Rowan Johnson holds a doctorate from the University of Tennessee as well as an MA from the University of Nottingham, England. His work has been published in Two Thirds North, 4ink7, Passing Through Journal, Wordriver Literary Review, GFT Press, and the Writers’ Abroad Foreign Encounters Anthology. He has also written numerous travel articles for SEOUL Magazine.
His name was Noel Chinkwende. He was a friend, the child of a Malawian diplomat. He would come to school in a black limousine, with a driver who wore a real black chauffeur’s hat with a deep visor. Every day, when Noel entered the classroom, he would always bow. His blue schoolboy cap was too tight for his huge head, so when he bowed, his tie would flail in front of him and it sometimes looked as if he was going to topple over from the weight of his head. The teachers would say, Noel, stop bowing, you don’t need to do that. But still, Noel would always bow. He would just smile at them and say, “It’s OK. No need to worry.”
He would invite me over to play soccer and tennis. His house was a sprawling colonial mansion, with bright bougainvilleas and lush, green leafy trees. Incongruously, rusty rakes and spades often seemed to be strewn all over the expansive lawn. His parents were there, always, reading the paper and watching the news. His father, a portly, jovial man, spoke good English. His mother only spoke Chichewa, and although she often wore elaborate rich royal green and yellow dresses, she still looked like an African maid, with her doek and her bare feet.
One day, when I went to the mansion, we sat in the dark dining room, drinking milky tea. The room smelled of rich ivory. Draped over the table was a black, red and green flag with a red rising sun. “Do you want to plant a tree? Let’s go outside and dig a big hole in the ground,” Noel said. So we finished the tea and went out to dig the hole.
His mother, barefoot, wearing her royal garb and her doek, soon came out and joined us. She raised her rusty spade and dug it down deep into the soft, black, loamy soil. She raised it again and turned over some more soil. On her third attempt, Noel and I watched as the spade dug a deep gash into her left leg. His mother yelled out when she first saw the cut, but she just kept digging as her deep red blood spilled into the soil. She did not look at us. Noel just smiled at me and said, “It’s OK. No need to worry.” So I didn’t. We finished digging that deep hole and planted the tree.
One month later, in biology class we learned about bacteria and tetanus. The teacher showed us some scary pictures of emaciated patients in hospital beds, and he warned us to be careful when using rusty tools.
Later that day, the headmaster called a school assembly in the chapel and told us all what had happened. Noel and his family are going back home to Malawi. His mom is dying. Let us all pray for her.
When I turned to look for Noel, he was nowhere to be seen. But some years later, I often imagined him leaving the chapel and bowing ever so slightly at the door, just like an awkward baby elephant drinking deeply from the waters of Lake Malawi.