Two Worlds in Time and Space

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Late afternoon, and now a hand pump in a bare space, mounted in a concrete basin. Someone, perhaps the local chief, perhaps the chefe du posto, had once, when the excitement was still high about the arrival of the drilling machine and all the strange activity, decided that the shiny new pump was really special and should be covered. But the idea seemed to have run out of steam, and it ended up as a few twisted poles, more suggestive of a primitive shrine than a roof.

But it does have its many faithful. They shuffle to it daily along a network of footpaths out of the surrounding bush. They arrive with an assortment of empty plastic containers, each vessel with a story, each tenuously clinging to its afterlife. They leave with them full, after their patient penitence to the pump handle, to swing happily back to their huts along the dust-trodden paths, with twenty or so litres balanced on their heads.

It is, to all that come to this bare place, a source of life – also to me. Its water was fresh and sweet, and for me, probably the last not to be scooped from a muddy pool. The worshippers were friendly. Despite my protest, they put their containers aside and insisted that go first – I was a strange apparition from a world they knew of only in confused fragments, from stories.

I stopped objecting, half grateful. The afternoon was fast sloping towards evening, and I still needed to find a suitable camping spot far enough from the nearby dwellings of the faithful.

As I worked the pump handle, polished to a shine by many palms, I think of the toes of St Peter, polished to stumps by ages of caressing lips and hands. The two phenomena are from vastly different spaces, both physically and metaphysically, yet it turns out, both are a source of life, essential for survival of those that time and space and history, both socially and, ultimately, biologically, have made reliant on it.

I watched the water twisting and muttering from the lips of the bend in the pipe into my container. It was a container like the others, of plastic, similar in shape and capacity, yet it was alien to this world – too new or too clean, too slick, to precisely configured, with its crew-in tap and its screw-on top, threads still intact.

It was from a different world; I was from a different world. Soon, when time would dictate, I would move back into my world. Here, time dictated very little – seasons did, day and night, heat and cold, rain and drought did. Here, such containers are part of survival; scarce and prized, no matter their state, as long as they did not leak too much. There, my container would seem quite battered, and of almost no use. But it was available in abundance, to `enable me and my ilk to move closer to this world, even if just skirted by most.

I looked up at the faces around me. They all watched me intently, with stoic resignation, as if they understood there was something they did not understand. Perhaps there was something to learn, something to discover, some sign of change, or something even more profound, perhaps, in the way I did the actions they themselves went through daily.

I wanted to tell them, to scream to them: “DO NOT GO THERE! DO NOT DISCOVER THAT. IT BRINGS ONLY BRUTRALITY AND SADNESS AND IRONY AND SYNICISM!” And then gently to add, “You may struggle from time to time against Nature, but ultimately, you are happy as you are in your isolated, simple world of  basic survival.”

But I could not. My language, so adequate in my world, did not reach here. Our understandings were too far apart. So I just smiled at them sadly and screwed down the container top and carried it to the vehicle, knowing that, no matter what I could tell them, my world would be coming to a village near them soon, and bring with it all that I did not wish them…

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