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One way to Dete

Given the fuel situation in Zimbabwe, where long queues would be common following rumours of any gas station having the precious liquid available, we decided to take advantage of the Lions Club offer to travel first class by train to Victoria Falls. Never having been there and being on our to-do list, it was a welcome alternative. After waiting at the train station in Bulawayo for quite some time, getting to know some of our co-travellers, white glory days Zimbabweans for the most part with some younger people thrown in, we were happy to find that the first class carriages had arrived and were being secured to the rest of the train. Our first class cabin was basic but good enough. Our train trip started while we slowly moved away from Bulawayo and the evening splendour was approaching. We would sleep on the train and get to Victoria Falls nice and early. Making our way across the different carriages to get to the dining car was no easy feat, having to go through second and third class which were fully packed. This was a mistake from the train company as the intention was to secure the first class to the dining car. As it happened, first class was at almost the other end of the train. Some white old school Zimbabweans complained loudly about this and the way the service had gone downhill the last couple of years. Everything going to the dogs… Little did we know… After dinner, which wasn’t great and bits of it cold, which was no surprise given the crisis Zimbabwe was in, the low salaries people were getting and the shaky train, we made the journey back to our cabins. My wife mentioned that the way I had secured the baby pram wasn’t the safest. I laughed it off, the only way that thing would fall would be if we hit something. Hit something we did, at around 2 am, awaken from our sleep by a thud and the abrupt stopping of the train. At first we assumed the train had broken down, which was not uncommon. Later we wondered if we had hit an elephant, as these are also common in these parts of the country.  We were going through a wildlife area after all. We looked out of the window, saw some smoke. We took our most important belongings and got off the train with others doing the same. We soon realized the problem was bigger, quite a lot bigger. Contrary reports and opinions were forming and ousted. The only staff member around also had no idea what had happened.

Slowly but surely the fire was getting bigger in the dark African night. Standing outside one could smell the elephant dung, and who else knew what was lurking in the dark looking at us for their next snack. Smoke built up and reports now came from people who headed to the back of the train away from the smoke and others who had gone for a look. It was a crash. Into another train, or a locomotive or something similarly big. Slowly the gravity of the situation became clearer as not only the reports of people stuck and burning alive came, but also the victims themselves. Those who had survived could walk or were carried. It was a complicated situation. I as father and husband, standing in the middle of a wildlife reserve on the rails, with my youngest daughter being just one year old. Wanting to go and help, but at the same time, wanting to protect my family from anything that might happen. I did what I could. Taking pillows from the first class carriages, which the single staff member did not approve of, but happened anyway. Helping to move the arm of a dead man who was lying on, and hurting the leg of, a man who had some bones clearly sticking out of places they shouldn’t.
After things settled down a bit, meaning there were still people dying and others burning alive but none coming to the back of the train, a group of us decided to head into the forest to a small clearing, where, if the train would continue burning, we would be safe from fire. A bunch of us white people, accompanied by some non-white fearing blacks went ahead with the families following suit. Friends of us, a Bolivian woman with two small boys married to a Dutch colleague of mine who had not come on the trip, decided to head back over the tracks to the closest train station.



My wife thought of convincing me to do the same, but I would have none of it, with those national geographic stories and “never leave the scene of the accident to go wondering off into the wilderness” fresh in my mind. Once my family was safe, I could also go and have a look with some other white young men. Some Zimbabweans and Zambians were busy unhooking the luggage car, much to the discontent of the railway staff that weren’t dead. This was not by the rules, only qualified staff was supposed to do this.
Obviously, the black traders cared more about their luggage and goods than any stupid rule. The train was on fire after all. We did a similar thing. The restoration wagon, which was now at 30 to 60 minutes from being engulfed by flames, had drinks. So we decided to empty it of its contents, to the extent of what we could carry. There was no water, but some soda and two cases of beer. We walked back to the clearing, passing some dead and injured people along the way. In survival mode. No idea how long we would have to wait, where we were exactly and if help was coming. If worst came to worst, giving your kids a beer would be better than no liquid at all. Of course we adults did not mind a nice warm beer in the middle of the night after the horror and stress we had gone through. It slowly started to dawn, which is always a wonderful experience in the African interior, even if it’s a terrible day. The serenity, the weirdness of the situation, it all brought some peace to our hearts.

We talked to a black gentleman who was surprised to be alive. He had also been in the previous big train crash and had now survived both accounts. Some older white Zimbabweans ladies were laughing, complaining and taking pictures of each other. My wife objected and told them off, since it’s not nice to have a good time while you can hear other screaming in pain. In these situations, one sees the best and worst in humankind.



While some brave black men where helping, carrying and caring for victims, including pulling people out from the wreckage before burning alive, others helped themselves to wallets, shoes of the those dead, unconscious or unable to protest. As the Sun presented itself in the early hours of the morning, help finally came. Bodies were loaded into trucks, the wounded on beds made out of benches. All but three carriages of the long train had not burned out.
Before heading off to a small campsite to wait for assistance, and more precisely a friend to come and pick us up, I went to the site of the crash. I am not easily moved. But this was a horror zone, with the locomotive completely gone, the first carriages destroyed, lying under the second set, with a third set on top. Body parts and dead people scattered around.

In all, about eighty people had died, and a couple of hundred were wounded. The carriages where the 1st class was supposed to go, were no more. Had the NRZ (National Railways of Zimbabwe) done their job correctly, we wouldn’t be alive, but mangled and burned among the steel.

Some of the older white Zimbabweans, soon after the incident, demanded part of their ticket money back, as they did not travel to Victoria Falls and back, but only got as far as Dete, believing they were entitled to half the money back as they got half the trip. Surprisingly enough, the Lions Club sent everyone a cheque for half the money. Needless to say, I made sure I gave the money to someone who needed it.

The reports were inconclusive about what caused the accident. For sure, there was a stationary locomotive transporting vessels, which were either empty or full with some flammable liquid. Some blamed the train conductor who had just switched shifts and apparently had some drinks before work.

Others blamed it on simple human error or oversight. Still others blamed the Zambians (of course, it´s always easy to blame the foreigner) who had been transporting fuel in containers. Government blamed no one, it would make a thorough enquiry, but sure enough the outcome would not be that total mismanagement due to a failing and dictatorial regime and the total lack of maintenance had anything to do with it.

So there it is, me and my family live, thanks to someone’s incompetence. I also believe in God’s protection and am thankful for sparing our lives, knowing however that among those who died, many black Zimbabweans believed as much or more in Christ than I. Life is cruel for some and good to others.

The accident happened the same day the space shuttle blew up in space killing six people. Hence, just as soon as the news of the Dete train accident came on the news, it had to be cut short since six white people, including Americans, had died. I knew the economic and news value of a black African is only a tenth of a white man, but it still hurts to experience this first hand. Who cares if eighty blacks die, six whites just got blown up in space…. Had the people who died in Dete been us Dutch, English passport holders and a handful of tourist and old school Rhodesians, we would at least have gotten equal airtime.


Take care little mouth what you say

Language can be a real barrier or create some hilarious situations.
While having mastered the courage to stand in a long line of cars waiting for the possibility of getting 20 litters of fuel, I started chatting with this older pleasant Zimbabwean white man. We talked about life and stuff and ended up talking about holidays. He asked me where I was planning to go. And this is how the conversation developed:
Him: Are you going anywhere these holidays?
Me: Yeah sure. I am planning to go to the beaches.
Him: To the beaches?
Me: Yes in South Africa.
Him: Are you going alone or with friends?
Me: No, I am taking the family.
Him: You are taking the family to the beaches?
Me: Sure, it will be fun! We are going for 3 weeks, so plenty of places to go to the beaches.
Him: But, what!?
Me: The kids like playing in the sand; I like to do a bit of surfing.
Him, after a short pause: Ooooh! You mean you are going to the beach!!!
I was thinking: yeah dumb old man, this is what I said all along!! But said: Yes, I am.
I realized the confusion an hour later. Beaches does sound like bitches….

My wife had a similar situation while we were enjoying the mixed company of expat friends and local white Zimbabweans. Things were going downhill, so the subject was how on things were getting worse. At which point my wife complained: Yes, all the good cocks have left Bulawayo!!
Some silence ensued. So she repeated: There are no good cocks anymore, it is really hard to find them.
Surprised and suppressed faces in the room after this remarkable statement was followed by laughter all around after someone explained Kok is Cook in Dutch.


We flew from Amsterdam via some other countries to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. We were fully packed, using every bit of the hundred kilos allowed. We were welcomed at the airport by my new boss, the organisation’s Zimbabwe country director. We shoved all the suitcases and bags into the back of his 4×4 and drove through Harare to his home. After a couple of minutes driving through Harare, we saw a huge group of angry young men crossing the street. Apparently it was some kind of protest. I did not like the sight and first thing that came to my mind was: “not on the bloody first day I am in Africa!” But nothing happened. We arrived at the director’s house. He was married to an Ethiopian lady, and had two daughters, a bit older than mine. The house was huge, especially by Dutch standards, the garden even bigger and green. This was the life! We had a nice lunch and were informed about the situation in Zimbabwe. The director asked us a couple of times whom we thought his daughters took after, whether they looked more like him, a Dutch expat, or his wife, an Ethiopian. Since he insisted on an answer, we gave it our best guess. Only to be informed at the end of our visit that the children were adopted. I didn’t think that was very funny, but I guess everyone had its own humour. Apparently this was one of his favourite tricks to play on newcomers. I felt stupid.

But it didn’t matter much. Whenever you are in a new country, you spend most of your first days taking in and processing all the first impressions. Everything looks, smells and feels different. Everything is interesting. And looking out the window of the car that was driving us to the hotel in Harare, you find yourself going slow motion, just absorbing that new unknown world.

We were dropped off and checked in at the Bronte Hotel. It’s a hotel in a nice family friendly setting. I met with my new local boss, a Zimbabwean lady, a true African mama.

She was nice enough and took us on a sightseeing tour of Harare, to the Sam Levi shopping centre, and the various neighbourhoods. It was a feast for the eyes for a “baby in Zimbabwe”. We had to spend some days in Harare to take care of business and would be proceeding to Bulawayo, our final destination for the time being.

I was happy, anxious and curious to see what this adventure would turn out to become. I was also happy that we had made the decision, despite all the troubles and uncertainties. Not too happy about being told that to walk outside of the hotel was dangerous.


Once in Bulawayo, we quickly found a house. A big motherload of a house. My wife had prayed for one without a swimming pool, since she was worried the kids might drown. God listened to her instead of me, with assistance from our tiny, very busy office assistant named Chido. Over one acre of land, six bedrooms, double garage, nice rocky garden, large bar, big American style kitchen, the lots. And that for the equivalent of two hundred dollars a month. Set in a nice neighbourhood and with its very own automatic gate and driveway. The interior was somewhat different, with it being very much as it had been left some decades ago by the previous white owner. An old eighty years old English lady by the looks of it, based on the flower wallpaper and overall abundance of kitsch. It now belonged to a rich and influential black Zimbabwean, who was a customs agent and successful farmer. A black farmer who had actually bought his farm, rather than take it by force, and was smart enough to employ two black agricultural experts to run it on his behalf. First weeks were spent getting to know people, colleagues, other ex-pats talking to our house maid and gardener, exploring the town and sleeping on air mattresses. Since the decision to open offices in Bulawayo was a very recent one and colleagues still had to move from their technical assistant positions in government offices in small towns in the province, I had no office and no work. After spending over four months waiting in the Netherlands, I didn’t feel too bad about this compulsory holiday period in Zimbabwe which took almost three months. It gave me time to do some remodelling of the interior of the house (which mostly consisted of taking away things) and lots of socializing.

We had a golf course nearby, as well as a small aloe sanctuary and the wonderful Matobo National Park just half an hour drive away.

On my first assignment I was told to catch a plane to Masvingo, a city some 400 kilometres from Bulawayo. However, this being my first time, I could not find the airport and decided to drive there. I didn’t mind, since I liked driving and had not taken this route before.

After driving for about 1 hour I got almost froze behind the wheel when I saw what looked like an entire army of man in green clothing running towards my car coming from the opposite direction. Turned out there was a military base somewhere close by so they were just off for their compulsory exercise and were not out to get me.

Zimbabwe – Preparations

It was a hell of a ride. Not in a car, but in terms of our lives going through changes, uncertainty, hope and despair. Ever since doing my thesis in Portuguese speaking African countries, having visited Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique, our experiences had us longing for more of the same. This time not as a backpacking student, sleeping in crappy places and travelling on overcrowded busses, but as an expat. I had tried in vain for almost 10 years to get into the development world, but so far no luck. I was beginning to think it would never ever happen. I had a great job, working at one of the Netherlands biggest banks through an outplacement agency, with plenty of potential growth and the prospect of being hired permanently by the bank in a new long term project. In short, I had it made, with a job, house, lovely wife, 2 small children and a big fat lease car. But yet, I still longed for the adventure of starting all over again in a totally different environment. I wanted my kids to experience the same as my wife and I had done. Growing up abroad, I had spent my life in Portugal from 8 to 21 years old, and my wife had lived in Italy for most of her life. We were both mission kids and expat kids. I wanted my children to expand their horizons, feel the freedom and experience adventure. At the same time I would be having a jolly good time while they did that.

I managed to get a job interview at SNV, a Dutch aid agency which at the time was still part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I did not get the job, but they held on to my records and application, and I was sort of pre-screened and put in the potential good people folder. Another opportunity came along and I jumped at it once more. This time I got the job. I was going to assist local district councils with financial management in Mutare, a small town in the east of Zimbabwe, right on the border with Mozambique.

I had no freaking idea where Mutare was, so upon googling was happy to read that the climate was ok, with good infrastructures, schools and shops.

The main reason I got the job was because I was “coming from the world of banking”. The underlying idea was that SNV needed to be more professional, more business and consultancy minded. And the easiest way to do that, or so they reasoned, was to bring in people from a commercial environment. Of course this failed horribly, but that is another story. In true social sector efficiency the entire hiring process took forever or so it seemed. Knowing I would start the job somewhere in August, we finally left in April the next year. There were quite a number of issues. No one at head office could tell me exactly what my salary would be. I got 4 different calculations. This wasn´t helped by the fact that the Netherlands was changing currencies to the Euro which they had a hard time reflecting this in the calculations. After 1 month I had the job, but had not said yes or no, since I had no idea what I would be making. Would it be 2000 guilders or 4000 euro? Money wasn’t the driving factor, but I wasn’t intent on going survival mode with my family. That was however the least of our problems. Apparently, the Zimbabwean government was now reluctant to give working permits to Dutch nationals. Instead of the 1 or 2 year permits, it was limited to 6 months with possibility for renewal.

I had no intention of leaving everything behind and going to Africa for just six months. Further complicating the decision, my wife was pregnant, and although we were planning for a third child, our planning in this department was ahead of schedule. She was now three months pregnant and would be delivering just about the time the six months permit would have ended. Worse still, once you know you might be heading off to a country, you start following the news, and the news about Zimbabwe wasn’t very good. Crisis, people being beaten up for no reason, torture, inflation, and so the list went on. We had made some contacts with Dutch expats living in Zimbabwe working for the same organisation, and they managed to convince us that not everything you read in the papers is true and that they had a great life there with some minor challenges.

But basically it was fun, safe and we would be very welcome. We decided to go and take the risk of having to return after half a year. Easier said than done, keeping in mind the work permit issue wasn’t really progressing. I received a phone call from my director to be from Zimbabwe. He told me his name and introduced himself, to which I replied he was not the director, since I had just talked to the director a week ago and he had given his approval for my coming over there. Apparently the previous director was now in Thailand and he was the new guy. Good first impression… I had wanted to quit before really starting and return to my old job, now that is was still possible. I had been waiting for a couple of months and the situation didn’t seem to be changing much to the better. I was getting sick and tired of driving to The Hague to pretend to work whilst waiting, doing the secretarial odd job (such as phoning all country directors to ask whether they would be attending a meeting) and earning half the money I was used to since we were still in Holland not getting all the extra expat perks and benefits.
We had received new plane tickets for the fourth time since our trip had to be postponed time and time again due to work permit issues. Last month had been even harder with most of our stuff in a container, having to borrow some old garden chairs from neighbours to sit in and sleeping on an air mattress with our kids in an empty house. I had to postpone the end of the rental agreement for 2 times. We were feeling like unemployed bums. I had had it with this stupid organisation I used to want to work for, before even really starting to work for them. Our families were also anxious about us leaving or staying after all. It’s not nice to have three goodbye parties, one every month, because you believe you are finally going, but staying put after all. But, a life of adventure was calling and just around the corner, although the corner was a very long and wide one. We decided to stick with it and wait. In April 2002 we finally left.

Even before leaving I was informed that I would not be going to Mutare, but to Bulawayo, the second largest city. As I did not know either of these places, and our newly made internet Dutch friends and colleagues were in Bulawayo, I didn’t care. I was also not going to be part of the financial management programme (or Fin Man as it was called) since that program had been cancelled due to the fact that VNG (Association of Dutch Municipalities) broke off their joint program with SNV as there was disagreement over the results or lack thereof. In addition, technical assistance, where you physically sit at the beneficiary organisation and assist them pretending to be sharing and transferring knowledge, was also out the window. It was now called Development Assistance, and I would be one of those development assistants. Again, I didn’t care, as long as I was leaving. It did make me wonder what kind of paranoid, schizophrenic and unstable organisation I was going to work for.



I had been in South Africa before. The first time was with my wife, while doing research for my thesis on internet in developing countries. This time I was on my own. Following our travels through Portuguese speaking Africa I wanted to go and look for a job in Mozambique, and South Africa is where the cheapest flights would land coming from Europe. After all, I had talked to some people, met others and had uncomfortably held hands for about thirty minutes with one of the bosses at the universities IT department, so a job would be easy to get. My wife wasn’t too happy with my decision to take six weeks off and explore the opportunities.

As I was preparing for our future and had no laptop, I decided to bring my full sized computer and monitor with me. It weighed a ton, and since I didn’t want it returned to me in pieces, I took it as hand luggage. Pretending to carry something light, while the sports bag strap dug itself into my shoulder ever further was something I would just have to endure.
I managed to safely pass the baggage control and into the plane in Amsterdam and only had my next flight from Rome to Johannesburg to worry about. Or so I thought. The Alitalia plane supposed to leave from Rome didn’t because of technical problems. After eight hours waiting and only a bottle of water to get by, with lots of complaining and shouting as Italians do so well, they drove us to an expensive hotel at 2 am, where I emptied part of the mini bar. Only three hours later, we were woken up again, with people missing who were either sleeping or never got to sleep and decided to explore Rome by night.

Early morning customs officers, especially in Italy, tend not to be the nicest persons, so when slugging my “hand luggage” through customs, which I only had to do because of the stupid delay and few hours of sleep, they decided to check my bags. I don’t know if it was my Italian sweet talking or the lack thereof, or the fact that they grew tired of me asking them to explain the difference between a laptop and a computer, since both devises performed the same tasks, but they let me go eventually.

Once over Africa, I wondered what the heck I was doing, flying to a country far away, looking for a job and adventure, but decided it was better to catch up on some sleep that I had missed the night before.

Flying through South Africa, I stayed with my mother-in-law’s cousin in Johannesburg who was married to the regional director of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a great Christian and welcoming couple who had lived in Africa most of their lives. On my second day, whilst preparing for my trip to Mozambique, he asked me over dinner whether I would like to go with him in a Cessna, doing a trip over Johannesburg. Not one to miss out on an adventure, I gladly accepted the offer. What he had failed to tell me however, was the minor detail that was this was a test flight for the said plane. They had received a new second-hand plane from the States and this would be to check whether the thing was any good at fulfilling its meaning in life and would actually fly. About halfway through the flight, they turned off the engines and we dropped what felt like a kilometre. With my heart now pounding in my throat, I tried to ask in an as non-scared shitless voice as I managed, whether this little part of the test was to be done more than once. Much to my relief the pilot confirmed this was to be only once, and the engines did turn on again before a stall. I kind of enjoyed the rest of the flight, looking down on Johannesburg. A thick layer of brown smog originating from people trying to warm their houses in the settlements, contrasting with a wonderful early morning sun amidst a cold winter.

Not being very sure whether there would be any other flight test surprises, I was very happy to be landing and standing on the ground once more, like us mortal humans are supposed to.

I needed a car if I was going to get to Mozambique. I looked around and found a garage selling a beetle (Volkswagen). I wasn’t sure about the state of the funny looking beast, so had a test drive. It seemed to start, drive, turn and stop, so that was ok. It was a bright yellow, with very wide oversized tires and NO FEAR written on the sides. I liked it. All I had to do was pay for it with all the money I had left and register it to my name.

Any new owner must go through a road worthiness test, even in South Africa, so I booked a time and showed up only to be told the car was not roadworthy. I experienced what confirmed the verdict they had passed as I approached a red light on a busy crossover,where despite all my pumping the brakes, the car had different ideas all together. I drove through the red light, or robot as they call a traffic light in South Africa, avoiding oncoming traffic and taking a long rest by the side of the road once making it to safety. The phrase “watch out Robot ahead” now made sense. I proceeded with driving very slowly back to the garage making sure I could stop by shifting back in gear hundreds of meters before any traffic lights or slower traffic.

The garage wasn’t too happy to see me return, made a fuss about warranty, sold as is, etc. I had no money left, so nothing to lose and also managed to put up a good fight in return. They agreed to fix the brakes and take it through the road worthiness test. They did so a day later. Only thing now left to do was to register the car to my name and get me some new number plates. I wanted to leave for Mozambique to pursue my opportunities and felt I had spent too much time in South Africa already. In a continent where one is to slow down and adapt, I was in quite a hurry.

When I went to the registration office they told me everything was ok, I just needed to go to the Benoni police station (about 20 kilometres from Johannesburg). So go I did. Once there, I was told the vehicle registration numbers didn’t add up. The car was either stolen or papers forged. I didn’t know whether to cry or crazy laugh. Worse still, I called the garage and they didn’t want to talk to the police, and the police didn’t want to talk to the garage. The garage had probably made a deal on the roadworthiness test and didn’t want to get any attention from the authorities. I insisted for about four hours and finally they talked. Turned out that for my road worthiness test they had just used another Volkswagen beetles papers. So my car was “checked” but given the ok with the wrong papers. This also meant that whoever checked the car didn’t check anything at all, but probably got a bit of money to stamp a document.

After almost ten hours at the police station, with nice gospel music playing in the background, buying a bit of lunch consisting of some meat and maize pap from an open air caterer in the backyard and pleading, begging and talking, I got my car back, with the promise of going to the garage the next morning in order to get the right papers. I did, and after five entire days I finally had a car I could actually drive without it killing me or gettingme arrested. I also had the fuel gage fixed, since I found out it stuck at half a tank despite being empty. I discovered this during a drive through Joburg only to find the car was running on empty. This happened to be in Hillbrow, an area of town you don’t want to be, especially if you are a young white man. I had been to, and stayed in Yeoville, but this was an all together rougher area.”They will steal the jam from your sandwich”, is how South Africans describe it. I pulled to the side of the road, and was greeted by people warming their hands over an open fire in a metal garbage bin. The local prostitutes also complimented me on my good looking car and asked if they could have a ride.

Only thing I could think of saying was: it’s not running right know, so I can’t give myself a ride, let alone give you one. I tried to walk confidently, as if to state I wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody and looked for a petrol station. Preferably one at a distance that did not cause me to be mugged or raped. I tried to look like what my car stated, No Fear! I found a station about a block away, much to my relief and happiness.

I bought a bottle of coke, emptied it in the gutter and filled it with 1.5 litres of gasoline, since asking to borrow a container of some sorts was not going to work in this neighbourhood. At least I now had something to put in my tank or throw at a potential mugger. I filled up quickly, still looking very buff and menacing, pretending to know the area and feel right at home, while most likely looking like a scared Dutch dumb ass in a very dangerous and black neighbourhood. I managed to drive to the gas station very happily spending whatever money to fill the tank and drive away.

The next day, I finally managed to head off to Mozambique. At the border, the customs officer asked me to open up the hood of the car, only to be surprised there was no engine but a weird looking thing. I explained it was a computer monitor. He didn’t understand. I explained again. He still didn’t understand. I said it was a TV. This he understood. Surprised by a TV where the engine was supposed to be and an engine where my bags should be, he let me through. Confident that my tires were wider than most of the holes in the road ahead I reached Maputo by nightfall.

The next morning I drove straight to the University only to be told by the manager’s assistant that my friend and potential employer whom I held hands with for an uncomfortable time, had left for the USA for four weeks for a work visit and conference. Bugger. I spent the next weeks trying to make other contacts, dropping my CV and looking for opportunities. But I didn’t manage. This country was much like Portugal in that you don’t just drop a CV and wait for them to give you a call. It would take getting to know people and building a relationship before standing a chance. Although I met some influential people, the time would be too short to get anything meaningful happening. Going back to the Netherlands with unfinished business and a potential “I told you so” from my wife, I managed to leave one day early, planning my arrival with my wife finishing school to go home by train. I managed to track her down and sat one row of seats behind her, only to pinch her neck once she left the train and was walking to the bus. I knew her well enough to know that if I´d pinch her butt I would surely be hit. Even then, the neck was a risk. Her instinct took over, but just before almost slapping me in the face she realized it was her long gone husband.

The beetle I left with my wife´s family in Joburg, who were nice enough to allow me to park it in their garden. When we returned to South Africa and Mozambique two years later, it started without problems, only to blow up the engine with shrapnel all over the road (it was leaking oil before it reached the engine) on a very dangerous stretch of highway. We were very fortunate to have someone offer us a lift to a gas station, where we called a tow truck. The white South African with the tow truck drove us back to our car, showing us his tow trucking injuries from people who had tried to rob him by pretending to be broken down, only to show their guns and try to rob him. He also had two guns ready to be used, so we felt safe. We towed the now stupid #$@”/(! beetle back to a garage, and sold it to twolocal police officers, who liked the wide tires. I only got a receipt, but that was good enough for me.

The tow truck man was nice enough to drive us back the 120 plus kilometres to Johannesburg, where my wife’s surprised family had a laugh when they saw us coming back after going away the same morning, ready to conquer Mozambique. With the money we got from the beetle, we hired a car and drove on the next morning for a second attempt.

The reason we decided to go by car in the first place was because car rental in Mozambique was a very pricey affair, and our first train journey back in 1997 had been a bit of a challenge. It went a little something like this… As students, we spent the night in Pretoria,waiting until it was time to head off to the train station and catch the weekly train toMaputo. I had somehow managed to buy the tickets in advance and we would have our own coach in first class. First class bought you exactly that, some privacy. Finding the correcttrain was challenging enough. Fully loaded with our backpacks causing us to almost fall over backwards, we waited for any announcements on the PA system. They came, in anhardly audible dribble of words, which caused large groups of people to move somewhere else, with us tailing behind just in case it would be an announcement for our train. A couple of hours later and an equal number of running endeavours to another platform, our train finally arrived, way later than then the time table suggested. We sought our carriage and cabin number and settled in for the night. This being our first train journey in Africa, we weren’t sure of what to expect and decided it would be best to lock up and wait for the nightto pass. A couple of hours later, we heard loud noises, shouting and banging coming from the cabin next to us and in the hall. We assumed there might be some robbing and mugging going on. I pulled out my knife, just in case. We opened up the window for some fresh air and have a look at the surroundings at night as well as any indication of trouble. No sooner did I stick my head out of the window or what felt like a fly going hyper speed hit my lip. I wasn’t sure what it was but we quickly pulled up the window and the metal shutters. Hard banging of some object ensued against the metal shutters. We were now pretty sure we were under attack by angry black people trying to get our stuff. I was prepared to put up a good fight.

After a while, the situation seemed to calm down, with us still waiting in anticipation whenthe train stopped in the middle of nowhere. We carefully lowered the window again. After half an hour, two police cars drove up heading towards the train. With police around, we found it safe to investigate what the heck was happening. Once outside the cabin, we saw how an older white Afrikaner man, half drunk, half beaten up was taken away, together with a young ugly white woman. We saw some other white young men and engaged in conversation.

Turned out the white old Boer was in second class, with his young wife. He was drunk and angry and they had a fight. All the black people in the carriage thought this was quite funny. But they tired of him and his shouting and insults against his wife. He pulled down his wife´s dress leaving her standing in her undies in front of a laughing crowd. When the drunk became abusive, they told him to get the heck out and stop. The white young men had also been attracted by all the noise and decided to have a look. One of the men had been raised by an abusive drunk father that used to hit his mother, so he didn’t like what he saw one bit. A fight between the old Boer and the younger men ensued. They had managed to punch and kick the Boer into submission and locked him up in the toilet, which as we now saw, was just next to our private quarters. Angry, drunk but strong, the Boer had broken the rigid plastic toilet seat with his hands and had started swinging it around. The high speed fly I had felt and the banging noise afterwards had been him hitting our metal shutters with half the seat. Relieved and tired, we talked some more with the young men as the culprits were taken away by police while still shouting and shouted at by the other passengers. I was happy. It hadn’t been angry black muggers, but a Boer, a descendent of Dutchmen, speaking Afrikaans, a language I could understand, who had been the cause of our stress and bad first night. I had my own people to blame.
After that, apart from the train breaking down somewhere in Mozambique for three hours, we managed to survive the rest, get through border control and set feet in Maputo central station.

By now, we were getting used to strange and unorthodox ways of travelling. Even coming to South Africa had been a challenge. With Air Balkan flying us from Amsterdam to Sofia with a stopover in Vienna. Apparently the flight from Vienna to Sofia was fully booked, butpeople wanted to get on, which resulted in every seat taken and anyone left had no choice but to stand in the isle. The plane took off regardless, with this being the first time I had seen people standing in a plane for the entire one hour trip. The "fasten your seatbelts" sign didn’t make much sense after that. The trip from Sofia to Johannesburg had been better, despite the plane being a sluggish Tupolev and the cabin crew looking like either Borat or an ugly prostitute with enough makeup and lipstick on to paint the entire runway.

The food and drinks were great though and it seemed like the crew wanted to make sure you had enough alcohol in your system to not notice anything else including the five yearold single movie that was played over and over again.

Other forms of questionable transport we used were the Chapas in Mozambique. Nowadays these minivans and pickups are checked for the number of people allowed to be squeezed in. But in the late nineties there were more people than seats in Chapas, so hanging on at the back by your fingers or hanging with half your body out of the van was quite normal. You easily got intimate with your fellow passengers as someone’s butt would be in your face or their bosom in your neck. On a particular day, which we found out was a public holiday; the minivan drivers decided most of them also wanted a day off. We were stuck about 20kilometres from our rented house and wanted to go home after a hot day in town. The chapas were very few with long “queues” of people trying to get one of the few seats or alternative gymnast prone positions. We decided to go for it when the only seats available were on top of the minivan. It was a truck with the back closed up by some tarpaulin on a metal frame.

We climbed up and tried to sit on the metal frame, but managed only to sit on people’s heads trying to hold on to something fixed.

With half the journey done, we were happy to be refreshed by the wind, knowing that although in a precarious situation, we were somehow better off than the ones packed up beneath us on whose heads we were seated. The vehicle stopped. We climbed off after a while. One of the wheels had lost too many nuts and was now in danger of eminent collapse. We decided that this was a bit too much of a death daring call and decided to walk the rest of the way home in the smouldering heat.

By now, we had done dangerous flights, train rides and minivans, we had proven we weren’t sissies.

17 August, 2015 14:31

Africa is not for sissies. This seems to be one of the white African’s favourite sayings. It is said with a mix of pride of obviously not being one (a Sissy), since you were born there and a kind of warning to any non-African who might dare to think it’s all adventure, fun and relaxing with a cold beer in your hand. Any expat who has proved he is worthy, by having stayed at least a couple of years and not left screaming with his tail between his legs, is entitled to repeat the expression to newcomers or fellow non-sissies. Provided of course you have actually done, or tried to do, some business and not sat in a compound drinking gin and tonics and playing the odd round of golf or squash, only meeting Africans on your way to the office in your air-conditioned and chauffeured 4×4. Of course there are sissies in Africa. But they tend to stay in the larger cosmopolite cities, where the only difference with the civilized world is the temperature outside and the odd occurrence of the generator turning on when the electricity has decided to die off again.
For me, high highs and low lows better define the live a white dude like me will experience when living in Africa.

I once read that there are 3 types of expats in Africa. Those who love it and (want to) stay forever, those who after an initial high get into a depression hating everything African (including Africans), and finally, those who had an interesting time and are able to weigh the cons and pros. I hope I am one of the later.

My book is available at last.