As I fly into Zimbabwe on the SA40 from Jo’Burg, I read a passage in this book called ‘Africa Trek’. which talks about border crossings. The author is saying that you can tell a lot about a country by the mood at the border. And if he had to categorise the mood at the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe, it would be ‘sad’.
I’m wishing I hadn’t opened this darn book. ‘Sad’ is not what I’m hoping for when I touch-down at Victoria Falls. If anything, I’ve been feeling optimistic. In Cape Town, South African after South African has been telling me how beautiful Zim is, and how things there aren’t as bad as they have been in recent years. But here’s this passage, and it reminds me how much trauma and breakage this place has seen.
The twist to and the reason for my ‘enter Zimbabwe’ tale is that my mum grew up here. Back in the late 1950s, my intrepid grandfather couldn’t resist the idea of journeying for weeks on end on a boat to this relatively unknown and vast continent, putting his engineering skills to the test on a new power station in the tiny village of Munyati, 270km from the nearest city of Bulawayo.
And so my mum and my uncle grew up with strange accents, their childhoods packed with giant animals and wild landscapes and running around barefoot until the soles of their feet were like leather, seemingly miles from the struggles over rights and justice playing out all across this epic land.
Those tales were told to my brother and I from our earliest days, and so, Zimbabwe has always existed in a kind of mythical stasis in my head. Over the years I’ve met many other children of that Rhodesian generation, and we’ve recognised in each other a similar heritage of both awe at our parents’ fantastical upbringings, and a kind of time-travelling shame at the wider political environment in which they lived.
And yet, as the plane touches down, I fill up with sensations of connection and nostalgia; the kind usually reserved for a long-overdue homecoming. I practically run to the tiny terminal, excitedly joining an ordered queue as we file into Victoria Falls’ passport office, commenting on the humidity of the middle day. My fellow travellers are from all over the world – China, Japan, Germany, Australia. I’m here alone, but I don’t feel alone. I see my name on a taxi board and soon drive off down a clean new tarmac road; lush green forest on either side and, above the tree-line, the billowing spray of the Falls, ‘the smoke that thunders’. Within an hour, I’m on the mighty Zambezi river, the sun setting behind palm trees as families of sleepy hippos bob around in mercury waters beneath a sky of fast flocking birds.
This journey into Zim felt professional and ordered, calm and warm. No doubt, we’re in a protected space here, a long way from Harare or Bulawayo, or any number of towns and villages beyond international view. But it is a better entry than I could have hoped for, and a more emotional one too.
So if I were to pick one one word to define this border crossing, I’m not exactly sure what I would choose. But ‘sad’? I don’t think that’s it. Not here, at least.