“Tú estás una bruja.” Lazarus said. You are a witch.
We were sitting in his kitchen while he made coffee. I had been talking about my impressions of Havana, learning words and explanations for the things that I saw and felt in this magical city. I’d just said that this was a city where even the trees spoke to you.
“¿Es verdad? Really?” There was sharpness in my tone. Lazarus was the second person in as many days who had called me that, and I wanted to know why.
“Yes, you have power that other people don’t. But you know this,” he replied.
I thought back to yesterday, to the padrino who I’d gone to see. The padrino consulted with the oracle, and talked to me about the Orishas, the gods who watched out for people and whom we needed to heed.
The padrino had called me a witch too. He’d asked me who my Orisha was. Santeria wasn’t my way – I didn’t even know the names of all the spirits, let alone which one was supposed to be protecting me. I told him that I’d been speaking to La Madre del Mar, the Mother of the Sea. He narrowed his eyes and said, no that’s not her, and you know this, don’t try and trick me.
I was surprised at his response, and still couldn’t figure it out. Lazarus calling me a witch brought up the feelings of unease again.
“Yesterday, the padrino called me a witch too,” I told Lazarus.
Lazarus burst out laughing. “Why? What did you do to him?”
“I didn’t do anything. He asked me who my protector was, and I didn’t know. But when he told me it was Oshun, I told him it all made sense,” I said, feeling left out of some inside joke.
Oshun is the mother of sweet water, the one who rules the lakes and rivers. It made sense because water had always symbolically figured in my life.
After I was born, on the fortieth day, I was taken to the Nile, my foot symbolically dipped into the river for protection and guidance. My people took their newborns to the water in a ritual passed down from the times of the Pharaohs; a ritual centuries of colonialism and occupation only diluted, but couldn’t wash away. Of course Oshun watched out for me, I had belonged to her from then.
Lazarus stared at me. “Did you tell the padrino that?”
“Yes. He told me I needed to go back there and make Oshun an offering at my birthplace. That’s not possible.”
O, I thought, what I would give to go back to Khartoum, and the Nile! Obviously, I didn’t remember my river baptism, but I knew the place where it had happened. As a child, all our family outings were to the banks of the Nile, unless there had been a flood and the crocodiles were washed upstream.
Lazy days spent swimming in the river, running through the forest that reached all the way to the water. The last time I had gone back, most of the forest was gone, smoothed over for Libyan-funded condo developments with panoramic views of the river as it glistened through the city. I cried silently at the loss of childhood locales as the driver took us around the new neighbourhoods, all the while chattering to us excitedly about the development and expansion that had come at the price of beauty and nature. The whole city had become new and garish, oil money pouring into real estate and commercial enterprises.
Havana, with its bougainvillea and Russian cars and colonial European architecture reminded me of Khartoum of the eighties, before all the destruction in the name of progress had happened. The social life that took place in the street, the old men killing time in front of stores, even the stray dogs who had their own city going on. Substitute the Spanish for Arabic, and the salsa for Afro jazz, and I could have been back home.
Lazarus passed me a small mug with hot, sweet, strong coffee. He drank his in one gulp, as I waited for mine to cool down so I could sip it.
“So, are you going to make Oshun an offering?” he asked me.
“It’s not my way. But I’ll know what I need to do,” I replied.
Lazarus laughed again. “See, that’s why you get called a bruja. Because you don’t need to be taught the ways in order to do what needs to be done. It’s not a bad thing. But you do have to be careful.”
We sat there silently, listening to the sounds of the street. Lazarus poured himself more coffee. My chest hurt with the ache of longing for home.
“What are you going to do now?” his question brought me back.
“I don’t really know,” I shrugged. “I guess I’ll ask the ancestors.”
“That’s good. But I meant right now,” Lazarus said, amused.
“Oh, sorry. I think I’m just going to back to the house. It’s late and I’m tired and I’ve got a lot on my mind,” I needed to dream on the conversation, see what came out of it.
“I’ll walk you back,” he said.
And we walked down the dusty streets, each step reminding me that no matter how similar this city was to mine, it wasn’t and could never be, home.