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First Class to Lusaka (Part 2)

November 01, 2010

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The One-Stop Border Post on the way up is on the Zambian side. Newly built, freshly sign-posted and scrupulously clean, it is day to Beitbridge's night. The Beitbridge Border Post is the hellish crossing point between Zimbabwe and South Africa, which I have negotiated time without number but dread from the bottom of my entrails every time I have to undergo it.

To us, in our part of the world, a One-Stop Border Post seems like heaven. Those from the European Union would find this curious. I remember driving down from Denmark to Germany and a little before we got to Hamburg, the driver pointed out some buildings over on the left. These were the old border post, he said. A border post is no longer required at all between Denmark and Germany. In our case, a One-Stop does not mean that the processes are streamlined. All the cumbersome processes that characterise the hours one spends at border posts in our region, remain intact - queues for passport control for the country you are leaving and then for the country you are entering and then queues again for customs for the country you are leaving and again for the country you are entering. The only difference is that these procedures are carried out in one building and that it is absolutely clear as to which queue you should queue in. There is also no 'kupindira'' - people entering the queue at the counter so that you end up standing for hours in a queue that never moves. Well, the One-Stop Border Post is definitely a welcome step forward but really if we look it at it, a rather small one. After all, are we all not Africans?

Now what was this junket all about? We were going to Lusaka to attend the "Ibsen through African Eyes" Conference and Workshop. We had decided to save money by not going by air and not staying in a hotel. We travelled by road and we stayed at the Commonwealth Youth Centre at the University of Zambia. With the money saved, we were able to do a brand-new production, an interrogation of Ibsen's "A Doll's House", in which we asked ourselves what would happen if a woman left her husband, home and children in Zimbabwe and whether the 'most wonderful thing of all', which Norah talks about at the end of the play, could ever happen given gender relations and culture in Zimbabwe.

By 'the most wonderful thing of all, Norah means:

NORAH: We would have to change, we would have to...No, Tongoona, I don't believe in wonderful things any more.

TONGOONA: But I do. We would have to - what?

NORAH: To change so that our life together would be a real marriage. Goodbye. Not only were we able to do the play but we were able to bring the two young actors and the young auditing student/assistant director with us and they were able not only to perform their play but also to participate in the workshop and our presentation at the workshop. So, any hint of whingeing on my part, as you read this account, must be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. Though the road travel was tiresome, we all thought it very much worthwhile.

Now for our journey back on 'First Class'. We were not allowed to buy tickets beforehand, let alone book. Instead we were told to go down to the Lusaka coach station between 7am and 11am and First Class would leave at 12 noon. When we got there, one coach was already full - actually a coach! Obviously only those really in the know will manage to get onto that one. So we were back to the same old 'chicken bus'! But there was this very big difference - the bus was now going back to Harare not going to Lusaka and it became apparent that the 'First Class' bus is the preferred choice of Zimbabwe's cross-border traders plying their trade between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The cross-borders were now going back - with their merchandise - in a bus with no luggage rack, no roof rack, no trailer and only tiny compartments under the bus! Well, the first thing was that the conductor refused to let us take our table, boxes, lights and costumes onto the bus - despite the fact that we had been assured in Harare that the bus had lots of luggage space and our things would not be a problem, But this was no longer Harare. This was Lusaka. The only way we avoided being stranded in Lusaka was to buy three more seats to pile our stuff on.

As we had lots of time to kill, we strolled around the coach station - and what do you think we saw? Exactly the coaches we had dreamed of, even beyond our dreams. Not only going to luxury destinations like South Africa and Botswana but to tiny places in the Zambian countryside that we had never heard of! The comparison between the quality of domestic transport in Zambia and that of international travel in Zimbabwe was painful - definitely a blow to Zimbabwean pride.

Back to the bus. We sat down and one by one our fellow travellers began entering the bus - with their katundus - the usual large soft striped bags that characterise the cross-border trader, not one, not two but often three large bags of goods they had purchased in the markets of Lusaka and were taking back to Zimbabwe for re-sale.

The holds beneath the bus were long since full. So everything had to come into the bus. Slowly a growing claustrophobia rose in us as these bags piled up - on seats, in the aisles, the area around the driver. It was like being tied down in a room which was slowly filling up with water.

Things began to get really serious when a young man came in with an enormous bag, which he piled on the seat in front of me. Out he went only to return with another of the same size. What had happened to the conductor who had refused to take our stuff and forced us to buy seats? There he was watching as bundle after bundle began to pile up in the bus. Now, to my horror, the young man was back again with his third enormous bag, which he proceeded to plonk down on the floor inches from my knees.

This was when I squawked. I asked him what he was thinking of buying all this stuff. How did he really think he could get all this stuff into the bus? I had taken this seat so that I could have some room for my legs, I informed him, and I was not going to accept his katundu right in front of my knees. I appealed to the conductor. O, he said, we will remove them - how? Throw them onto the tarmac outside? He was just humouring me of course.

The final straw was the large brand-new suitcase the young man had bought, still in its cellophane, which he now wished to pile on top of the bag in front of my knees. This I adamantly refused and he was forced to sit with it on his lap with the cellophane virtually pressed up against his female companion's face until we got to the border. But it is strange what human beings can get used to. I was so uncomfortable about the poor girl with the suitcase right in front of her face and the poor young man trying to hold it away from her face that at the border we re-arranged our furniture on the seats we had had to pay for and squeezed in the suitcase to give them some relief. The journey to the border was like travelling in the inside of a railway coach without the trimmings and which was piled high with bags. It was a cross-border bus and it had become, not a bus, but a warehouse on wheels. Any attempt to negotiate the passage from the back of the bus to the door in the front required serious mountaineering skills as the aisle was packed full of bags and other items of all shapes and sizes.

There is not much more i want to tell you about our return journey. I think you've probably got the general idea. If you add to what you already know the fact that in the middle of the night the bus split a water-hose and then when that was miraculously repaired, developed a fuel injection fault, which the driver heroically battled to mend, as it broke down from time to time but finally got us to Harare, I am sure you will not need any further explanation as to why Steve and I needed two whole days on our arrival home to recover.

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