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The Black Dragon
 24 September 2004

I’m having a rare cell-phone conversation, when Onesmus comes to the door. I wave him in, gesture to the couch and pile of magazines, and then continue talking to Zac’s dad about an AIDS survey he wants me to conduct. The conversation goes on, and I glance at Onesmus, who has gone through 5 magazines in as many minutes. He’s on to the week-old newspaper, which also doesn’t hold his attention, when I finally get off the phone. “Sorry,” I say, putting the phone down. “So, what can I help you with?” I’m guessing he wants me to open the computer lab, since that’s what most learners want us for these days. His answer is too fast, and I can’t understand him. He repeats slower, “The problem is my father.” I nod, and wait for him to continue. “My father is dead.” I’m confused, a bit. “Um, when? Just now?” He replies, “I just found out at the gate. I have to go home.”

Dear readers, just imagine this. You’re an 18 year old boy, number one in your class, about to graduate high school in a month, you’re just starting your English exams, when a messenger comes to your room in the hostel and says, “Someone is calling you at the gate.” So you go down to the gate at the school entrance, and a relative, maybe a neighbor, is in a car waiting for you. They say, “Onesmus, your father has died.” Thoughts careen through your mind, and one of them is that you have to go to your English teacher’s house and inform her, so that she can give you your oral exam before you go home for the week for the funeral.

Thus, Onesmus stands before me, wearing a white shirt with a black Chinese dragon sprawling across the left side, his arms pushing down on the back of a chair, telling me his father has just died. In this way, the death that has been all around me for my two years in Namibia, has finally entered my house. My learner’s father has died. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to it. I’ve never met any of my learners’ parents. But Onesmus wrote a soaring essay about his father earlier this year under the assignment topic of “Who is the most intelligent person you know?” And now that person is dead.

Onesmus hasn’t come for sympathy, and my attempts at it only make him look down, push harder on the chair. I don’t mention his essay. I wish English compositions wielded some real power in the world, but at times like this, I realize they don’t. I am only his English teacher and I can’t reach this death. So I revert to what I can do. I give him his oral exam and afterwards I give him a handful of sweets. He laughs at this, showing his crooked smile and chipped front tooth. He says, “Thank-you Miss,” and leaves. That is all.

I realize then that the only reason Onesmus told me about his father was because of the oral exam. Otherwise, I would never have known. He would have disappeared for a week, his classmates only telling me that he was “absent” with no further explanation. People are absent, people are sick, and people die with little concern for the reasons. I’m sure that a few of my other learner’s parents have also died since I’ve been here, but no one has ever spoken with me about it. Death is all too common here, where most people don’t have access to adequate medical care nor the funds to pay for it if it were available. Nobody likes death, but they don’t seem to rage against it or even try to understand it. There is only mourning.

Shouldn’t there be indignation instead of this fatalistic acceptance? A week ago, I asked John if the traditional superstitions were still believed. He said most of them are fading except for one. Most people still believe that owls are bad luck because if one flies over your homestead, it will eat someone’s soul and he or she will die. “Even small children will be afraid of owls. That belief doesn’t seem to be dying out like the others.” The prevalence of this arbitrary cause of death perhaps reflects a cultural acceptance of death. Although I may wonder how a bird flying overhead could cause death, they may wonder how invisible bacteria and viruses could cause death. They have their explanation and we have ours, but in the end, the person is still dead, and Onesmus is still fatherless.


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