Friday, September 3, 2010

chirundu crossings.

(gabriella and kasha with nkhasis, west kilimanjaro, august 2010)

everyone's back at school. away from the wilds and neatly stacked into a classroom.
everyone's back from holidays.
except me.
i never went anywhere, technically speaking.
okokok. i rode horses in maasailand but that's just up the road.
i never went more than 50kms outside arusha. i am not sure this was an entirely clever thing.
i need to pinch myself.
still. it's fine. my car couldn't have made it all the way to the coast this time.

the winds have started again. from the mountains at night. they are still fairly gentle but i know how menacing they can become. screaming like a boiling kettle through the cracks. the windows are beginning to rattle and it's becoming dry again. very dry.
my horse has become tetchy.

back to school. it takes me back to those bus trips from lusaka to salisbury (harare now) in the 70's. when i was five and a half and still losing my milk teeth. i would press my face against the window and scream my head off. my mother would smile and wave bravely as if i was coming back tomorrow. it would be weeks before i saw her again. sometimes months. we would catch the school bus from entire day and half a night away, across the border which was only open to school buses. the zimbabwean war of liberation was picking up speed and nobody else traveled that road. only the school buses had right of way. and invisible soldiers from both sides.
i remember the zambian bus would reverse up to the rhodesian bus half way across the chirundu bridge which spanned the zambezi river. we would all pile out and leap into the little bit in the middle which was No Man's Land...this made us happy and we all pretended it was ours. we would dance into the middle gleefully shouting "no man's land no man's land!" staring down at the river below through the iron grids of the bridge. until one day the tired war torn stoned soldiers got cross with us and waved their AK 47's and shooed us back. after that we would wait until we were told to cross the little 10m piece of hot tarmac to The Other Side. in single file. quietly. where were the teachers? i can't remember any. there must have been someone.

i remember customs and immigration, the scary bit. and the health desk. they would check our little yellow health books for cholera and yellow fever then pretend they weren't up to date and that we would have to be injected. we would be sick with fear. they even went so far as taking rusty old needles out and cotton wool then laugh rambunctiously at our pale, pinched white faces. i remember the soldiers rifling through our suitcases which were filled with mostly clothes and the odd treasure of flour (for our mothers because you couldn't get it in zambia) or chinese checkers for christmas which would be immediately confiscated.

my mother taught us how to lie. she would give us pocket money to buy fizz pops at karoi, the first stop on the rhodesian is super side (sweets and chocolates were unavailable in zambia at the time). the customs man in zambia would bark, " have you any money to declare?" and we would squeak " yes. two rhodesian dollars," of which he would happily and speedily relieve us whilst mumbling something like "absolutely not allowed. illegal. blah blah." after that my mother sewed our sweet money into the inside pockets of our school blazers and taught us how to lie with poker faces. we became very adept at it.

it would take hours and hours to cross the border. hours and hours after baking hot hours and warm coca colas (on the rhodesian side). we would leave as the sun was edging near the western sky and the bus would wind it's way up the zambezi escarpment. winding along the empty road and through miles and miles of mopane forests dotted with baobab trees. game was plentiful. wild dogs. elephant. herds of buffalo. impala. zebra. giraffe. it was the only sign of life we would see along the way. there were no people to be seen. we would reach the outskirts of salisbury after dark late at night. i could tell we were in the highlands, near to school, because i could smell the "christmas trees", the pine trees. the air was cold and crisp. and the stars stark and bright and i would start to cry in the dark because then i knew i was very very very far from home. the matrons would meet us in the school car park with sandwiches and hot cocoa. they tried to be kind but you still felt little, desolate, scared and far away.

i can't believe our parents trusted the journey. i mean that no one would blow up the bus. it happened one year. not to my bus. but the other one. after that we flew to school. when the war became hot.

here, school is a ten minute trip; down the ngorobob hill, round the corner, past the effing factory and bingo. it's a dead cinch. dead cinch.

toodely toot, y'all. bisous X.X.X. earnest ones tinted with mountain winds x j


bellananda said...

wow. once again you amaze me with what you survived as part of a regular ritual in your younger life (normal to you since that's all you knew?), compared to how growing-up was, in the utterly beige, completely uneventful middle-class suburbs of a small city in kansas.

happy beginning-of-school for you (the 3-day labor day weekend starts here in about 1.5 hours -- yippee!)!

xoxo, sb in kc

Linda Sue said...

WOW indeed! I had to sit back for a good long while having read this little snippet of your past , your life in a land so few really must write a book- I promise, you must!
Your mother must have been brave, or psychic to trust that all would go well crossing the border and on the long journey...amazing!
Go now- write a BOOK! i will buy many copies!!!

JoeinVegas said...

Yes, such things for kids to go through.

Butternut Squash said...

How frightening. Your parents must have trusted that times would change and that you would be safe. Was the beauty of the place worth the risk, or is it just that there is risk even in the most ordinary places, so you live with the risk you know?

Mud in the City said...

Amazing story, beautifully told. That is the same border I crossed years ago (in far less 'interesting' times) at which my Norwegian travelling companion was held by police because they refused to believe that Norway was a real country...

Janelle said...

thanks all for your not sure what my parents thought. i guess they thought it was safe and fine, which it was....until near the end then of course they changed the transport. lots of kids were on the bus. i was just quite little, along with quite a few other little ones. and mud, ask liane about chirundu bus trips and the injection man!!! if i remember correctly, she would be like the mama, and very grumpy about it! heh he j

Angela said...

When I think of the five-and-a-half-year-olds here in my local kindergarten, would they cope with such challenges? Oh God, they hardly understand their own little sheltered lives. They are all brought in Mama`s car and picked up every day, and they can hardly imagine a life beyond our little island here. (That is why I read Rudyard Kipling`s stories to them and tell them of far.away lands which make them shake their heads).

Yes please, WRITE YOUR BOOK, and I will also buy many copies!

Val said...

great memories! inconceivable in this day and age though.
how the world has changed in so many ways - I hope you remind your kids often :):):)

word veri 'outerove'... outer rove?

Will said...

Seems others are suggesting a book from you. I know, I know... you've told me your reasons.

As I read this I dredged up photos from memory - Federal marshalls shepherding little African American girls to school in the 1950s US South.

And - Irish children on buses when the IRA was bombing anything British.

And - Buses loaded with kids escaping the Saddam invasion of Kuwait.

And I had to ride a beat-up old bus 24 miles to school, it was a bus fare bus, not a school bus - and the trauma point was having to transfer at a seedy downtown bus station. I was too young to understand but the questionable people I avoided every morning made me more than a bit nervous.

Good story!

family Affairs said...

I'm back at work next week. Can't face it either. Lovely memories - going to forward to my father to would relate to long journeys across Africa to get to school (Kimberly!) Lx

Miranda said...

Ah. This made me cry just a little bit.

Lori ann said...

I'm feeling a little sheepish stressing so over leaving my 19 year old baby in NYC for school. (She took herself, i just came and went, sad sad sad).

I don't know how your Mother did it. But except thats how it was done.

Janelli, writer (make a book), singer, songwriter, your one amazing gal.


p.g. great pics

Amanda said...


have to agree with lori here. like her, i'm taking my last born off to college and having a bit of a sad time of it. but reading about what you had to go through as a mere baby to get to school is nothing short of incredible. gad. where were the teachers indeed! left to play on a bridgespan and having ak47s waved your way? your street smarts are light years beyond anything i've heard of. there's such sadness to this story, but god knows you grew up tough because of it. xoa

Celeste said...

I know it has been said before but you really should write a book Janelle, you write so beautifully.

For people who haven't met you this story probably comes as a surprise but I will always remember you as one of the strongest, calmest and most unflappable people I have ever had the privilege to meet and this tale goes a long way towards explaining that!

A great glimpse into a world that is largely unknown to the vast majority of people.

Spiny Marshmallow said...

nice stuff babe - beautiful writing - close up and graphic. v v v nice indeed

Anonymous said...

This bring back so many memories of the Chimurenga years -- parents stopping to check for landmines and riding in convoys and all the hectic paranoia of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. But us white kids were so sheltered in contrast to our Ruwashona classmates who had to walk those same roads.

Some lovely but painful memories there.

Janelle said...

thanks all for comments...yeah. i think anonymous at the end hit it bang on the head...some kids had to walk those for our situation, we didn't think it was anything untoward at the time. it really wasn't. it was just how things were back then. x j

Dumdad said...

And to think I thought taking the No. 1 bus to school in Leeds and then walking alone across a park was a bit of a trek!

karen said...

Wow, it brings back so many memories.. of those years in the then rhodesian war. And I do love your description of the Zambezi escarpment - you have captured it so perfectly...

Karen said...

What an incredible story, and what beautiful words! Wow, the visions of you kids dancing on the bridge, and learning to lie, and arriving to sandwiches and hot cocoa...

Dang it, you had better be writing a book! :)

Tavarua said...


Great post - I think my life is very dull compare to yours...
Stopping by to say Hi, are on my way to Ghana...Life is Good... I want to thank you so much for the site/video
ashes and snow...What a great photographer ...I had not heard about him until now....Just fantastic...
All the best,