People Who Understand

This short story, read at the conference, was inspired by the author's childhood in Swaziland.

He barely notices security anymore, walks through the metal detector making sure his I.D. is visible, so his thoughts are on the e-mail from Vusi and not the bored guarf flicking her nails against her pant-leg.

With his credentials he can get most places in the UN building—the interpreters’ booths, the library for publications in more than the six official languages, the General Assembly with its huge abstract paintings at angles to the green marble dais, the dining room. So not every place, but the ones that count for him. Every morning he enters is a good one, striding through the foyer with purpose in his step and the day’s assignments on his mind. All he has is French, English, Spanish, siSwati and of course Arabic. The last clinched his position when he applied soon after 9/11, when the combination was unheard of and his future colleagues were scrambling to fill language schools where Middle Eastern languages were all of a sudden de rigueur. His first language had come in handy, and when bolstered by English, French, Spanish, a highly desirable combination.

Not much call for the siSwati. The year after graduation he hadn’t been able to imagine applying to the jobs, the internships, the grad schools his friends were, and so a year in Swaziland, the smallest country he could find on the list of NGO placements, seemed perfect. Not school, not exactly work of the sort that his friends were starting, and not home. He’d stepped off the plane from Johannesburg in Manzini, eyes searching the crowds as he walked across tarmac to the airport terminal. He’d been too busy looking at other new faces to see the middle-aged couple in jeans and bright print shirts smiling expectantly at him. Nancy and Steve Reimer had welcomed him, gotten him settled at the boys’ school, but once his work started it was weeks, sometimes months between visits with them.

English classes for the boys, and siSwati lessons for him, the teacher and student functions rolling back and forth between them all, depending on what was up for discussion. English grammar and he was the teacher, anything else, and he followed the boys where they led him through the intricacies of siSwati, football, mealie-meal with groundnut stew, where to get the best guavas, what life was like to be eight--or ten, or fourteen--and living in the capital city of a country which had been under emergency restrictions since 1973.

It didn’t feel like what emergency restrictions should feel like. He only knew that life was hard for the boys outside school hours, with earning responsibilities for families that many of them supported and some of them led, and easier within the school rituals of assembly (morning prayer and the singing of the Swazi anthem), English, Mathematics, Biology, lunch (mounds of mealie-meal holding puddles of vegetable stew), History, siSwati, and afternoon soccer—no, football. They mocked him gently for soccer: soccah, soccah, they’d imitate, grinning at this new teacher who was young enough to run across the dirt field with them after school. Once his own lessons were somewhat in hand, he asked permission to join the smallest boys in siSwati class during his work period, and with the help of an evening tutor and the daily conversation of the boys, his skills caught fire and rushed ahead until, outside of the classes he taught and the e-mails home, he lived in siSwati.

Each morning he’d leave his small concrete block house and meet Vusi outside the door. The boy made no pretense at having been just passing by: he would be kicking a ball around if someone had forgotten to return it to the sports shed, or swinging a stick in small circles, and turn around when he heard his teacher’s door open. They’d breakfast on roughly cut slices of bread and fruit, then kick the ball back and forth while mixing siSwati and English comments about their game, the day ahead, bits of whatever topic came to his mind as something a nine-year-old would want to talk about.

He sits outside the swooping bubble of the GA during lunch, its grey stone a partial UFO shape with wings tilted up on either side of the hemisphere. Talk of the United Nations had always been familiar to him, Baba having worked in various bodies of its structure and Maman quizzing her children on the places the UN work took him to, until it took them all to New York for his new position at UNDP, and she taught French classes at the UN. By the time his parents had returned home, Baba in a diplomatic post and Maman now giving private language lessons, he and his siblings were established enough in their adult lives that there was no question of returning. Now the four children fanned out across North America, only he having stayed in New York.

Being a known quantity had likely helped to get him the job as an interpreter when he returned from Swaziland. He might want to think his language degree, his references, his international experience had done it all for him, but years of attendance at the United Nations school, and his parents’ reputations, had smoothed the way like rain on dirt roads outside Mbabane, had made possible a position that interpreters in their twenties, no matter how many languages they spoke, usually had to wait for.

Sometimes when lunch is finished (sandwiches now, instead of the hot dishes from when his parents’ home was still his and still in New York), he brushes crumbs from his hands and walks through the rose garden looking out across the East River. Sometimes he takes a quick walk through the sculpture garden: alone he smirks at the tall rushes grown to hide the nether regions of the elephant given as a gift to the UN, or sits on the curving bench memorializing Eleanor Roosevelt. In the company of other interpreters he talks, listens, laughs in multiple languages, though more often than he wishes English is their common tongue. Today Piet, whose repertoire is broader than his own, including Afrikaans but not the siSwati of Piet’s neighbouring country, raises his eyebrows in a question.

"SiSwati, yah? Not much chance to use that, is there?"

"No, I’m out of practice. Hope they’re all right with a general picture and not all the details." The two men laugh, the security of a dozen languages between them and the easy friendship of a half dozen years.

"Your Swazi friends want a lot from us, you know." He feels his stomach clench, nodding back at Piet as faces of his students flash through his mind. With their country on the verge of bankruptcy, is it possible their lives have become more difficult? Not a lot to lose when kids have so little. Except that they wouldn’t be kids anymore; the eight year-olds would be eighteen, the fourteen year-olds twenty-four. Twenty-four. Over two-thirds of their life expectancy spent, and the same age he was when he ran through their defense until the quicker footwork of his students nipped the ball away from him. He wondered how many still play football, how many have their own sons who play, how many are dead.

Whenever a replacement ball was needed, the one precious orb having succumbed at last to so many games its outer layers had given up in sheer exhaustion and peeled away from the core, one of the boys would form a tidy knot of plastic, tie it with twine, and wrap it with bags until it reached the regulation size, at which all the watchers cheered and the game was back on.

It was hard to tell at first when another boy got sick. They were all skinny--mealie-meal and vegetables, some milk and meat, not enough to fatten anyone beyond basic health. But eventually, whichever player had been spending more and more time on the sidelines would go missing from the afternoon games, sometimes recovering long enough to rejoin the shifting roster of players, more often weakening until an afternoon game would be called on account of the funeral.

It was the funerals that spurred his language skills on, he guiltily realized after the first few months. As much as his talking with his students, calling to them across the field, eating with them, made him want to quicken his learning, it was the funerals that pushed his studies to a frenzied pace. He’d wanted to know what was being said, what was being sung, what was told to grandmothers and younger siblings to make it possible for them not to give up completely and leap into despair. He’d wanted answers to why his bright, energetic pupils became tired and developed sores in their mouths that made it hard to tell their families how to remember them when they died, let alone tease their English teacher about calling football by its wrong name. He wanted answers as to why this tiny kingdom of a million people was famous now for the highest rate of HIV in the world, instead of its music sung by children unaware of what their voices could do, its peace for refugees from South Africa’s apartheid over decades, even its massive pineapples which he bought and cut into at the market, its sunrises in Ezulwini Valley.

Foolish was how he felt. Foolish and inadequate. But also full of purpose, as one year in Swaziland became two and two became three. When he outlasted his NGO contract he moved to another organization, desperate to stay and unconcerned to whom he reported as long as he could go on playing football, go on sitting in the back of the siSwati class and hearing the boys sing-song stories, grammar, lists of words he wrote in his notebook and studied late at night after the other teachers had returned from the restaurant where beer and chicken were cheap and plentiful.

Now he sits alone in the rose garden and imagines Vusi beside him, no doubt kicking a ball from foot to foot. They’d kept in touch for the first few years after he left, letters every few months, but he can’t remember how long it’s been, or who wrote last. He hopes that it wasn’t him and gazes guiltily across the East River to the sign of the ubiquitous soft drink. It had been everywhere in Swaziland, too.

Vusi’s e-mail had surprised him, of course. He’d needed to print it out and fold it into his pocket to pull out later and reconsider, like the letters he’d received in Swaziland, each one a small breath of home. For Vusi to have written last would be a blatant rudeness on his own part, but for him to have written last could mean no more Vusi to write, so he hadn’t wanted to follow up too closely once he’d realized that months between letters had become over a year, and then a few.

"Teacher Marzouq! How are you? I was so glad to find your website. I almost couldn’t believe it! I am very impressed that you are now an interpreter at the United Nations, and I hope that you enjoy your job very much. Do you ever speak siSwati there? It is a small world indeed, because I have won a scholarship for university and I will study in your city at City University. Once I have settled in my classes, maybe I can take the subway to visit you. I would like to see the UN building, and maybe have a chat with the South African ambassador, ask him for the loan to Swaziland, ha ha! Really, I would like to walk around the city, go to Times Square and Central Park. I don’t know if it will be as beautiful as Coronation Park in Mbabane, but I would like to see it. I hope you and your family are all well, and I look forward to hearing from you. Your former student, Vusi Dlamini"

He had laughed out loud and pumped his fist over his head, replied immediately. Did Vusi need a place to stay until school started, could he pick him up at the airport, where was he going to live, what was he going to major in? He was only mildly hurt when Vusi e-mailed thanks, but someone from the university’s international students program would meet him and help him settle in at school. He reminded himself that Vusi was a twenty-two year old, not a boy who needed his old teacher to smooth the way. They arranged to meet in September, and through his busy summer Marzouq thought occasionally of Vusi, when an e-mail would arrive asking about New York weather or what else to be prepared for.

It’s mid-September by the time they meet. Marzouq wants to be early to avoid any anxiety for Vusi, but when he crosses the street to the UN church centre, a landmark Marzouq had judged as significantly remarkable to find, Vusi is there already, leaning against the sculpted wall and looking around with no trace of the shyness Marzouq remembers in the nine, ten, or twelve-year-old versions.

"Marzouq, Mars Bar!" They clasp hands and clap each other on the back, Marzouq laughing at the nickname his students had come up with once they grew comfortable with the young teacher who didn’t expect "Sir" unless the headmaster was in hearing distance. "You look the same! Exactly the same!"

"You don’t. Since when can you grow a moustache?" Vusi laughs and strokes the ends of his meager facial hair with thumb and forefinger.

"It’s good to see you look the same. Everything else here is new to me."

They make their way to a nearby café which Marzouq knows is modestly priced in case Vusi insists on paying for his teacher’s meal. Rows of flags line the window ledges and Vusi chooses the table nearest the Swazi flag, nodding with approval. Through burgers and milkshakes Vusi outlines the past month since his ride down Matsapha Road to the airport, punctuated by questions from Marzouq about what has changed in town in the past ten years.

"How are you, man? Tell me about your family, and the other boys. I started checking theTimes of Swaziland again after your e-mail, and I saw that one of the sports writers is Sidney Mkhabela. Is that Sidney who played forward?"

"Yes, Sidney started a charity drive to raise money for sports equipment for the school. Now every year the big men in Mbabane play golf at the country club one day and lots of money goes to the school. They even have nets in the goalposts now."

"That’s great, what a good idea. Why didn’t I think of that?"

Vusi looks at him oddly. "You were our English teacher. That wasn’t your job."

"Tell me about everybody. Tell me about Sipho—what’s big brother up to?" Marzouq is leaning across the table smiling widely, the faces of his former students flashing through his mind.

"Sipho died. Four years ago."

Marzouq’s mouth gapes like a fish on dry land. "How—was he sick? How long?"

"Long enough. It was AIDS, it’s all right to ask."

"Vusi, I’m so, so sorry. You poor kids, how was your sister? How is she? How were you?"

"We were okay. You know Aunt Phindile died too, right? I think I wrote you about her. When she died, we three kids were old enough, but Auntie’s son was still small—Webster—so he lived with us. He goes to St. Joe’s now! But he doesn’t like football."

Marzouq has a sudden memory of Sipho leaning out of his desk to wave covertly back at Vusi passing by the open window with his class. Of Sipho gesturing for Vusi to put his shoes on after morning football with Marzouq. Of Sipho surrounded by friends at the end of the day, encircled by Vusi and his friends keeping up as they left the school grounds.

"Sipho. I’m so sorry."

"Yes. Thank you, Marzouq." Marzouq looks away first, grateful for the waiter from whom he can order lemon meringue pie, and the same for Vusi who says he’s never tried it.

"I’m older than him now; I’ve passed him. It helps me to work hard, thinking of him. Gladys too. Next year she will pass him. Even Webster will pass. This is difficult, but he is always my big brother. And how are your brothers, and your sister?" Marzouq quickly rhymes off his siblings’ locations, careers, children, reports that his parents are fine. Too much detail and he will feel guilty for their existence, healthy in their sixties, though Vusi won’t begrudge him anything.

"How are your classes?"

"Oh, very good. I study Economics and Global Development, but now I have some other courses too, before I specialize: English Literature, Anthropology, even French 100. Maybe one day I will work for the UN also!"

"I’ll give you a tour sometime, it’s amazing. I can get you in to the Swazi mission, maybe even meet the ambassador!"

"Marzouq, I can get in to the see the ambassador. I am Swazi." Vusi takes a sip of coffee without breaking eye contact.

"Of course, what was I thinking. Sorry."

"I don’t want to work at the UN because of you. I want to work at the UN because of me. And Sipho—or maybe I’ll work at the Red Cross. Or a smaller NGO. Anyway," here he smiles again and cuts into his pie, "I am not studying Development because of you, but I did become a better footballer because of you."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes. It felt so nice to be better than a grown up--my teacher even!--so I worked very hard." Marzouq puts his head in his hands and laughs long enough for Vusi to take a bite of pie, chew, swallow, drink more coffee, and cut back into his pie.

"How’s the dorm?"

"I’m not living in the dorm. Don’t look so worried, Mars Bar. It was too expensive. My scholarship gives money for living, but where doesn’t matter. So I have money for living and send the rest to Gladys and Webster. She can start at University of Swaziland soon. The scholarship people are getting two educated young Swazis for the price of one! And Webster—he wants to be a doctor but that kind of school is more money… But he’s only in high school now."

"Where are you living?"

"Staten Island. You know Working Girl?" Vusi starts to sing: "Let…the river run, let all the dreamers…wake the na-a-a-tions"—I got the dvd from the library after I googled Staten Island. It’s not much about Staten Island. On Google I learned about Staten Island’s funerals. So many funerals there after nine-eleven, for the firefighters. Also Brooklyn, but Brooklyn is too expensive. All the hipsters are moving there." He takes a long pull on his vanilla milkshake and Marzouq feels like his head is spinning.

"How do you know about hipsters?"

"Time Out New York. It’s free in the library. Do you know it even tells you what free things to go to, and what subway to take?" While Vusi scrounges under his discarded lettuce leaf for fries he’s missed Marzouq has a vision of Vusi exiting the subway to attend a panel discussion on New York City politics or a performance of Shakespeare in the park. He’d planned to be the one to show Vusi around.

"Dude, you’re totally finding your way around the city. Good for you!"

"I rememberdude! Do you remember, in the class?" They both chuckle. Marzouq had been determined to squelch his use ofdude. When his students realized this, due to Marzouq’s frustrated groans after each utterance, they kept tallies of his weekly usage. He had come across a heated discussion between his standard three and four classes prior to football one day, the older group claiming it had been a three-dude week for them, and the younger claiming more.

"I don’t have much time for the city. Assignments are beginning. I have to work. But it’s good English practice, all these free activities."

"I can’t believe how great your English is. I mean, it was good before, but now it’s amazing."

"Thank you. I was listening in your class. Also, in the dorm I would learn slang, but I need formal English for the things I want to do. They are nice young people in the dorm, but they are teenagers. They want to drink beer and stay up late talking about Nietzsche and sex. I want to learn things to make Swaziland great again. If I want to talk about sex, I will not be talking with teenagers." He sees Marzouq’s face. "Don’t worry, Mars Bar. You think I don’t know about condoms? I can sing you every song the Youth Health Forum ever wrote about condoms. In siSwati, in English."

When he says this Marzouq feels like he’s looking at nine-year-old Vusi across the table, skinny and short with the intermittent smile, telling him he has started university.

"Have you met lots of other people?"

"Oh yes, lots of nice people. In my house are two men from Ethiopia, and even my landlords are nice. They cooked us dinner our first night. Next week we will make dinner for them. The Ethiopians are making the meat, but I will make the mealie-meal. Nice people in my classes too. I joined the African Students’ Union. All the clubs were in the student centre with tables of information one day, asking me to join them. There is the Chinese Students’ Association, the Korean Association, and so on. Of course I am glad to be in the ASU. But what about my country? So, now I am the president of the Swazi Students’ Association. Phiwase Mndziniso is the vice-president. She is an excellent VP. Very intelligent." He grins. "Also very beautiful. She is hoping we will have many new members, but I don’t mind being only two for a while."

After dinner they walk up First Avenue, cross to the park, join the throngs strolling the paths before the sun sets, talking and laughing. A teenager sways past them on his skateboard, arms out slightly for balance, the wide sleeves of his African print shirt moving in the breeze he creates.

"I hate when people wear African shirts and don’t even know what country they’re from. No idea of who made it or where."

Vusi is kicking a rock back and forth as they walk and looks up to see the boy moving quickly away from them down the path.

"Really? I like it. They are wearing my style, instead of just me wearing their style. Maybe that boy will want to know about Africa when he is older, because he wore that shirt from Malawi that he bought in an old-clothes shop."

Marzouq is almost asleep that night, before it hits him. Vusi living in Staten Island. Around other people who understand funerals.

About the Author

Kristen Mathies

Kristen Mathies lives, writes, and teaches highschool ESL and Creative Writing in Kitchener, Ontario. Her poetry and non-fiction have been published in a variety of places, and she is seeking publication of her first novel. She has graduate degrees in Literature and Peace Studies, and attended the Humber School for Writers Summer Program this year. Part of her childhood was spent living in Swaziland with her family; prior to her current teaching position she worked for a non-governmental organization at the United Nations.