I Hitchhiked Over 400 km Through Zambia and Zimbabwe: Part 1

None of the bank machines outside Harare work. They’ve either been out of service or don’t accept foreign cards. I make my way back to the taxi that’s driven me from the capital. The driver said the fare would be $25 to this mystery town; now he’s demanding $100. With no working ATM’s in sight, I’m frightened by his increasingly aggressive behaviour. I hand over an extra $40 to him, my emergency fund, and walk away. All I have remaining now is fifty dollars: my visa fee for Zambia. It’s my eighth and final day in Zimbabwe. The border guard refused to grant me the thirty days he had given the Australians, Americans and Kiwis I was with. “A Canadian citizen”, he had said with a malicious grin on his face, “gets what the government decides.”

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. My first city in the country.

I’m supposed to be on a bus to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, that left this morning. Due to the Harare traffic and my time-management, I had missed it. I hopped into the closest taxi I could find. He said he would drive me to where inter-city mini-vans gather. They head to the border at Chirundu at break-neck speeds. But now, I couldn’t get even one as the taxi drove next to me, cursing me for not paying his ransomed amount. This led to none of the mini-vans allowing me entry. Plus, I have no money. I walk away from the terminal. I figure a kilometre down the road, I can hitch a ride with a communal van that doesn’t recognise me and try to explain my situation.

The first van picks me up. I believe I’ve made it about ten minutes when I’m asked for money. I try to explain my situation but before I’m done, the driver pulls over. I get kicked out. This happens three more times. I realise I can’t rely on these vans to get me to the border. They’re money-hungry; they have no time for empathy in a country that doesn’t care for them. I figure flat-out hitch-hiking is the only way I will escape the inevitability of a Zimbabwean jail.

The midday sun rises high in the sky, scorching everything around me. My water is reaching a desperate level; I haven’t been able to procure food from anywhere. I lie on my backpack by the side of the road, covered in dust, laconically hailing any car down. Finally, one stops.

The route I had initially planned

Kelvin* drives like he talks: at a steady but deliberate pace. He promises he’ll get me to the border town before it closes. I have nothing to do but put my full faith into his words. Kelvin sits low in his seat with a cap covering his bald head. Driving one-handed, he plays with his cap like a nervous tick. Kelvin wears glasses that remind me of my father: thick, rectangular, clear ones he wouldn’t be able to see without. He wears the type of clothes prominent in Zimbabwe: simple striped shirts and pants, usually brown or black — Kelvin’s are a dark shade of brown. He has big hands for a short man, with a solid gold wedding ring prominently displayed. Kelvin speaks English eloquently, regaling me with stories of Zimbabwe’s history.

He picks up other passengers along the way for a dollar or two a ride — he says it won’t cover gas and it’s all they can afford. A four-seater pickup truck, he’s got ample space for hitch-hikers. We drive past endless acres of arid farmland, through parks where antelopes and elephants walk freely. Kelvin drives with caution here. He allows me to sleep for an hour in the car before he wakes me up and tells me not say anything. We’re passing a military checkpoint, he says. Young, muscular men with automatic rifles slung across their backs lean in and ask him questions. Kelvin says I work for the government with him and the people in the back are locals he’s giving a lift. They discuss amongst themselves in whispers before Kelvin, impatient, reveals he’s driving a government car. He flashes them his badge. They let us pass.

Kelvin tell me he only works for the government so he can have a stable job to support his family. He has two sons and a daughter. And though he disagrees with everything Mugabe, and his government, stand for, he doesn’t voice his concerns for fear of retribution. Growing up near a border town, he points out fields on the way. “Fields the government ignore,” he says. “Because they think it’s not fertile, but it has something else. Yes. It has gold.” He explains the brutal fourteen-year civil war from 1965 to 1979. And how during his father’s time, all the villagers planted the valuable gold and minerals found in the white-owned houses in these fields. They said they would come back to reap the rewards. Most never did.

Kelvin’s home is modest. Single storied; two bedrooms, a kitchen and a makeshift living room comprise the white-stoned home. A gated green fence wraps around the property “for the thieves”, as Kelvin iterates while pouring me a glass of Coca-Cola. His children and wife are away visiting relatives. He serves me a plate of Ugali [a mixture of flour, cassava and water] and chicken despite it being past six. The border at Chirundu is closed now. But, he says to trust him. We’ve driving to a different border town near the Kariba dam just past the one he’s lived in his entire life. It closes at eight, two hours later than the border I was headed to initially.

The route I ended up taking, I think

We’re back in his car and driving. After a short ride, we get out at the border and stand awkwardly facing one another. I look away and adjust the straps on my backpack unnecessarily, attempting to find the words for how thankful I am. Nothing but an unspoken understanding can truly represent the emotions I feel. I bumble through a thank-you, but Kelvin stops me. He understands the sentiment. He puts his hand out. I give him a hug which takes him by surprise. He shakes my hand, clasping all the money he had made from the other passengers into it. I’m in shock. I leave Zimbabwe with his last words ringing in my ears, “Know that you will always have a friend in this country.”

*Name changed


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