Four countries lied to the north of South Africa.
On the heels of a successful "thrump" (three-month stay) in Lesotho, I hoped to enjoy my next thrump in Tanzania. Tanzania was a couple of rows to the north. To get there, I obviously had to pass through South Africa. After that, I had a couple of options.
"Remember, boy, God gave us the greatest gift of all. Not love, health, or beauty, not even life. But choice. God's greatest gift is choice." - Mr. Crispo (a John van de Ruit character)
This is what I knew about the four countries that bordered South Africa to the north, a.k.a. "the only slightly malarial row":
On the west coast stretched Namibia. I'd always wanted to visit Namibia. I could play on the dunes of the Namib Desert, cruise past shipwrecks on the uninhabited Skeleton Coast, visit seals and penguins, spot the desert's harmless brown hyena, and dance closely with Portuguese-speaking Angolan refugees in the north. It sounded great!
To the east sat Botswana. I'd heard a lot about Botswana from people in Lesotho. These cousin nations could understand one another, if speaking Setswana and Sotho, respectively. Everyone said Botswana was one of Africa's richest and least corrupt countries, a real success story. The country supposedly split its diamond revenues up amongst all of her citizens. She was so well-run that, as some Africans said, boredly: "Nothing happens there."
Like Namibia, she contained a lot of land but few people. Her nature reserves, including the Kalahari and Okavango Delta and other lesser-known ones, were among Africa's best. Elephants, lions, and dangerous spotted hyenas ran past villages. I referred to Botswana as a "she" because I already loved her.
Next to Botswana was Zimbabwe - a disaster. The country's longtime president, Robert Mugabe, had recently lost a democratic election but simply refused to hand over power. His soldiers often seized food from poor citizens. The country sometimes sold the large food shipments it received as foreign aid. As a result of governmental mismanagement, the currency had depreciated so much that hundred-trillion ZIM$ notes were being printed. Its citizens now struggled, using U.S. dollars.
Millions of black Zimbabweans fled from their country. Highly-educated Zimbabweans looked for manual labor jobs or drove taxis, as illegal immigrants in South Africa. They accepted low pay, just so long as they could eat. The local laborers didn't like this workforce competition. Seeing as how this was South Africa, they sometimes responded with - guess what? - violence against the gentle immigrants.
The black Zimbabweans whom I met, like the whites, spoke lovingly of their country. The whites still called it "Rhodesia". The country's new name had come, three decades ago, after the whites had lost power. It referred to the Zimbabwe Ruins, an ancient fortress and modern tourist attraction.
Unlike Namibia and Botswana, Zimbabwe required Westerners like me to have a visa to enter it. The visa cost $20 or $30. I was glad God had given me the choice to skip Zimbabwe! (No offense, Zim! Your nature and people were surely lovely.)
On the east coast, sticking out of Africa like a mermaid on the hull of a ship, was Mozambique.
When I'd been closest to the country, while in Swaziland, all I knew about it was that a Mozambican visa would cost me $70. So, I stayed away.
It was only afterwards that the rave reviews came pouring in. South Africans, Swiss girls, EVERYONE loved it! They'd swum with whale sharks. They'd traded t-shirts to fishermen for fish. They'd danced. They called it, a former Portuguese colony, "The Brazil of Africa". (I believed their praise. At a music festival once, I'd been allured by the loudest celebrating by Mozambican guests.)
One person who loved the country most was Gilles, whom I'd stayed with recently. He'd gotten to know it while working for the Red Cross. With a Frenchman's love for long and winding (happy) stories, he told me of his time there.
It was the Mozambican Civil War. A communist-supported government controlled the big cities. Rebel guerrillas, supported by the West, raped women and killed grown men in the villages. They abducted beautiful girls. They abducted children, to be raised as soldiers.
Fifty-five-year-old, energetic Gilles now told me the Red Cross's duties. It helped prisoners. It prevented torture. It provided some food for non-prisoners in times of emergency. It acted as a post office between prisoners and their families.
Gilles called the guerrilla leaders, "commandantes". He said they'd been mostly twenty years old, stoned, and drunk. Gilles, through openness and 100% honesty, had gained their confidence.
They allowed him to register their abductees, so that their families could be identified whenever possible. Some of the commandantes - Gilles expressed in his accent that "blooped" like a droplet of water - had been abductees themselves!
Gilles asked the commandante if he couldn't, one day, bring the abductees to town to visit their families. "I'll think about it, Gilles," the commandante said. Some time passed.
Upon returning to the guerrillas, Gilles was told: "I won't let you take the children with you. But, you can bring their family members here." Gilles was pleasantly shocked!
He began making preparations. There were ninety abducted children. Each one could be visited by one parent, or one grandparent, or an older sister, or whatever. But, only one. On the day that had been set for their visit to the guerrillas, ninety abductees' family members came. Not one was missing.
But when they got to their meeting point with the guerrillas, two kids were missing.
Everyone was happy. Even the guerilla leaders smiled to witness the reunions.
Gilles now smiled his friendly, bulb-nosed smile. "It was a real moment of humanity, to see the guerrillas enjoying this too."
"But, what about the two missing children?" I said. "Their family members must've been devastated."
Gilles continued. "I asked the commandante about them. He said, 'The boy, he had an accident. A blanket caught on fire. His legs are burnt, he can't walk. ... And the other one, a girl, she's just crazy."
Gilles asked the commandante if he couldn't do anything for them and their families. He told Gilles, "Come back tomorrow. The kids will be here. You can take them home."
The day finished. The guerrillas and abductees returned to their hidden base. Gilles and the family members left to return to town. On their way, they came to several abducted children walking on the road to town, hoping to escape the guerrillas. But, Gilles couldn't betray the commandantes and take these children. He ordered them to go back to the guerrillas.
The next day, Gilles returned. But, the commandante never came to the meeting spot. The Frenchman spotted two young guerrillas, out and about. He told them to take him to their hideout. They obeyed.
Gilles now laughed. They shouldn't have taken him to their hiding spot!
When Gilles arrived, the commandante was already drunk and oblivious. He exclaimed happily, "Gilles! What are you doing here?" The commandantes, though ruthless, still appreciated friendship and irony.
A guerrilla then helped Gilles to carry the wounded boy back to his car. The girl also came, and she was sad and silent and wouldn't speak.
On his way back to town, he again came to a little girl defiantly marching away from her abductors.
Gilles now raised his bushy eyebrows at me. "What could I do?" He made a scooping-up motion with his arm. He'd brought her to town.
"So, in the end, I came away with THREE kids." Gilles held up three fingers and smiled greatly.
I smiled too. And I knew I had to visit Mozambique. Or, at least, I hoped to.
But, seeing as how I was at this time already far away from Mozambique ...
I carried on towards Namibia ...