or a break in the phrasing of a letter, I would finger the slide, hold it up to a source of light and wonder about that tiny little boy in the yellow shirt. Did he get enough food? Get into a school?

Two days ago we towed a car over to a backyard mechanic in Katutura. On a short downhill cul-de-sac we left the car. Beyond the end of the road is a river. While making arrangements for the repairs, I caught a familiar face outside the last house on the left. It was one of the young girls from Justus ||Garoeb’s house, now grown, married, a mother. In the door was a man about her age, slight, smiling, the creeping retreat of hair losing a battle with baldness atop his head. This was Iagub. He lives here. He is planning to get married. By chance his bride-to-be is related to my in-laws. Over the next few months the rituals and activities of betrothal and marriage will give ample time to get caught up.

When I got back home two nights ago, I pulled the slide out of its place. He is still there, small, hands clasped, waiting to say something. There is a chance to catch up, to learn what was on his mind that day thirty years ago. Some times you get lucky.