most writing about Africa touches on its heat. touches on it, then jumps back with its burnt finger in its mouth. though I was determined to avoid the cliché, today I cannot. today, it is smothering. but at least it’s a dry smothering.
last night, at the omega point of my blackest most dreamless sleep, I was woken by someone shaking my mosquito net.
I sleepwalked to the landcruiser and found my lab technician in the passenger seat, his head bobbing with microsleeps. together we rattled to the hospital where a three year old girl was taking her last few breaths. I have become an expert in these breaths. I recognized them as soon as I walked in the room. they weren’t real. they were a disguise. as soon as we nudged her, she would fall from the fence she was sitting on. the nurse turned
her over to administer antibiotics, I prepared to put in an intraosseus line, and she fell.
“malesh”, I said to the father. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you lost your daughter, I’m sorry that the rule here is that we arrive just a little too late rather than in the nick of time.
I walked from the emergency room. my lab technician had his head on the front desk. macrosleep. I tapped his shoulder and we got in the landcruiser. twenty minutes after I was called, I was back under the tree looking at the moon. it has been good company. we watched each other for a while, drifting.
I must remember, this isn’t a story about another three year old fallen from the fence. I should spare you that. those last breaths are my job, not yours. this is a story about heat.
I woke up this morning, underneath my tree, grateful for my thin sheet. it was dawn. roosters shouted. murmurs of morning voices carried through the thin grass wall of my compound. I lied there and listened. I was covered in sand. I could feel its grit in my mouth. a breeze lifted a corner of my mosquito net that had come free.
the day brightened, this day, the one right now. it brightened, and I moved the sheet from my body. the breeze started to blow warm. sweat started to bead on my neck. within minutes of lying and listening, I needed to move. it was too hot to continue. I lifted the mosquito net, shook the dust from my sheets, and bunched them in a ball at the foot of my bed. i walked to the kitchen, to find coffee, to find an orange.
by 9 am, i couldn’t sit in the sun. by ten I had moved into my tukul. I decided to write before I walked to the hospital on this, my day off. and here I am. it is 1039 and 40 C in the shade. it will climb to almost 50. I am typing with pieces of tissue underneath my wrists because sweat pools on my computer. I have taken my headphones off because it affords me another fraction of uncovered body surface area.
I will soon leave my tukul and walk to the hospital. I will step out into the sun, and touch the top of my head where I have just clipped it on the doorframe. my hair will be hot even after these few seconds. i will look down at my scrubs, and see dark sweat at my knees. I will walk 480 paces under a cloudless sky, walk it in zig zags, looking for any piece of grey shade, no matter how narrow. fence, lightpost, piece of barbed wire. anything to break the sun’s insistence. the last 100 metres is across a dry courtyard, and the wind will sweep across it, gusting heat like bellows, into the hospital.
I will walk through the different wards, each hanging with their different smell of sickness, the hot wind stilled by the walls. mothers in the TFC will fan their babies, and the man in the back room, the one who I can’t decide what is wrong with him, why he is wasting away, he will lie on his back and stare at the ceiling. of the 51 patients, I will see the sickest ones. I will walk back, sometime in the afternoon, through the courtyard and its hot wind, down the road, then left, and enter compound one. I will walk to the kitchen and drink a litre of warm water from the freezer that was just unplugged. I will leave because I can’t stand the heat. I will walk to the shower and turn it on. the water will flow from the pipe, and warmed by the white sun, it will be almost too hot to bear. I will stand in the doorway and towel my hair, and by that time, the rest of me will be dry. I will return to my tukul, take the thermometer that is hanging by my plastic desk, and take a photograph of it. I will then post it here.
you feel the heat like a real thing, something you must push against when you open a door. in other places, it seems like it comes mostly from the top. here it comes from all sides. you leave the doorway, and it presses firmly on the back of your neck, moving you towards the ground, like it was scolding you. you walk past the metal gate, and it hits you like punch. you bend to pick up a cold box left in the sun, and touch the metal handles and get burned. all sides.
that is my final word on the heat. my tissues are soaked through. forgive me this digression, but now i can resume with other things. like my vision of last breaths, the telling is an exorcism. perhaps with it I will be able to stop thinking of the white shock of diving head first into icy mountain streams, or sitting on a surfboard at sunset swinging up and down with the swells, or the clear silence before the snowboard lands ten feet below into a white cushion of dry snow that stings your face in a million tiny points.
but I doubt it.