Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Ah, Africa. (And music.)

My friend Chef BelAir’s post about crossing the South Africa/Botswana border at Pont Drift reminded me of my and my then-husband’s experience at (relatively) nearby Martins Drift back in 1988 when we arrived there with a truck full of canned tomatoes, dried pasta and mosquito repellent (among many other things), to start a 2-year contract running a tourist camp in the Moremi wildlife reserve.

For those who weren’t born then (and that includes my children and all their friends), that was 2 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison – our country was still clawing its way out of a civil war that had profoundly affected most South Africans in some awful way or another. And back then, white South Africans in particular weren’t welcomed with open arms in neighbouring African countries. Not that my husband or I really took this on – we considered ourselves ‘other’: my father was a journalist whose material was routinely censored, whose colleagues were frequently detained, and who numbered among his friends black people; and my then husband was a neophyte Rhodes journalism graduate who’d got into trouble with the security police for calling the Settlers’ Monument in Grahamstown something along the lines of ‘an outdated anachronism sailing on a questionably stormy political sea’.

Arriving at a small, hot hut in the middle of nowhere (uh, Martins Drift) around 10 in the morning, we were met by 2 teenagers toting rifles. One instructed us to park our truck, which we did (lickety-split), while the other pointed us in the direction of the lean-to. We entered, and found ourselves facing a long makeshift wooden counter. Directly in front of us was a handwritten sign: ‘Passport control’. A few steps to the left, on the same counter, was another handwritten sign: ‘Customs’.

One of the rifle-toting teenagers swaggered around and popped up behind the ‘Passport control’ sign.

‘Welcome to Botswana!’ he barked. ‘Passports, please!’

We handed them over. He looked at them very carefully, then said to me, ‘You are married?'

‘We are,’ I confirmed.

‘But your surname is different,’ he pointed out.

‘I opted,’ I said, with all the arrogance of a 24-year-old, ‘to keep my own surname.’

‘This is not right,’ said the teenager, cocking his rifle. (Okay, he didn’t. But he could have.)

‘It is so right,’ I said. ‘Taking your husband’s surname is an anachronous residual of an outdated patriarchal era. It implies an ownership that any opinionated person, male or female, would waste no time in discarding. It denies deliberation and promotes gender-based mental servitude of the very type that we, as liberated and free-thinking people, should be at pains to eliminate at all costs.’

The teenager fingered the trigger. My husband kicked me. ‘She forgot to have her passport updated,’ he said.

‘Ah,’ the teenager said, lowering the rifle. ‘Women, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t kill them.’

(I could almost swear I heard my husband say, ‘Don’t be too sure,’ but it could have been a hippo snorting in the river, and anyway, he was probably still miffed about the wedding-pic mixup back at home.)

‘Proceed to customs,’ the trigger-happy teen said, stamping our passports.

‘Customs’ was 2 steps to the left, in front of the hand-written sign that read ‘Customs’.

We took 2 steps to the left.

So did the trigger-happy teenager, who then looked up as if he’d never seen us before, and said, all anew, ‘Welcome to Botswana. Do you have anything to declare?’

I laughed. C’mon. I thought he was joking.

He raised his rifle. ‘You think customs is a joke?’ he asked.

‘God, no,’ I said. I really didn’t. We’d spent hours filling in every official form known to man for the week before we left, detailing every single item on our truck. Customs itself wasn’t a joke. The trigger-happy teenager pretending he’d never seen us before – that was funny. ‘But you, you’re…’

My husband kicked me. ‘She has a mental disorder,’ he said. ‘She’s sick. Ignore her.’ He produced our sheaf of paperwork and put it on the makeshift wooden counter. ‘It’s all here,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry about my wife’s illness, I also struggle with it. I hope it won’t affect how you…’

It did. They made us unpack the truck. They counted every can of tomatoes, every packet of spaghetti, every mosquito coil. Car batteries, camp beds, tents. Boxes of raisins and rusks. Tins of coffee and tea. Two computers. Trunks of books. Candles and lamp oil. Spare parts for generators and cars. Windscreen wipers. Spark plugs. Tarpaulins and tins of tuna. Running shoes and radios. The list was, almost literally, endless.

So – not a great start, but, finally, as dusk was falling, we were off again, on into the wilds of Botswana. And not too many kilometres later, we ran into a roadblock – yet more teenagers toting guns, and some of them drunk this time. ‘Keep quiet,’ my husband hissed at me. I was tired, and a bit scared, so I kept quiet.

And, this time, there was a bit of argie-bargying as my husband tried to avoid having to unpack the entire truck again, but finally he poked his head in the passenger window and said, in a defeated kind of way, ‘Get out and help.’

Bloody hell.

So I got out – and, fortunately, the first object I pulled off the back of the truck, prodded by several young, drunk, homicidal Motswana, was my guitar, which had ended up on top of everything only because of the copious repacking we’d had to do at Martins Drift.

‘Eric Clapton!’ one of the drunk teenagers cried, abandoning his gun with miraculously childlike enthusiasm. He grabbed the guitar and strummed it (terribly). ‘Bob Marley!’ he shouted. ‘Peter Tosh!’

Thank god for music, which, as it turns out, does transcend all. The militant youths took turns playing (apparently) ‘No woman, no cry’ on the guitar, while we all sang. Then they told me they were going to keep the guitar, and I cried a bit, after which they gave it back and apologised, and we were allowed to move on to Francistown. Without having to unpack the truck. 

* The guitar – I bought it from my old friend Nina (who I’ve recently connected with) back in the early 1980s, when she was broke and I needed a guitar. It was badly damaged in a house move in the early 1990s, and lovingly restored. I restrung it in the early 2000s when I was keen for my (left-handed) son to learn to play, but he never really got into it. And about 2 years ago, I got a request for a guitar from a colleague on a newsgroup, for someone who wanted to learn to play but couldn’t afford to buy a guitar, and I passed it on (because by then I had another one, a gift from my family) – so Nina’s guitar, with its long history, is still going strong.

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1 comment:

Clyde said...

Not much has changed on that side of the world, the teenagers are now men, are a little more educated but still not very fond of the Mzungus.