Love and longing in the Namibian veld

An American volunteer in Africa falls for the kindergarten teacher.

Getting Namibia into US newspapers is no easy task - unless you're talking Hollywood birthing tips. The fact that author Peter Orner does it with graceful writing, rather than by having paparazzi tossed in jail makes the feat all the more impressive.

Orner's debut novel, the fabulously titled The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, takes place in the early 1990s, just a few years after Namibia won its independence from South Africa. Larry Kaplanski, an American, has volunteered to teach at a Catholic boarding school in Goas, about two days' journey past the back of beyond. Larry, whose reasons for coming to Namibia are never explained, is a little alarmed at his desert surroundings: "These plants looked like they'd rather be dead."

His arrival isn't exactly celebrated. The head teacher, who never bothers to learn Larry's name, remarks, "Of course it would have been far more advantageous to our development ... had you placed cash in an envelope and, well, to be frank, mailed it!" Nor is this an inspirational tale about the miracles wrought by a caring teacher: Larry freely admits he's inept. His droning style seems modeled after Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Instead, in bite-sized chapters ranging from three paragraphs to three pages, Larry and his fellow teachers meditate on lack and isolation. They are particularly well situated for such discussions, and Orner spreads the wealth of well-turned phrases.

He even extends the largesse to the much-loathed principal, who likes to start every day with a homily. "The Namib was born of God's forgetting. He'd always meant to come back and put something here, but alas, he didn't. So it goes with this country."

Most of the best lines are divided between Obadiah, the history teacher, and Pohamba, Larry's next-door neighbor, who maintains a certain cheerful insouciance despite the privations: "Lowest population density of any country in the world, and I live in a two-and-a-half-by-four-meter room. Explain the incongruity."

The other main topic of conversation is "the beautiful and sleek and unsmiling and too good for us Mavala Shikongo." Mavala, who stalks across the sand in her high heels to her kindergarten class, is a former soldier who fought for Namibia's independence. She is also "the only single woman teacher to bless an all-boys boarding school so far in the veld even the baboons feel sorry for us."

Naturally, all the male teachers fall in love with her, especially Larry. (Mavala is generally unimpressed by her suitors, but decides that Larry beats loneliness, if not by a lot.)

Mavala's "second coming" is the subject of wonder and speculation at the school, since she returns after a month-long absence carrying a toddler whose parentage she proudly refuses to explain.

"The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" is full of powerful images, like the boys doing pull-ups on the school's massive cross, but the students themselves remain ciphers. At one point, one dies, and a reader has to pause to think, "Wait, have we met this one before?"

And Larry's and Mavala's trysts in the Boer graveyard tend to be less enthralling than, say, Obadiah discoursing on the Roman leader Cincinnatus or Noah and the Ark.

"You think he needed forty days and forty nights to drown every man and beast and creeping thing?" Obadiah comments. "He - how do you put it? - overdid it. He was irritated. Wouldn't you be? Five chapters in and already you've got to start again."

Orner has lived in Namibia, and the novel is filled with affection for that country's people. While the plot never strays far from Goas and the tale ultimately evaporates, the company is so genial that most readers won't mind being stuck in the desert.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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