I never solved the mystery of the woman who wanted my Coke. How could I? We were in each others’ presence for perhaps three minutes. We had no common language, and indeed, no language at all. I was alone and anxious; she was, possibly, mad. No one watching us would explain. It was long ago and my memory has muddled the few details. It is a minor mystery and can do without solving, but I think of her often and wonder.
I was traveling with a companion in Malawi, in southern Africa, on a holiday from our work as teachers in Zimbabwe. From Lilongwe, the capital city, we were going by bus to a bare bones resort just called Mr. Steven’s, a hangout for young travelers and Peace Corps types, in Cape McLear along the shores of the inland tropical sea, Lake Malawi.
Because it was the late ’80s, I wore a skirt, longish, the entire time. Under the eccentric rule of President Banda, who had imposed a set of laws protecting the good people of Malawi from the decadence of the 1960s, no short skirts, trousered women or long-haired men were allowed. We had camped on the golf course in the middle of Lilongwe and made our way to the station in the morning to catch our bus for Cape McLear. The bus was a rattletrap, rusty and topped with boxes and baskets. It rained often and hard, and the conductor ran up and down trying to fit spare windows into empty frames. Water ran down the aisle.
One road connects Lilongwe to the lakeshore, and the bus went up and down many spurs to remote villages. At each stop, my companion got off and disappeared, poking around until the bus driver was gunning his engine, ready to drive off. Struck with our remoteness and anxious in spite of my delight at being there, I stayed on the bus at each stop, trying not to panic when he did not reappear. I watched the children hawking buns from big enamel basins outside the windows. I pretended to sleep.
The forest was thick; villages or bus stops appeared in small clearings as we ground along on the sandy red roads. Late in the day, we stopped in one town for a longer time, perhaps to change buses. We bought Cokes to cool us down and quench our thirst in the mid-December heat. My companion wandered off.
I sat alone on a bench in the center of town, a clearing with a few small buildings and a store. On the veranda nearest me, a man worked at his sewing machine. At the other end of the long bench from me, a few men sat, gathered as groups of older men do every day across the world: commentators, guards, cronies. They looked serious and fierce, so beyond greetings, we didnʼt speak. I tried to look as though I was used to loitering in remote spots alone.
I had my Coke to drink, an anchor for my shy self, holding me where I was in that world, giving me something to do. Though I had learned a little about how to just sit, in my time in Africa, I felt nonetheless that I should have something to do, even if it was only the work of drinking a Coke.
A woman came into view, walking around the clearing, coming closer. She was crying out, bleating rhythmically and high like a lamb, in a voice I can still hear in memory. She wandered away and then closer again, then still closer. Past the men she came, and then stopped in front of me. She hadn’t been begging as she walked, only raising her wild cries and meandering towards us. The men watched. I looked at her and listened to her cries, which were not words. She held out her hand, not to shake mine, or palm up as if begging, but forward as if to grasp my Coke.
Here is how she looked: she was wearing a cloth skirt wrapped and tied like every other woman in southern Africa. She was barefoot, which was not unusual, but her hair was untidy. She was unclothed from the waist up. There were probably a few dreadlocked white expats out at the lake who took their shirts off, but no African woman of my acquaintance would walk out in this state of undress. This seemed to me to be the clearest sign of an unbalanced mind: not her meandering or her bleating, but her lack of a shirt.
As she held out her hand, I felt the men on the bench watching closely. They were testing me, but I had no idea how to pass their test. I chose: I started to hand her my half-full Coke, for her to finish. But, as one, led by the largest and oldest, the men came to life with loud no’s: “No, No!” “You must not!” “Don’t give!” I was so startled that I took my hand back and kept the Coke close to me.
I wanted to give her what little I had in my hand, just half a bottle of lukewarm Coke. But the prohibition was strong and immediate from the big men, and neither of us, not the young white stranger nor the disheveled outcast, could ask why.
The woman wandered off, shooed away by the men. What did she want? Why was I not allowed to give her my Coke? The most likely answer is that she was thought to be bewitched, in her mental state. Was she a threat to me? Was I not to touch her, or she me?
My companion came back. We got on the bus eventually and crunched and bumped our way down the road. I did not tell him my small story, but kept it close to me, alone. The clearing in the forest disappeared behind us and with it, my Coke bottle, the glowering men and the woman crying out.
Jane Salisbury is a writer and librarian who lives in Portland, Oregon.
© 2015, Jane Salisbury