commute: /kəˈmjuːt/ verb & noun. LME.
[ORIGIN Latin commutare change wholly, exchange, formed as COM- + mutare change.]
A verb. 1 verb trans. Change (into); exchange, substitute, (for); interchange (two things). LME. …
5 verb intrans. Buy and use a commutation ticket (US); travel by public or private conveyance between one’s home and one’s place of work; travel between regularly or frequently. (Earlier in COMMUTER.) L19.
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Sixth Edition, Volume 1 A-M. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 467.
The mornings were getting darker, and colder, as Botswana edged into its desert winter. The day was still dawning in tentative greys and pastels as I finished ironing my officewear and got dressed. By the time the sun had crept over the horizon, I had finished my breakfast, and was nearly ready for the commute to work at my government office in Gaborone, the capital.
Lorato arrived as I was closing up the house and locking the burglar gate, her blue school sweater pulled over a blue school dress, blue socks pulled up for their scant warmth. She greeted me, complaining of the cold, clutching two freshly-boiled eggs wrapped together in tinfoil to keep her hands warm against the wintry morning.
We piled into my Corolla, bleary with the early hour. I turned the key absent-mindedly, and the engine stuttered, then failed. It was odd: the car had never struggled to start before. I tried again. The engine revved with a shrill rasp, then nothing. Lorato looked askance at the ignition.
“Cold this morning,” she offered. I muttered, and turned the key again. This time it took, the engine grumbling into life and settling into a reluctant idle.
Lorato turned the heater on full-blast as I reversed down the narrow, stony drive from the one-room house I rented at the edge of the village. It met the dirt road at a corner, and I continued backing up round the corner, pulling under the tree that stood outside my neighbour’s fence. As we waited for her to join us, I fiddled with the fitful, erratic radio. I’d purchased a new one, but it was still in its box in the trunk, some jangling bags of glass recycling. Usually the old radio could pick up at least one station from over the nearby South African border. On that morning, the numbers spun as it scanned fruitlessly, until it landed and locked on 66.6. There was nothing but crackling static. The radio had never picked up a signal at that frequency before. With a sense of foreboding, I hit SCAN again, and it spun through the entire bandwidth before landing on 66.6 a second time.
“See that?” I asked Lorato.
“It’s still not working?” she responded.
“Ya, but 666? Does that number mean anything to you?” I added. She shrugged. And then my neighbour was slipping into the seat behind me, with her morning greetings and exclamations about the sharp morning cold.
I turned off the radio, and we bumped and wove our way along the dusty, rust-coloured roads of the village. The sun cut low through the skeletal trees between the houses, and the cold gave everything a sharp, clear edge. We reached the highway and clambered up over the eroded tar of its shoulder, nosing across to the bus stop to see if anyone else needed a lift into the city.
A polite Zimbabwean man reached us first, and then we found my other neighbour, a mechanic, wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat for a rare trip into town. They squeezed in together along the backseat, greeting us and one another, before settling into a comfortable silence. The mechanic left us a little later at the turning to the district’s main village, and we slipped into the long, slow-moving lane of cars that emanated from that junction and clogged the road all the way to the capital.
Drivers often got impatient with the wait on the narrow, two-lane highway. One in a small white Toyota saw an opening and came rushing up from several cars behind us. I winced as he raced by, certain he hadn’t seen a burgundy sedan coming at him from the other direction. Perhaps he had, but he kept going, forcing the sedan off the edge of the tar and into the gravel beside it.
The white car shouldered its way back into traffic, and I watched the sedan warily as it swerved and weaved in the gravel across the road, not far in front of us. The driver wrenched it back over the uneven shoulder and on to the tar. Then it spun out of control, and then it was broadside in front of us, and then darkness.
At first there was only the smell of rubber and iron, or blood. I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to move.
Before I could open my eyes, I was reaching for the seatbelt buckle, but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I realised I was jammed up against the steering wheel, my seat lifted right off its tracks from behind. But there was wiggle room; I reached back farther, found the buckle, undid it. I tried the door, but no use – it was crushed shut from the front.
Looking across to the passenger side, fear built as I remembered the others in the car. But now there was no-one, glass in the seat, the passenger door open. I dragged myself across the seats and pulled myself out that way. Once I had extracted myself, I could see we had been thrown down a grassy embankment – or spun, rather. The car was now facing back up towards the road, along which a long line of cars and buses had pulled up. The burgundy sedan was still up on the road, its front left side smashed in. People were shouting, gorileng, what happened, and I shouted back to no-one in particular and everyone in general, I don’t know what happened, quit asking stupid questions, call an ambulance. Then there was a voice from the backseat saying, apologetic, “I would call but I can’t reach my phone!” It was my neighbour, lying sideways along the back seat, unable to move. Most car passengers in Botswana didn’t wear seatbelts, and she had been thrown into my seat.
Then I whirled around, looking for Lorato, who was not in the car, not next to it, and not anywhere nearby. The Zimbabwean man was sitting in the grass a few yards away, holding a balled-up shirt to his closely-shaven head, streaks of blood on his face. But no, someone was holding the shirt there for him, showing him how to hold it; helping him stand up, directing him up to the edge of the road. A white man, maybe middle-aged, with sandy hair; I wondered where he’d come from. Suddenly he was in front of me, speaking calmly and clearly, though I was scrambling to understand him.
“The young woman is by the road,” he began. “She is okay. Do you have any valuables in the car?”
I balked. “We need an ambulance,” I spluttered, turning to my neighbour.
“I’ve called an ambulance,” he said, calm and even, “they’re coming, don’t worry. If you have any valuables in the car, you should take them out. I’ve made a little pile of personal possessions there by your friend. There was a small black bag…”
Slowly my brain got hold of what he was saying. How did my bag end up outside of the car? I fought the confusion back, tried to be methodical, matter-of-fact. There was the radio in the trunk, it didn’t matter. It would be in a pile of smashed glass recycling. My brain was blank. I decided to check, not trusting myself to remember. Coins in the drink holder; somehow the metal ashtray which was embedded below the emergency brake, facing the back seat, had flown out, and forward, and was in the drink holder too. It didn’t matter. Nothing in the glove compartment that mattered. I noticed the radiating shatter in the windscreen over the driver’s side and wondered what had caused it. There was the smell of burning metal. And two tinfoil-wrapped eggs, sitting neatly in the passenger’s seat. I opened the foil and found their shells unbroken.
I came back out of the car, and the man was putting my neighbour’s phone in her hand, having searched it out in the back, telling her the ambulance was coming. “It’s cold,” he said, “wear this,” and he gave me a dark blue sweater with a hornbill embroidered over the heart. I noticed a strange stiffness between my shoulder blades as I pulled it on. “Do you have everything?” he asked, guiding me up to the roadside before I could confuse myself trying to answer.
Lorato lay in the gravel of the shoulder, her hand under her head and her arm propping her up in a shock recovery position. Her eyes were wide open and she had glass in her hair. She was very, very still. There were great rough red patches on her cheeks, abrasions from the air bag. Next to her was my small black bag. I asked her if she was ok, but she did not speak. There was a blankness and distance in her eyes, like something in retreat.
The police arrived first, dispatched from the roadblock up the highway. One policeman insisted I come with him to fill out forms; the man who had helped said he would stay with Lorato and wait for the ambulance. The forms were green. I couldn’t bring the questions into focus. The policeman told me just to write my name and contact details anywhere. My hand shook; I tried to steady it against the hood of the police car, but I couldn’t form the letters properly. As I stooped, I felt the stiffness spread up my neck, down my spine. My address eluded me. Then there were tow trucks, already, out by the car. I asked whether they didn’t need permission; the policeman said not to worry. The ambulances arrived last.
By the time I had returned from form-filling, my neighbour was safely in one ambulance, and Lorato was in the other. The polite Zimbabwean man had disappeared; when I looked for him, the man who had helped gave me a quiet look, and I understood. I opted for the ambulance Lorato was in, destined for Princess Marina, the general hospital in the capital. The driver asked about injuries, and I said I was fine, then remembered my stiffening neck. He apologised for a lack of neck braces in the vehicle, and advised me to hold my head straight against the wall. The man who had helped asked if I was sure I didn’t want to be taken to the private hospital; I insisted I was fine, and explained my first responsibility was to Lorato and her family. He nodded, and wished me well, making to leave.
“Wait!” I stopped him, and then didn’t know what I had stopped him for. “How will I get your sweater back to you?” I asked, improvising.
He fished around in a pocket, and brought out a business card.
I blinked. “We have the same surname,” I said, with a little laugh of disbelief. “Spelled differently,” I added. His card listed his as ‘Rhys’, in the Welsh spelling. “Mine is R-E-E-C-E,” I noted. He smiled and shrugged a little, as if encountering someone with such a similar, rare surname at a car accident in Botswana was a fairly normal occurrence. And then he was gone.
After the adrenaline faded, the whiplash set in properly. For weeks, I found it difficult to lift myself upright, to sit or stand, or to lie down. I could just about find ease when propped at a low angle against a pillow. A seatbelt-shaped bruise ran at black and purple angles across my torso and hips. I had a steady stream of unexpected visitors: Lorato – who recovered quickly after the initial shock – and her family, neighbours I had seldom met, the family of friends from nearby towns and villages, arriving unannounced and setting about immediately to sweep the house, take out the garbage, make lunch, and keep me company with stories of their own.
A neighbour came to report that two other people we knew in the village had had car accidents within a week of mine – one had hit a donkey. They were both fine, but people had been connecting the dots. Certain figures we knew in common who might have reason to wish us all harm were soon rumoured to have been seen visiting witch doctors in the next district. A colleague from Social Services, where I worked at the time, nodded knowingly when I told her this, and insisted that I had been protected by Jesus because I worked with orphans. I had been a long-time atheist and a natural skeptic; but suddenly all of these explanations seemed not only possible, but as likely as any other explanation. I found myself accepting them all matter-of-factly, unquestioning, like the place-names of a new country.
One day, a woman I had worked with in the village dropped in to check on me. I was propped on a large pillow out on the stoop, basking in the pale winter sun. She found herself a chair and made herself comfortable, bringing updates and gossip, and finally asking about the accident. I told her the whole story, including the uncanny appearance of the man who had helped us, and our strangely similar surnames.
She nodded as I finished the tale. “Badimo ba teng,” she said, tipping her head to watch my response.
I looked at her a moment, unsure whether I’d heard what I thought I’d heard. The ancestors are there. The hackles on the back of my neck stood up, and then calmed; I felt an odd warmth in the back of my skull. I blinked. She gave me a knowing smile, like a teacher waiting patiently for a slow student to grasp a simple lesson.
Tentatively, I ventured, “I’ve been thinking about going home to Canada for a bit. Not for long.”
She nodded again. “To give thanks,” she said, as if completing my sentence.
“Yes,” I said, feeling like I’d just been reminded of something long forgotten.
After some time had passed, and I had begun to recover, I emailed the address on the business card I had been given by the man who helped us, so I could give back his sweater. I received no response.
Some time later, I sought out the physical address on the card in Gaborone’s rapidly growing Commerce Park. Unusually, I couldn’t find it. I started to think of other ways to find him – Gaborone was still a small, densely interconnected city. But then I felt a strange reluctance, like perhaps it was a search best left alone.
The sweater sat neatly folded, with the business card on top, in the back of my wooden wardrobe in the village. It moved with me when I relocated to a larger house in another neighbourhood; and, a couple of years later, it moved home with me on my return to Canada. The sweater remains in the wardrobe of my childhood bedroom to this day, its embroidered hornbill a talisman for what lies beyond knowing.
Koreen Reece is Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Bayreuth and a member of the editorial collective of OtherwiseMag. She conducts research in Botswana on families and the ways in which they manage -- and create -- change in contexts of crisis, specifically HIV and AIDS and the raft of governmental and non-governmental interventions launched in response. Koreen is also an experienced editor with a background in English Literature, who delights in a well-turned phrase and a well-told story.