When I was about 5 years old I asked my mom when color started. When did color do what, I can hear her say now. I was confused. It was the rectangular collage picture frame that hung in the hallway by the blue bathroom. All the pictures in the frame were black and white. Old, still, stale faces just staring at the camera like it was a steel wall.
These photographs were nothing like the others in the rest of the house. One of my favorites was of our deep red Datsun station wagon. It was parked in the summer grass. Budweiser beer cans dangled on fishing line from the rear bumper and a “Lordy Lordy Look Who’s Forty!” poster flooded the rear view window. Mom and her girl friend were all giggly holding margaritas, while all of us freckled face kids did our silly pose. I was in a half-squat and flexed my muscles like I was He-man. I was shirtless and wore only a pair of blue Umbro shorts and Cowboy boots. That framed photo sat on top of our piano in the living room for many years.
I wondered what planet those other bleak beings came from in the black and white pictures by the blue bathroom. (Our house had two bathrooms; the other was the green bathroom.) It was an honest question. At what point did the Good Lord decide people needed some color in their life? I don’t recall how mom actually responded at the time. I’ve asked her since, but she has absolutely no recollection of this happening, which is troubling as this is my earliest memory. I’ve tried, really tried, really squinted my brain to pop out something earlier and, even, slightly more profound, but to no avail.
A few other shining moments stick out from my childhood. When I was about 6 dad took us up to the farm. It was sticky hot and the sun’s reflection on the dusty roads made everything seem like it was bright yellow except for the red barn that would burn your skin if you rubbed up against it the wrong way. Dad had a few horses, but my sister and I were too small for them. He got us ponies.
I had no idea how to ride, but dad had that sink or swim philosophy with learning just about anything. The pony smelled like wet hay, horse manure and inevitable embarrassment. Dad threw me up on the saddle and tightened the straps hard, like that would ensure my safety. He slapped that pony’s rear end and we were off. Pull the reins, Brad, pull the reins, dad yelled, but it didn’t matter; we weren’t listening. Little pony sprinted and leaped like the ground was a hot potato. I cried for him to stop, but I think that only made it worse. After a while, little pony finally tired out and trotted to the water trough. Dad had to walk over and get me down from the saddle. That was my first and last ride that day. My sister was good at riding, of course, and she caught the biggest catfish in the pond on that trip. There’s a photo of that, too, somewhere in the house.
When I was 7 or 8 dad got me my first pocketknife. It was one of those Swiss Army knives that had way too many gadgets. It took me all of about 45 seconds to cut myself the first time. It was my right thumb. I was trying to get a hang of opening and closing the main blade. The cut was deep and crimson and the blood tasted like aluminum. Dad cleaned and bandaged it and took back the knife.
You have to be real careful, Brad, he said. He was angry. I just shook my head yes, apologized and then cried.
The next day must have been April Fool’s, because dad gave it back to me and then said, now, Brad, be real careful. I ended up cutting my other thumb. I don’t know how it happened. This time the blood was milky, wet and running. Dad was on the phone. I tried to bandage the new wound and take off the other, thinking he wouldn’t notice I actually now had two cuts. That didn’t go as well as planned. Guilt-ridden red smeared our blue bathroom. By the end of the day, I had two thumbs swollen with Band-Aids and dad took the new Swiss Army knife again, for good.
From then until my teenage years, most of my memories revolve around basketball, bike riding, long summers in the North Carolina sun and baseball cards. I was a Spurs fan: David Robinson, Sean Elliot, Terry Cummings. I preferred Topps over Fleer cards and rode a red 18-gear Huffy.
When I was fourteen, I affirmed I no longer ate grits. It was Saturday morning and mom made cinnamon rolls, scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits. Mom and dad were divorced by then, but dad was in town visiting. He stayed at the local Motel 6. They had to just about drag me out of bed.
“What do you mean you don’t eat grits?” Dad tried to understand. He’s from southern Alabama.
What I meant was I listen to Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine. You, dad, eat grits, I don’t. They’re too plain. “I don’t know,” I said, lacking any speck of conviction, “like, they just don’t taste good.”
Dad stared at me like I just spat in his coffee. “Well, that’s just strange. I don’t know any Philens who don’t eat grits.”
Mom tried to be supportive. “Oh, Don, so what?” She might have still just been bitter with dad, but she didn’t make me eat grits.
Eight years later, at twenty-two, I ate millet porridge, a close cousin to grits, every day. I was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in northern Namibia. Okamukwa had one community water pump, but no electricity just yet. We were about ten kilometers from the tar road and the savannah landscape was flat and staggered by mopane and acacia trees. Sorghum, millet, and maize stalks soared in February and March before the harvest time that sustained the village for the rest of the year. I taught English at a local school and lived with the Stefanus family at their homestead (egumbo). Tate Mundjego was my father and Meme Mndakola was my mother.
After school I either fetched water – a chore typically reserved for girls – or I visited the nearby water holes (oshanas) to look after the cattle (a chore typically reserved for small boys). If I took to the latter, I’d go with my little brother Nampala. He was only six years old, but he was the boss. He knew the quickest routes to the oshanas and knew where to find the best shade spots and the emba trees with the sweet, succulent berries. Nampala could make a sling shot and kill three birds in one afternoon.
I spent most of my time at the egumbo with my little sister Today, who was Mundjego’s and Mndakola’s granddaughter. Today’s mother lived and worked down south in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. Today was a fifth grader and spoke the most English in the village. She was my translator when communicating in Oshiwambo got a little fuzzy.
Today was funny and fiery. One day I was helping to sow the fields and Today started laughing at me. This wasn’t necessarily abnormal. I looked and acted differently. The soles of my feet and the palms of my hands were soft. I was often the center of attention. And laughter.
“What’s so funny?” I said. I was wearing shorts and a tank top.
“Why is your stomach so big, but your legs are so skinny?” Her laughter exploded through the bush paths and clear sky peppered with chirping birds.
I tried to tell her it was the porridge. “All the empty carbs,” I said.
She had no idea what that meant. She laughed and ran through the fields yelling oshilumbu wetu oku hole lya unene (our white boy likes to eats too much).
Most of my Okamukwa memories have morphed and mutated. There are embellishments and then diminishments of the past and my time there. I’ll never forget the celestial enormity of the physical place. During the day, the stoic, blue sky, the piercing sun and the crushing heat. At night, stars streaking across the panoramic ceiling, like God was firing marbles. A far off jackal warning the night. A rooster’s crow starting the day. In November and December, armies of rain ambushing the soft soil. I’ll never forget the cozy simplicity of our egumbo. Strong wooden stakes marking the inner and outer walls. Wild violets and bougainvillea lining the footways. Cemented and mud huts thatched with dried grass and millet stalks. The sand floor cooling my toes in the early morning and pinching my heels in the heat of the day. The smell of burning wood from the elugo (outside cooking area). Goat meat sizzling on the braai (everyone sat, anxious and quiet, for Tate to pull the first piece so we could then take ours). Passing cups of late afternoon entaku, sorghum wine, with Tate, as he rolled a cigarette. The pleasant crackling of kindling in the nighttime fire. I remember faces. I can’t imagine anyone looks differently now. Nampala will always be the six-year old boy who showed me how to herd the cattle into the kraal and how to take milk from a cow’s udder. Today will always be the skinny fifth grader I taught how to use the term “knucklehead.” I can still see her holding up her fist, “are you knucklehead? My dear, I’ll show you,” she says and then laughs. I taught her well.
One day Meme asked if I wanted a puppy. Neighbors at the next homestead had a slew of puppies to give away. I had told Meme much about back home in North Carolina, and pets were certainly a significant part of my meaning of home. I had photos that I shared with her. In Okamukwa, our egumbo had a few dogs, but they weren’t quite like my pets back home. They were more so farm animals than pets. They weren’t like our Irish Setter Brandy, or Jake, a mutt with a little pit-bull in him, or Cinnamon, a Cocker Spaniel. Meme’s gesture was sweet. I said yes.
The next day, Today brought me a small pup, only a few weeks old. She slung it around in one hand like it was a football. The puppy was all white with a small black spot on the top of his head. I thought he was too young to be taken from his mother. I fed him milk from a plastic syringe. At night, he slept in a cardboard box until his yelping made me plant him on my chest. Each night went like this until he was a few months older. Then, he slept outside on my doorstep.
Chevy was a good puppy. Meme pronounced his name “Shever”. I had him about three or so months when one day I came home from work and Today told me the bad news.
“Your dog has the rabies,” she said.
I looked at Chevy. He was at my feet, wagging his tail and showing off his tongue. “He looks all right to me,” I said.
“But he has the rabies,” Today said and then she scampered to the small hut at the front of the egumbo to continue pounding millet.
I didn’t get it. Chevy was happy, not rabid. The next few weeks were the same. I’d come home from work, and Today would tell me, in some shape or form, every other day or so, that Chevy was fatally ill. It was always the rabies.
“Yes, I can see it,” she’d say. “I know. Your dog has it. The rabies.”
There was never an ultimatum or a solution, however. No, you should take him to the town vet or he’s going to really be sick. I’m not sure what I expected. They were just the facts. Chevy is too-too sick, Today said. He still looked the same to me. He wagged his tail and sat when I said kuutumba.
Six or so months after I got Chevy I began playing djembe for a local youth dance group. It required me to make weekend trips to local and far away towns and villages. We performed as far south as Windhoek.
On one particular Sunday afternoon I returned to Okamukwa from a performance in Ondangwa. The egumbo felt deserted, but that wasn’t unusual for a Sunday. Meme walked to church with the kids. Tate drank entaku and ombike, a local whiskey, with his friends. I didn’t find Chevy, but I was exhausted. I took a nap and woke to Today knocking on my hut door.
“Mister Brad,” she said. “You are here?”
“Sort of,” I said, still groggy.
“Sort of? What is sort of?”
“Sort of. It means, like, kinda.”
“Oh,” Today said and then she spoke in Oshiwambo. Meme went to church and Tate is at a neighbor’s house. The kids are playing in the field.
I came out of the hut. Outside, it felt like the day was yawning, ready for the heat to subside and for night to finally fall.
“It’s your dog. You know he had the rabies.”
“Had the rabies?”
“Yes,” Today said. “He had. He’s died now.”
“We tell you already.”
“Who told me what?”
“Right when you left yesterday he went crazy like the rabies. Tate had to make it sleep sleep.”
It took several retells before I believed her. Today had gotten very good at fooling around. I taught her well, but she wasn’t lying. Chevy died, but it wasn’t from the rabies.
Later that evening, Tate came to my hut before dinnertime. He spoke thirteen languages, but he didn’t really count English as one of them. During Apartheid he worked in one of the gold mines in South Africa for over twenty years. He spoke Oshiwambo, Ovaherero, Afrikans, German, Portuguese, Lozi, Zulu, Tswana, Xhosa…Tate knew bits and pieces of English. When Tate and I didn’t communicate in Oshiwambo, he’d try his English. That night Meme sent Tate to break the news.
“Your dog,” Tate said. “He eat chicken egg too much.”
“Chevy ate the chicken eggs?”
“Too much. But we want the egg.”
I finally got it. Chevy’s status as a pet was dependent on how he followed the rules of the homestead. A dog that eats chicken eggs is never safe. Tate was kind. He said sorry several times. We spoke in Oshiwambo. He said Meme didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Thus, the rabies.
I had a hunch of what was to come next. It was dinnertime.
“Can you still eat,” Tate finally said in Oshiwambo.
“Is it good to eat?”
“The meat of the dog is very tender.”
“I like the meat of the dog. You will come to eat, right?”
I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I was there at dinner. I took a few bites, but then just settled on the porridge.
I guess memories are like anything else: you just try to make the most of them. The good, the bad and the ugly. I still don’t like riding horses (certainly not ponies), but I chuckle every time I think about that little pony bouncing me around every which way. Now, I’m extra careful with any type of knife, or sharp object for that matter, but I still cut myself and wear Band-Aids a little ashamedly. Me and Dad, we’re all good now. I make it a point to eat grits every chance I get, but I smother them with pepper and hot sauce. Gladly, Chevy was the first and last pet I ever ate. Who knows why I thought life before the 1950s was only black and white or perhaps sepia, but if someone is taking my picture, I’m posing so the future knows I lived a life full of color.