A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Trapped On the Border Without a Gun
By Leslie Ann Murray

The AFRican's Leslie Ann Murray shares a personal narrative essay about her experiences traveling through Africa. Her perspective on borders, told through various humorous short stories, enlightens us on her path through the Motherland:

Johannesburg, South Africa to Gaborone, Botswana {9 hours} bus ride: The stench of stale urine burned my nose, as I walked into the public toilet adjacent to the South African-Botswana border. I kept my hands in an imposed straitjacket to avoid touching the dirty brown walls - full of fungus. The leaky faucet dripped as I hovered over the toilet-bowl, (like a spacecraft) pulling my toilet paper out of my jacket pocket; toilet paper is a foreign concept in public toilets near the borders. In mid-wipe, an overly stylish lady placed her hands in front of my face beckoning for toilet paper; flabbergasted by her gesture, I scrambled to finish wiping and threw the toilet role in her hands.

I jiggled the flaccid toilet handle to flush, and after two unsuccessful minutes of jiggling, I gave up and walked out of the stall (without a door) feeling violated by the dirt and the on-lookers who gawked while I urinated. I washed my hands in the brownish greenish tap water and proceeded outside to pay the toilet fee of two pula to the nonchalant (disinterested in providing even mere customer service) attendant.

With two thousand dollars in my checking account, a seven-week vacation from University, and a Lonely Planet guidebook, I grabbed my backpack from my dusty wardrobe and decided to travel alone from South Africa to East Africa. I wanted to learn self-reliance, independence, and discover myself without the intrusions of my friends, so I joined the club of solo travelers and journeyed outside the Johannesburg landscape of electric fences, burglar guards, and skyscrapers that reflected the sun onto shanty-towns.

Kasane, Botswana to Livingstone, Zambia {2hours} bus ride
For six hours, I sat in a fetal position to accommodate the extra passengers on-board the minibus from Francistown to Kasane. I exited the minibus looking like the hunchback of Brooklyn and dragged myself to (my friend, of a friend, of a friend) flat, located near the Zambian border. With sleepiness clinging to my face, I walked into Richard's flat and introduced myself.
"Leina La Gago Ke Mang."
"Sorry I don't speak much Swana."
"What do you speak?"
"Where you from, South Africa?"
"The Caribbean," I said. Richard looked confused and tried to place my island on his mental map. Before he expressed another smile, I quickly said. "Have you heard of Jamaica?"
"Or you are from Jamaica?"
"No, I am from Trinidad, it's near Jamaica." (Though Trinidad and Jamaica are miles apart, I constantly have to tell the geographically impaired that Trinidad and Jamaica are neighbors, to legitimize Trinidad's existence. Jamaica has Bob Marley, good tourist commercials, and Sandals. Trinidad has an aligning soccer player, a washed up calypsonian and no tourist entrapment resorts.)

"Why do you sound like ah American?"
"I have lived in Brooklyn for ten years."
"Or okay, okay."
As the last words of acceptance lingered on Richard's moist lips, he pushed his bedroom door open, placed my bag pack on the floor and handed me fresh liens for his bed. Richard's room looked more like a teenager's room than the room of a twenty-seven year old police officer. Posters of American and European pop stars were fashionably displaced all over Richard's walls as my eyes spanned around his room (in an observant museum exhibition gaze) trying to recognize all of the artists.
Ah Buster Rhymes
Britney Spears
Mandy Moore? What the hell.
50 Cent
I don't know that person, (may be European.)

"So, Judy (our friend, of a friend of a friend) tells me you are traveling all over Africa."
"Yeah, I am going to Zambia, maybe Zimbabwe, Tanzania, maybe Malawi."
"Ah, you going a lot of places, you not scared?"
"Should I be scared?"
"Yes, yes, you should be scared." Richard bobbled his head repeatedly, as if the correct words would fall out his mouth. "You are a woman - there's rape, lots of bad accidents on that road to Tanzania, and plus when everyone see you with that big thing on your back, they would want to rob you."

After Richard's monologue about crimes, safety, and malaria, I had a nightmare that I was being chased down by Mandy Moore and 50 Cents with a giant bug spray. In the morning, he accompanied me to the Botswana-Zambia border control; he then jumped into the third act of one of his plays, pleading with me to tell Americans that Africa is not only about poverty, aids, lions and wars, "we are more than that and it time they recognize that." I took Richard's comment and shoved it into my mentally cluttered African travel filing cabinet.

New Kapri Mposhi, Zambia- Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania {38-hours} train ride:
Visas! Visas! Visas!
The immigration officer shouted, as he strolled around the second-class cart looking at every passenger's Tanzanian visa. "Can I see your visa?" the custom officer asked with a smile as he gestured his oblong body into our coffin-cart, too small for an extra bum. I placed my passport in the immigration officer's brittle hands and he examined it with heightened dodgy gaze, (checking to see, if my country really existed, or if I created my passport in my basement.)
The officer carefully handed his partner my passport, (like CSI agents passing around an anomalous blood sample) and both of them scurried out of the train to the immigration office opposite of the train tracks. After twenty minutes of record checks, coffee breaks and cigarettes the agents reentered the cart with oblong 007 leading the investigation,
"Trinidad, I said with pride on my face."
"Where is that?"
"It's in the Caribbean, near Jamaica."
"Oroooooooooo, the officers' sang in unison."
"Where is your visa?"
"I don't need one, the Tanzanian consulate said, that since Trinidad is a member of the commonwealth we can enter into Tanzania without a visa."
"Commonwealth! Nigeria is in the commonwealth! India is in the commonwealth! And they need to have visas to enter here, otherwise this country will be Pack! Pack! Pack! with them. So, you need ah visa."
"I don't have any money! I only have two-hundred rand."
"You must leave the train, then."
My head spun, I looked outside at the giggly children, sun beaten dried red earth, women with bright colored clothes balancing yams, bananas and peanuts on their heads; tears thundered out my droopy eyes. The border town seemed light-years away from a proper bus station or hostel, and I refused to leave the train without a fight.

The intense pressure forced me to space-out. While I relaxed in my metaphysical universe, my dipsomaniac Danish cart-mate, (on her second bottle of gin) handed the immigration officers fifty US dollars for my visa.
Back to reality: The train choo chooed away to Tanzania, I obtained my Tanzanian visa, and finally started to enjoy my long journey, with a half of bottle of gin and a new friend.

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzanian to Mbeya, Tanzania { 20-hours} bus ride
My stomach sunk to the ground when I saw the Taabal bus, bound for Blyntre, Malawi. The bus was in a bad shape - from the broken windows patched -up with brown card board and black masking tape to the fading white paint, which covered the rust stains. I stood at the threshold of the bus culture shock while the bus attendant took my back pack and placed it on the ground. The aisle on the bus was packed with passengers' luggage and every traveler became an acrobat, trying to balance themselves on the seats handles to avoid the bags on the floor. The proper baggage compartment (under the bus) was filled to capacity with retail items many of the passengers were importing to Malawi. These retailers paid the bus driver and his attendants 7,000 Tanzanian Shillings on the side to place their items in the appropriate baggage compartment.

The eroded iron bars in my chair poked into my spine like aliens, while my clothes became rain repellant for the decaying seat. I wanted to complain about the bus, my window, the rain, and the luggage in the aisle, but I didn't have anyone to speak with. My cute seatmate only spoke Swahili so I was forced to stuff my complaints into my decaying journal. "This is the # 1 thing I hate about traveling alone - I don't have an outlet to release my frustration, because I am surrounded for 24 hours with strangers."

The Taabal bus arrived six hours after the Malawian-Tanzanian border office was closed and parked in front of the border without an announcement advising passengers of their overnight options. I squandered all of my Tanzanian shillings for Masai beads (at the bus's first rest-stop) and I could not afford to rent a motel room. I sat on my seat weighing my sleeping choices and stared outside in envy at the convergence of passengers who were heading to the nearest hotels without their luggage. "Come lets go," this twenty-something looking woman said to me, and led me down the bus aisle to a bar opposite the border. The bar at the border was a house veranda converted into a tavern, with four wooden benches, one white plastic table, a rickety coke-cola sign that hung on the outside of the premises and loud Tanzanian music. We speed fast through the arduous 'getting to know our friendship' process and developed a quick relationship over eight Kilimanjaro beers and a basket of chips. Following our drinking session, my new friend Harriet organized a place for me sleep by her friend's house in Mbeya.

On her way from the motel, Harriet and her boyfriend picked me up from her friend's house, and we hurried to the border control to process our visas. All of the Taabal bus passengers arrived early and we all sat outside the Malawian customs office waiting patiently for the assistant customs officer.

The deputy customs officer was still MIA and everyone sat engrossed in their conversations, unmoved by the tardy officer. Harriet didn't understand my irritability and blurted out, "You Americans are so impatient," I rolled my eyes at the comment, thanked her for her kindness and walked outside the border to find an alternative transportation to Blyntre.

-Malawian border to Karonga Malawi {45 minutes} taxi ride.
Inside the midsize Toyota communal taxi, I reached second base with a customer as my left butt cheek sat on his right leg for the duration of the trip.

-Kangola to Muzuzu {4 hours} minibus ride.
There were twenty three passengers in the minivan that was made to fit fourteen. I sat on the makeshift seat behind the driver and in-between the legs of a male passenger. The stranger in front of me touched my hands every five minutes to start petty conversation; and I perpetually give him my 'I am a crazy black woman' look. I realize this look only works in the New York City subways.

-Muzuzu to Blyntre {6 hours} bus ride.
I had three choices to get to Blyntre, 1. crappy chicken bus. 2. crappy chicken bus. 3. a luxury bus with central air and no constrains of extra bums. I rebelled against my cheap backpacker's ways, and paid for the luxury bus to Blyntre. My bum and back rejoiced with appreciation.

Blyntre to Mozambique to Zimbabwe via South Africa {37 hours} bus ride.
Blyntre taxi rank.
"Excuse me; do u know where I can find a backpackers?"
"Ah what."
"You know - a place where a lot of people with big bags like me go."
"Or, where the Muzugus go!"
"Ah yeah, is it far from here?"
"Very, very far, about two kilometers."
"How much?"
"Three thousand Kwacha, jump in I will take you."
"Are you sure it's far?"
"Trust me sister, very far."
The driver looked dodgy, but I was too tired to have an internal debate with my intuition and I slid into the back seat of the 'I have seen better days' taxi. The taxi-driver drove twenty spaces away from where he was parked, and stopped in front of Douglas backpackers.
"Is this it?"
"You told me it was two kilometers away; we didn't even leave the bus depot."

The taxi- driver was unmoved by my diatribe against his manipulative robbery tactics and opened his hands (akin to a beggar) for my money. After thirty minutes of quarrel, and being verbally abused by a crowd of taxi drivers who gathered to watch the argument; I finally give the driver my money-- to avoid a Malawian taxi-driver beat down.

In Blyntre I had lost my perspective for traveling, (maybe between the crowded border controls.) My travel plan to gain cultural knowledge of every country I visited failed miserably. I just wanted to consume crafts, clothes, foods, local beers and good touristy pictures to show off to my family, friends and strangers - my acquisition of all things "exotic." I spent all of my time bitching and intellectualizing with fellow backpackers, completing every recommended adventure task on my guidebook and traveling within the myopic tourist gaze. I was tired of being anonymous and cut my trip short to return to South Africa.

Malawi to Mozambique Border - 30 minutes of wait time.
I have seen almost everything being sold on the borders by local traders. Chips and chicken cooked with petrol oil - 10 Tanzanian Shillings. Stale pop-corn - 1,500 Zambian Kwacha. South Africa Rand, Zambian/Malawian Kwacha, Nigerian Naira, US Dollars, Euros, Pounds and Botswana pula: depending on the exchange rate. The craziest item I had seen sold was a combination platter of weed and sushi in 5,000 Meticais.

Zimbabwe- South African Border - 4 hours of wait time.
3 hours queuing for the South African customs office.
6 Hours away from Johannesburg.
2 Smelly armpits (my deodorant had finally failed.)
4 marriage proposals. (1. Hell no. 2. I have a boyfriend. 3. I will think about it.)
20,000 Zimbabwe dollars (worth nothing, my tummy growled like a barbaric dog).
25 Malawians and Zimbabweans paying South African's custom officer 400 Rand each to be allowed into South Africa without a visa.
0 astonished faces from this transaction.

-South Africa-Park Station Jo-Burg: Final destination.
My body-tired, my bank account -400 dollars, and I had to hustle (my potential husband) a Rastafarian Malawian, for five rand to return to my leafy suburb of normalcy.