An Excerpt from Chapter Four
Ngaka. Doctor. Magic word, in Botswana.
Even Mum had a special name. MmaNgaka: wife of the doctor – hotline to Dad, which could be inconvenient for Mum.
said Mum, smiling at the thin man standing behind her in the queue. She
turned quickly back to face the till and murmured something to the
three of us who sat sprawled on the floor, immobilised by boredom and
The line in the stuffy little hardware store was
stationary. Four or five people waited in front of us. Behind us, the
tail of the queue rounded the end of the nail, screw and bolt isle. No
one was going anywhere and a discussion about ailments, should it
start, would be inescapable. So Mum made a point of looking busy with
her children, of being unusually sympathetic to our whingeing.
We had “popped in,” after the weekly grocery shop in Phikwe – for a few
odds and ends: sandpaper, paint, glue, drill bits. Now, half an hour
later, the already wilted Spar lettuce would be slimy brown on the
outside and the milk would be curdling in the boot.
till, moving as if the hot air was syrup, a brightly clothed,
enormously fat Motswana woman prodded buttons on the cash register.
Only her mouth was animated; smiling and firing a stream of rapid
Setswana at her customers. Other customers chatted amongst themselves.
No one else seemed to mind the wait.
“My kidneys are bad.” The
man behind Mum pulled a face. “Botlhoko. Botlhoko,” he tapped his shirt
in the vicinity of his kidneys. “I need to see the doctor.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll be able to help you,” said Mum, turning round
reluctantly. It was the usual problem: almost every Motswana man said
there was something wrong with his kidneys. The women all complained
about their wombs.
“Eh-he.” The man nodded. But after a
few moments deliberation he continued. “And I am only half-charged.”
His expression suggested this was a greater problem than his kidneys.
“Half-charged?” said Mum.
“I can only do it once a night.”
Problems with “doing it” were a thrilling change from troubled kidneys, wombs and dirty blood.
Damien and I immediately stopped tracing patterns on the dusty shelves.
Mum coughed. “Oh dear,” she said in a strained voice, “well, perhaps the doctor can help you with that too.”
The man in front of us turned around, and said something in Setswana to
the half-charged man. Laughter and rapid conversation followed, joined
by several other men. In any language, the sympathetic nods, occasional
laughs and thigh slapping clearly accompanied an exchange of
embarrassing stories and shared problems.
But it was only when the cashier spoke that the conversation returned to English.
She had abandoned the cash register altogether and leant forward across
the counter. Huge breasts spread out in front of her like full sacks of
mealie meal – breasts stretched by child after child, but kept full
thanks to a rich husband who could afford to fatten his wife with
generous amounts of beef.
“You men are all wrong,” she announced, in a booming voice that silenced the chatter. “We women like it just once.”
She paused, eyeing her audience, letting her point sink in. A few
chuckles came from the line, which was mostly made up of men. One or
two began to murmur in Setswana.
“And,” she continued,
silencing everyone once more. “We like it long and slow.” She prolonged
the last word and her breasts shook as she laughed at her own unabashed
precision. She turned to Mum, and eyed her enquiringly.
All eyes followed.
“We do indeed,” said Mum, grinning back at the cashier.
Laughter erupted in the queue. A few people yelled enthusiastic
MmaNgakas. Heat seeped across my face. I was embarrassed for Mum,
mortified for me. Sex was fine – fascinating – in the abstract, between
animals, or involving people you didn’t know. Involving parents, it was
The cashier winked at Mum, and resumed her till
prodding. A babble of Setswana filled the air again, and the queue
ground on. Long and slow. Like everything in Botswana.