Like Laughter

Story

This time last year, I moved in with a family in quiet Okahenge, Namibia. I arrived comically; dragging a set of rolling luggage meant for airports through half a foot of shifting sand. Snowshoes would have been more effective than my brown sandals which slid around and gave me the appearance of a newborn calf with unsure legs. I could only laugh at myself and trudge onward.

Most of my host family was inauspiciously absent at my arrival. But, Tatekulu–Grandfather–was found in the center of the homestead. In that structure, there were two plastic lawn chairs and a daybed. Tatekulu sat in one of the chairs and his radio sat in the other. I lowered to one knee as my language trainer had told me to do ahead of time. We clasped hands and I placed my left hand under my right elbow, bowing my head. He thanked me for nothing and everything, and he called me “my son.”

Tatekulu‘s homestead housed a minimum of seven on any given evening. This number fluctuated depending on the day. For example, ambiguously related children came for dinner but slept elsewhere. One such boy, Paulus, who is named after Tatekulu, lived in the nearest homestead with a cousin. Paulus has excellent English–much better than my Kwanyama–so I didn’t mind when he smoothly redirected our conversations from Kwanyama into English.

Charismatic Paulus was also insistent that we run together. Boasting a well regulated schedule of running every day at sunset, he often invited me to join him. Finally, I acquiesced and met him for a run at dusk. We were also joined by another Peace Corps volunteer, her host sisters, and a couple of the ambiguously related children.

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Standing together in our running gear, the normally chatty children were suddenly timid. It was unclear who the leader should be, and we all walked briskly until finally my fellow volunteer and I began to run. Immediately, our entourage followed suit. In the next moment, they began to giggle. One by one, through joy or absurdity or wonder laughter overcame the group. Adopted, foreign, dark-skinned, light-skinned, freckled, albino, male, female, from across oceans, mountains, deserts, young, and very young; we were an impossible union. So, we laughed. And, we ran.

The sun crept lower, and calf muscles strained. As we rounded a corner, a group of small boys spotted our motley troupe and pointed toward us. They began to laugh. Accustomed to being the peculiar outsider, I ignored it at first. Even so, it didn’t feel the same as our self-aware joyful laughter. Then Paulus and the other children raised their fingers, pointing at the small boys. And, they laughed. We joyfully burst into laughter, pointing and laughing at the ones who pointed and laughed at us. They laughed at our laughter–heads tilted backward toward the sky. The moment was infectious. What at first felt like ridicule transformed into mutual recognition. Our impossible existence in the same space was strange but wonderful, like a smile that bursts–like laughter.

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