Many years ago, I was out in a remote part of a remote country in Africa working with a well-known non-government organization. There were five refugee camps scattered south from our compound, and the NGO did health-related work in the camps. But I rarely left the compound because I was doing desk work.
On Sundays several of us took a long walk out behind the compound for a couple of miles across the savannah. During the week I often went out for shorter walks into the small neighboring villages. One Sunday, no one was around and I went out for a walk into the savannah by myself. I realized as I left that I had forgotten my radio somewhere---which we were required to carry at all times-----but foolishly I brushed it off thinking I would just go a short distance.
I was walking in the baking sun and thinking about Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, how she followed him so kindly everywhere as he chased butterflies. I wondered if they had ever come to Africa because as I walked many little butterflies were fluttering around me.
Then, a series of unfortunate events happened. Three men who I had passed earlier on the path showed up again. I was accosted, they were drunk I now realized. I also realized that I had walked quite far from the road. I knew I was in danger. Soon more men began to arrive.
To this day I am amazed: a self-defense course I had taken five year earlier came back to me, and I carried out the steps by instinct. I was able to intimidate the men----there were more than I care to remember by now----and establish the fact that nothing was going to happen here, and march them, and me, back to the road. A kind but timid teacher also showed up and helped too. Bless that man, he was an angel. When we got back to the road, the village joined into the melee (word spreads fast on a slow day in rural Africa). It was sickening in a different way, a mob-oriented way. But at least I was not isolated and I was getting closer to the compound. Then, miraculously, a truck from the NGO pulled up, and I climbed in, shaking but unharmed.
The other day I was reading some of Nabokov's early letters to Vera in The New Yorker and maybe that's why this incident returned to my thoughts this morning. I was taking a shower when I thought of it. I was in New York City, my husband and children were around, we were off to a ballet class soon. What if that day turned out differently? I wondered. Who or where would I be today? The same life, with darker secrets? Visibly wounded, physically or emotionally? Or maybe, not here at all.
I am so often in agony over my failures. What is the use of that?