Here is the copy of an email written by my father for my uncle Brendan about our travels through southern Africa. Being my father, he only tells the negative and raw details, leaving out the good stuff that is left for me to tell.
We were initiated into the furnace of the lower Shire river in southern Malawi where temps reached 43°, there was no water in the taps and where the lights came on for 6 hours a day, usually during daylight hours which meant that by bedtime we were poking around trying to find toothpaste and pyjamas, a place on the cement floor where to lay our clothes and making sure there were no open slits in the mosquito netting. The local NGO that had invited us was badly organised and failed to turn up the work they had promised. Eventually I managed to run a computer course for some local young adults. The heat had a debilitating effect especially on the girls which put their nerves on edge. As a result of a particularly emotional discussion between the three of us on the tenth night we decided to pull out.
There followed a relatively calm period of two weeks in a small community in Katete eastern Zambia, Tikondane, where we made ourselves much more useful, and rediscovered the bliss of having water being delivered from the turn of a tap. The staff were impressed with us for opting for a basic local candle-lit thatched hut to accommodate ourselves in, rather than accept a choice of a range of modern houses with electricity. By now we’d got used to not having light, and as it had a flushing toilet and taps with clean running water it was perfectly satisfactory. For security reasons a light was left on above the door of the office building opposite our front door. During the dark hours it attracted hundreds of fat brown flying beetles that clung to the light and where there was no space they clung on to each-other. With the light of a new day one of my first jobs I gave myself was to take a dustpan, brush and a bucket and sweep up the writhing mass, mostly now having collapsed to the floor. Two, sometimes three full buckets of these grubs were collected each morning; I would deposit them at the base of a nearby tree, on top of a squirming heap of semi-dead insects from the previous mornings’ harvest.
We left Katete on a hurrying bus in the half light of a misty morning and soon were racing through a dusty village where a confused-looking ox was wandering up ahead of us, just off the tarmac. It was a moment when you have a clear foresight into the immediate future, like just before you have an accident. ‘Oh no, we’re gonna hit that animal!’ I said, and three seconds later there was a ‘crump’ as our bull-bars swept the animal aside. The disorientated animal had simply weaved its way into the path of our oncoming vehicle.
The next day in Livingstone, where the Victoria Falls separate Zimbabwe from Zambia, we had our one material mishap when someone entered our unlocked hostel room and relieved us of about £350, all our hard currency.
Clarissa’s insert: I saw this as a karmic misfortune, as it happened the same day we learned we weren’t going to need all that money to enter countries, as visas for South Africa and Swaziland are free of charge.
Although Mugabe had just sensationally quit office the previous day or two we had already decided not to enter Zimbabwe but to go round it through Botswana; no visa needed here, which means three people save more than two hundred quid.
Of all the rough local places we stayed in, of all the precarious roofs that sheltered us for the three months, we never stayed in such clinical cleanliness as we did one night just outside Gabarone. It was the private lodging of a British transport executive and his wife who kindly hosted us for the evening. The luxurious conditions were complemented by a swimming pool with a chorus of croaking toads. Our bedroom, like the house, was new lined red brick with proper fitting doors and windows. Totally secure. Like staying overnight in an operating theatre. So it was a bit of a surprise when Patty put her foot into her left shoe the next morning and had to pull it out because it wasn’t going in properly. She then sticks her hand into it and pulls it out with a shiver; “Ugh, there’s something here in my shoe!” I take control of the situation: “Give it here” … (I perceive a vague darkness in the toe and announce incorrectly) … “it’s a frog!”. In fact, when taken outside into the sunlight and peered at more closely we discover a huge black scorpion with a tail as thick as your little finger. A sting from this monster’s tail would have been extremely painful and would have necessitated an immediate rush to hospital.
The Rep of SA left me with the biggest impression, but not a particularly pleasant one; although most travellers we met on the road seemed to think it was so beautiful, I can’t say I agree. Maybe they were being superficial, maybe they hadn’t stayed around for long enough to pick it up but there was unfriendliness and unease everywhere. A lot of the unease is I consider caused by the mechanism and after effects of apartheid, as racial discrimination still very much exists. It’s just that it’s been inverted; we met an out-of-work white man who could neither apply for job vacancies nor set up their own businesses due to bureaucratic obstruction.
In Johannesburg we came face to face with huge safety issues and a constant feeling of insecurity; in the hostel we stayed at the staff informed us: “You can go down to the end of this street, or you can go to the top. You can walk a block this way or the other direction … but don’t go any further!”
It’s not just Johannesburg; you do not drive through any city or large town without your windows tightly closed as you run the risk of a gun being stuck in your face. Sometimes it’s not even a question of your money or your life and some less fortunate people get randomly shot in the head. Clarissa was lucky; she was sitting in the passenger seat in a traffic queue in Umthatha, had her window down – when a hand came from nowhere, reached into the car and snatched her phone from her hand. Bizarrely, when she screamed in dismay and flicked a rude sign to the thief, he bashfully returned and gave her back the phone with an apology. The rampaging crime is hardly checked by a hopelessly corrupt criminal justice system unable/unwilling to deal with misdemeanors.
The resulting lack of trust in society is exemplified by a comment from a white man working as a kind of waiter in the Howick Falls Hotel who overhears our discussion about where to buy a shirt. He advises us to stay on this side of the main street of town and do our shopping in the tourist market stalls: “You don’t want to cross the road and go down that street; if you go down that street it’s … ” For some reason he fails to provide an adjective to qualify his opinion, but I suppose it was to do with being unsafe.
We were rather astonished and saddened to hear a white man’s opinion of the black area of this particular town. He seemed a modest quiet person and Howick is peacefully provincial – certainly no Jo’burg. We had spent seven days in the town the previous month over the New Year, each day nosing around, going through the street markets, cafès and shops. We hadn’t felt threatened or in the least danger once.