More than just finding a cat

On February 7th, I found myself wandering my old home turf, my house and those of my neighbors, of just twelve days ago, shouting aimlessly into the bush for a cat that never may come. It was exhausting, this search.

My neighbors didn’t understand my multiple-visit (to this side of the village) quest to find my cat that they’d seen occasionally meandering around the kitchens near meal times. Their cats don’t have names. Mine did. And he was true to his name, Kalmataku, or “boy who is afraid” in the local language. I’d seen him three days previous on this same quest, and when I saw him, he positioned himself in flee mode, and when I stepped closer, he did just that.

Twelve days previous, I was in my old house, and despite leaving him outside the previous night, Kalmataku found his way inside through the rafters and greeted me in the morning with a silent yawn while laying atop my backpack. This was his usual routine. He followed me around the house hurriedly as I prepared my things, simply wanting to rub his face on my feet, even if he got an accidental kick in the cheek along the way. He didn’t know it was moving day.

When PC staff and neighbors showed up to help me move, he fled. As his name denotes, he is afraid of nearly every other person.

He fled and that afternoon, he surely came back home, only to find his house was empty, without my clothes bursting out of a suitcase for him to sleep on, without my voice to cheerfully greet him, without his small bowl of water to cool him down. It was just empty. Saturday, he surely came back home again, only to find a stranger, a different woman, a different voice, and a different smell in his home. And so he never returned.

My neighbors didn’t understand it. After day three of coming to visit my former home, they told me to just get a new cat. My neighbor Leisale said if I couldn’t find Kalmataku, she’d just give me her kitty. Her kitty was the cutest tiniest kitty and adorable in its infant explorer mode, but it wasn’t Kalmataku, a cat I raised, a cat that was part of my home.

The day before, I failed my quest yet again. And I got teary-eyed, and I cried at my friend Anita’s house. She asked what was wrong, or what prompted the tears. I told her it was about Kalmataku, but really, it wasn’t. It wasn’t about simply finding a cat. No, this isn’t a story about how I was never a pet person and magically became a pet person in the last few months with Juju and Kalmataku (even though that is true because animals here are low maintenance). No, this was about more than that.

This was about me settling into a home in a foreign country with a foreign culture with no family or friends for miles.

This was about me finding my place in a village, and building relationships with neighbors and their children.

This was about knowing the familiar sounds of the mamas yelling at their kids in language, and about hearing the familiar spitting noise from the papas who just drank kava and about hearing yungfala wandering the road at 3am, blaring the exact same song on repeat for an hour straight.

This was about being surrounded by a barbed wire fence covered in colorful bushes that ensured security and privacy with style.

This was about having space. This was about having space to sit on the floor with friends who came to visit, having a space for them to sleep over, having a space to watch a movie after a long day, having a space to roll out a yoga mat and do some stretching to reset my basic mental health.

This was about a rat problem that persisted for months, starting in June. This was about the village rallying together to get me a cat to solve the problem. This was about Loren’s unnamed white and orange kitty that she brought to my home in August.

This was about mental health. This was about having a tactile, warm, fuzzy thing that I could hold in my arms and made my day’s worries melt away.

It wasn’t about a cat. It was about a life I’d built in that home for six months at site, and for the last week, the daily process of walking all the way to the other end of the village to find Kalmataku was a constant reminder that I was uprooted from that familiarity and plopped onto school grounds.

It was a reminder that I wasn’t fully moved yet.

It was a reminder that I was leaving things behind.

It was a reminder that I could no longer lay in my hammock on my front veranda as I waited for a cake to bake in my very own bush kitchen.

It was a reminder that I could no longer dance without abandon in the middle of my living room while blasting JD McPherson.

It was a reminder that my months of digging up dirt, acquiring chicken wire, building a fence and planting seeds in my front yard garden was for nothing.

It was a reminder that I no longer would have work/life separation, and that I would no longer be able to “unplug” from school mentality on my walk home.

It was a reminder that Fabiola would no longer scream “LEIMARA!” to me across the fence with her scratchy, high-pitched, 4-year-old voice.

It was a reminder that the neighbor’s boys Timson and Samu would no longer ask me if they could collect navels that had fallen from the tree in my yard. It was a reminder that they would no longer ask to borrow my sharp bush knife to cut one open for me.

It was a reminder that I could no longer effortlessly wander to my neighbor Selena’s yard fifty feet away to watch her weave baskets on a Tuesday afternoon.

It was a reminder that I could no longer pop over to Anita’s house to use her pie pan for the pizza I was making.

It was a reminder that I would no longer see the parade of the neighbors’ children round up their bikes to go on a quest for kato on a Sunday afternoon.

It was a reminder that I could no longer walk fifty feet to my neighbor Innette’s house to get ice cream from her freezer if I had a sudden hankering.

I often do not find life here difficult. I don’t mind the isolation. But when things can get frustrating or village life can be a little too much, it is nice to know you have a home to call your own, a sanctuary, a peaceful place. I had found mine in my former house, and settled in over the last six months. I just started decorating. I built a shelf for my kitchen. I had finally identified which of my neighbors lived in which houses (this is more difficult than it sounds, trust me). It took six months.

Now the school year is three weeks in, and I am trying to get my first full school year off to a great start. But after just one week I’ve had to move houses (with a mere 24 hours notice), and I’ve been dealing with all the stress that comes with it. I’ve had to find new housewares to do basic things like eat (my former home had plates and cups). I’ve had to set up my indoor solar light system. I’ve had to unpack. I’ve had to hang things. I’ve had to install locks and mosquito nets. I’ve had to figure out how exactly I should be arranging my furniture to make the most of the much smaller quarters. And I have had to worry about my kitty wandering aimlessly in the bush on the opposite end of the village.

Before, in my former house, Kalmataku had a guaranteed safe place. He had a warm, sunny place on my veranda where he could sprawl out and relax. He had a safe place with food (if he couldn’t kill enough lizards, he could get some moldy beef jerky from me). He had a place where he could calmly sleep, away from screaming children with grabby hands or barking dogs with malicious intent. The longer he didn’t have that safe place, the more terrified of people he became, and the more he became a “bush cat.” The last time I’d seen him, he ran away. He no longer came to me upon my friendly beckoning. He was changing.

But tonight, after two hours of waiting around with Selena, I was called over to VV’s house. It was dark and also dinner time, so Kalmataku was wandering about. I coaxed Kalmataku out from behind the water tank with some ketchup and rice on a plate that Fabiola had handed to me. Once he started nibbling at the food, I grabbed Kalmataku and stuffed him in an empty rice sack and carried him to his new home at the school. He cried out and meowed the entire seven minute walk. He was terrified of me, and of his mode of transportation, and of his new home. Once I locked him in the house and opened the rice bag, he immediately hid behind a box. I left out some food and returned later, talking to him in a calm voice. Finally, after about two hours, he was back to normal again. He rubbed his face on my foot and he calmly purred.

He was in familiar territory, and I was too.

Seeing Kalmataku sitting calmly in his new home made my heart swell. 


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