"South & East Africa 2011" story # 36

Koppies, Free State, South Africa           October 18, 2011

The first time I discussed "police beatings" with a fellow victim, it for some reason brought a great smile to my face. It was like I was talking to my brother.
     "Myself? I was beaten in Zambia a few years ago," began a round man with a loveable good humor about him - a Motswana (native of Botswana).
     Named Lucas, this truck-driver (who now carried me in Botswana) said he'd been driving in Zambia during the nighttime.
     He approached a police roadblock. But, wind from trucks that had passed before him must've knocked down the signs that should've alerted him to the roadblock. He saw the metal gate only when it was too late. The police ran out of his way. He put on his brakes. But, he couldn't help but slam into the gate.
     He stopped the truck. The police came to him, and he could see they wanted to beat him. He locked the doors. Someone among them said, "Don't waste time. Shoot him!" Lucas didn't want to die, so he opened the doors. They pulled him out and beat him.
     Pudgy Lucas said they didn't hurt him. "I could tell how weak they were," he said with a smile. They put him in jail. In the morning, he went to court. The judge let him go, declaring that because the forewarning signs had fallen down Lucas was not-guilty.
     Story-telling Lucas happily went into another story. This next one wouldn't include a police beating, though.
     Around 1980, he'd been driving through Zimbabwe during the Rhodesian War. Armed guerrillas - "about a hundred of them" - jumped out of the bush and forced Lucas to carry them in the open back of his truck.
     Once they came to the first two police checkpoints, the guerrillas told the police, "You're wasting our time!" The police let them go.
     Approaching the next checkpoint, they noticed the police had laid out spikes on the ground. The guerrilla commander gave Lucas $300, and the guerrillas jumped out.
     At the checkpoint, Lucas was asked to get out of his truck, so the police could determine if he was carrying guerrillas or not. Suddenly, a shoot-out erupted between the guerrillas in the bush and the policemen. Lucas was shaking. He had to be told to lie on the ground.
     No one was harmed. Lucas and his truck were given clearance to pass. A mile ahead, the guerrilla commander stood beside the road, smiling and waving as Lucas passed. Lucas was terrified, and he would tell his boss he no longer wanted to return to Zimbabwe.
     My loveable driver dropped me off, on this day, at the Botswanan-Southafrican border. I was thrilled to be closing in on Johannesburg, where I wanted to fly home from!
     Botswana, though, had been a nice country. I should know; I spent a whole 28 hours there!
     Within five minutes of entering it, I saw five elephants - some tusked - flapping their ears under trees next to the road. They looked as inconspicuous, and as part of the town, as cows. More grazed on the hill behind them.
     The countryside here was full of small, leafless, black trees above strawberry-yellow burnt grass. The perfect place for animals. (And it was all countryside.) The locals lived in roundish, crooked huts like those in Lesotho, and they collected dry grass. A tourists' car had broken down in this desolation; a plump white woman sat beneath a tree, struggling in the heat.
     In northern Botswana - and then again in northern South Africa (after Lucas dropped me off) - it was easy to see animals. Baboons lurched near the road. A monkey casually hung from a fence by one arm, causing me to laugh.
     Little families of warthogs hobbled and bounced - adorably! A female kudu antelope showed off the gentle difference between her hunched body's wheat color and her vertical, white slit stripes.
     And three charcoal-gray nyala bulls (adolescents) perked up their big-oval ears. In South Africa's northern Limpopo Province, the grass was less dry and fluffier.
     I continued to hitchhike through the wilderness, all the way south to the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Woohoo! I'd traveled more than two thousand miles, with a bruised and aching body, to get here. But it was all going to be worth it, once I got a reduced-price "buddy pass" ticket to fly straight home with!
     Or ... not?
     Horribly enough, the airline had stopped selling reduced-price tickets on its Johannesburg-USA flights. Ironically enough, I'd only months ago bought a reduced-price USA-Johannesburg-USA roundtrip ticket. But unfortunately, the second half of that had expired the day after I was beaten up in Tanzania. I would get refunded for that unused ticket. But, I had no money other than that with which to buy a more-expensive flight home. (And I preferred not to borrow money, because I disliked being in debt.)
     And so ... just when it seemed like I was going to make it out of Africa alive, I learned I'd have to stay here. The particular airline on which I got cheap flights would not - for differing reasons - sell "buddy passes" from any of its African destinations. It was: The Continent You Couldn't Leave, ... like Hell.
     Stuck in Pretoria, I planned my next move while staying with a white, retired couple.
     Zaaiman, the husband, was an Afrikaner. But his wife Jannij, like me, had come here from another continent. She'd emigrated with her family from Holland, when she was eleven.
     Jannij's sisters and their husbands joined us for a braai (barbecue) one evening, and I asked the immigrants if it'd been tough adjusting to Africa. The younger sisters said they hadn't minded the move. One of their husbands, who'd emigrated from Holland himself at age five, said he mainly remembered Table Mountain being all lit up and beautiful when his boat had arrived.
     But, small and gray-haired Jannij recalled her anxieties so well it felt as if I was seeing her as a child. She said she used to sit behind the house and cry. Her sisters were surprised to hear her say this.
     She'd been forced to stay back a year at school. "And I remember, we'd already learned decimals and everything. And here they were, with these wooden apples, opening up into quarter-apples and half-apples. I hated those apples. And I just didn't want to be different from everybody!"
     She said everyone else had a school uniform, and she had a school uniform, but she had the wrong shoes. The teacher gave her a part of the chalkboard, near her desk, to draw on when the lesson bored her; kind-hearted Jannij drew well. And everyone else wore brimmed hats to church - back when women had to wear hats to church - and her mom made her a hat, but it wasn't brimmed.
     "And for Christmas all I wanted was a red, plastic ruler. All of the other kids had bright red and bright orange and bright yellow rulers. But, WE had these wooden ones!"
     Wow. I was glad I'd asked about this!
     After one braai, and three days in Pretoria, I had to go ... somewhere.
     I wished I would've known I couldn't get a "buddy pass" before I'd returned to South Africa. I would've rather been some place new, like Kenya.
     But, I was in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area. I decided I'd retrace my steps from seven months earlier, and go visit friends in and near Lesotho. I began by taking a train to small-town Koppies in Free State Province.
     Here, I waited to catch a ride from the conservative whites or practically enslaved blacks of the area. It wasn't much fun to travel somewhere I'd already traveled before. But, I was excited by the possibility that I might see my acquaintance here who owned a lion. Surely enough, he came by. And he invited me to his farm.
     In his yard, the farming Afrikaner called, "Bachstion! Bachstion!" as if he were calling a dog. An enormous lion got up and came running to greet his buddy.
     He had the most gorgeous mane of hair, a mane that Fabio or I or any sensible man would've been envious of. A blend of butterscotch blond and black. It was fluffy full, and it looked like I could swim in it.
     He was behind a flexible fence, which leaned towards us when he rolled and fell against it. He just wanted the farmer to scratch him through the mesh. I might've been scared at first, but I too pet his mane and body. They felt cuddly. He purred, but the growl came from deep within him like a furnace.
     He had a very colorful face. Thick black outlined his mouth, which drooped down like a frown. His face was pinkish in parts, and this was where his nose was. His eyes were honey: sweet. But, the small and focused black dots in the center indicated he could become serious and kill in an instant.
     Three years old, he weighed twice as much as me. His legs and tail looked strong.
     He put his front paws up on the fence and through the bigger, higher holes, and they surrounded my fore-arm. It looked like his face was about to come through another opening, and I felt my face being pulled toward it. Phillip the Farmer told me to pull away. But, I'd already begun doing so; I freed myself.
     As we walked away, Phillip said the smell of my sun-tan lotion must've made Bachstion (whose name meant: Brick) curious. But, it wasn't the lion's mouth he was afraid of; it was his claws. They were sharper than razors, and it was common for a lion scratch wound to require two-hundred stitches or more.
     Phillip was now the only person who entered the cage with Bachstion, though the lion had lived with him and his wife as a baby. Phillip and I drove around to see Bachstion's parents.
     These bigger, eight-year-old lions were pretty ugly.
     The father's body had been dirtied by soot from a bushfire that had passed close to him. A hairy extension of his mane hung from mid-way between his armpit and nipple. He refused to face us.
     The bald lioness got up, looked at me, and licked her lips. I figured she wanted to eat me. She was fat like a bulldog. Her belly and teats sagged and jiggled like a cow's.
     I figured eight years of living in a two-acre cage hadn't been good to them.
     That night, before I would sleep in a field somewhere in the Free State, I played a "Serenade to Bachstion" on my round, ceramic flute.

The next day, I tried hitchhiking towards Lesotho. It was tough to get a ride in racist, rural Free State. It seemed as if nobody liked anybody here.
     But, on this day ... a black trucker actually RAN OVER my backpack! It was sitting on the shoulder of the road, and he was making a turn. He then drove off down the road.
     I couldn't believe it!
     My sun-tan lotion had exploded in my bag. My pens and pencils and electric shaver and deoderant had been destroyed. Angrily, I kicked my bag and swore.
     And then ... I remembered my beloved, Siberian flute. It was the spiritual heart of my travels. I checked the t-shirt I'd wrapped it in. It had been reduced to rubble.
     It wasn't the only thing that was crushed, though.
     I was, too.

Modern Oddyseus.

Thanks to Canaan; Patrick; Cairo; Lucky Mosweu, Tebo, & Nnete; Lucas; Alan Walsh; Johann & George; and Elphas for rides!
Much thanks to Zaaiman & Jannij for the place to stay!

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