Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
The Fireflies of Kalai
   by Christine Taylor (Namibia 1999–2000)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

AS I ROUND THE DUSTY CORNER near my house in Rundu, the ground rumbles. Low, dull noisePrinter friendly version like tumbling rocks comes from the direction of the Okavango River. I halt and look down the street. The air, already gray, holds puffs of black smoke. I think I hear a woman screaming.
     It’s coming.
     I take off running. Blasts from near the river buzz in my ear. The toe of my sneaker catches the edge of a pothole. The sound of a sharp round of fire whistles through the air. I fall. I think I’m hit. The road is rocky and sandy. I crawl in the gravel. I realize that I’m still in one piece. I get up. I cover my head. I run like hell.
     I reach the gate to my family’s compound just as the white van with the red and blue “Peace Corps” emblem hangs the corner. I ignore the van, and run through my gate.
     “Get in the car!” Jim, our regional director, says.
I run into my room and grab the purple box of Whiskas from my storage locker. I’m emptying the entire box into Nia’s, my cat’s, bowl when Jim flies in the door.
     “We’ve gotta get outta here!”
     My hand starts to shake, and a few nuggets of cat food bounce onto the floor. I look up at Jim. “I have to feed the animals,” I say.
     I told my family who are away on December holiday that I would feed their ducks and rabbits.
     I have promised.
     A thundering rumble from cannonfire shakes the ground again.
     “Fine,” Jim says and throws his hands up in the air. He pushes his dirty blond hair off his forehead. I grab my emergency bag — which I thought I’d never need — and run to the front of the compound. Jim is close behind when I stop and fall to my knees in the sand. He trips over me.
     “What?” he says, his eyes wide.
     “The dogs,” I say and point. I’ve been chased in the street by the neighbor’s dogs before, barely scrambling over the fence in time to save my limbs. Now these two strange mutt-combinations of broad heads, clenched jaws, and long legs rippled with muscles growl as they approach.
     “So what!” Jim says and jumps to his feet. He throws sand in the dogs’ eyes blinding them like mace. They yelp and cry. Jim clubs them with a stray tool from the yard. They run back next door.
I’m still kneeling in the sand.
     I watch Jim run to the front of the compound and dump seeds, pellets, and water into bowls and onto the floor of the animals’ pen.
     I’m still kneeling in the sand.
     Jim pulls me to my feet. He wobbles. His footing is off-balance on the shifting ground. The air has turned blacker with smoke. My eyes begin to burn. My vision blurs. Jim is dragging me to the car.
     “Just get in the car!” Jim shoves me in the door, and I fall in next to my friend Aimee. He has already picked her up from Kaisosi, her village just outside Rundu. I put my hand on the window.
     “She’ll be alright,” Aimee says, laying her hand on my knee.
     Jim nails the accelerator, and sand is kicked up behind the van. As he peels off, I keep looking out the window for a little black ball of fur running across the sand or hiding in a tree. I never see her. I only see the clouds of smoke coming from the river. I pray that my boyfriend Masatih, one of the town’s AIDS prevention workers, has stayed in his little hut on the other end of town. That he hasn’t gone out to distribute condoms to local villagers. That he hasn’t ventured out to buy dried fish from the market. That he doesn’t walk to my house. As the Angolan civil war spills over Namibia’s borders from the town Kalai I try to think of Nia tussling with a lizard, tossing it between her front paws. This will make me smile.

EARLIER THAT YEAR, Jose dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) — the ruling political party — declares yet another insurgence of the quarter-century civil war. This time, the MPLA vows to capture all the political strongholds of the opposing force, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), for refusing to uphold their part of the 1994 Peace Treaty. As the war moves closer to the southern end of Angola, thousands of refugees flood into northern Namibia from Angolan towns such as Muhopi and Kalai near the Okavango River border. They settle into a camp called Kasava on the outskirts of Rundu. From here, the refugees are transported to Osire, a larger refugee camp near the capital, Windhoek. By Christmas 1999, Osire bursts with 5,000 Angolan refugees. It has been built for 2,000.

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