The Real Africa: Border Crossing Into Zambia

I couldn’t imagine what was taking so long. I’d passed through more than thirty-five border posts over the last two years and never did it seem to take this long. By now I was regretting giving my passport, carnet and motorcycle documents to Ronnie. We’d crossed the Zambezi on the makeshift ferry more than an hour ago. The muddy patch of Zambia where the ferry dropped its loading ramp was littered by zones of trucks parked haphazardly and blocking access to the offices of customs and immigration. A young boy in tattered jeans, a faded t-shirt and no shoes waved for my attention. By now I’d learn to quickly take notice to such distractions and then ignore them. Whether Africa, South or Central America locals will do anything to capture your attention. Most of the time, once they do victims are subject to any number of harassing schemes. I was wary. But he was trying to direct me through a narrow rocky path that split between two cargo trucks. It didn’t look good: meaning it looked slippery and messy. But I went for it.


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Ferry loading and unloading area at Kazangula, Zambia on the Zambia side of the Zambezi River.

The border post looked like a traffic jam on the 405 in Orange County. Dozens of people milled about, many sporting baskets of cargo balanced on tehir heads. Some men wandered around with clipboards or paperwork. Umbrellas obscured the view into the immigration office as the rain poured. I was sure my carnet and passport were getting soaked. And as the thunder crashed louder and the rain fell faster and harder I took refuge under the only place I could find a dry place to stand: outside the police shack. The one room block house about 3 meters by 4 meters had a single desk and two small benches. A rusted corrugated tin roof with a few centimters of overhang was the best place to stand. I patiently waited for Ronnie to return. I offered to watch the bikes because border posts are notorious for crooks, criminals or anyone looking for an easy grab.

The entrance and exit to the muddy ferry landing area was a narrow gate big enough for only one truck to pass. As I practiced patience and waited for Ronnie the gate became a microcosm of Africa’s generation old conflict. Two truckers from the Congo working for competing transport companies brought the border post to standstill due to their stubborn inability to relax and let one or the other pass. There was yelling in a language I couldn’t understand yet fully understood what they were fighting about. I expected weapons to be pulled out as the guy existing was sure he was in the right while the other trucker just leaned on his horn. I just watched the world go by while Ronnie dealt with the bureaucracy of border business.

At first the whacking sound didn’t register. Then the screams which I first confused for laughter turned out to be moans and cries of pain. I pivoted into the doorway of the small shack and saw a man with a billiard stick swung over his head and smash down on the thighs of a victim sitting on the bench. He fell to his knees onto the concrete floor. Three others were crowded on the bench that could barely seat them. The young man sat back down when another whip of the biliard stick came crashing down on his shoulder. I thought to myself. Now I am in Zambia, the real Africa.

The beating went on for twenty minutes while I waited for Ronnie. At one point the officer stomped his feet down on the bare toes of the victims. They apparantly stole a tent and a battery from the farmer they worked for. The three officers in the shack were determined to get a confession. Until they did, they’d beat the poor kids to submission. I turned away avoiding eye contact with the officer. The next time I looked inside the billiard stick had been broken in half. I learned that one had admitted to stealing the tent. And soon another pointed the finger to his buddy as the battery thief. More kicks, more smacks and soon the officer was filling out forms in triplicate that would amount to a property report for the nearby prison in Livingstone. All of them were going.

I imagined ending up on the wrong side of the law here in Zambia or anywhere else north I’d be going. Diplomatic immunity, international safety in tourism, innocent third-party and other phrases circled my head. Better be careful. Better watch my back, my front and everything else. The fearful eyes of the four thieves locked onto mine the last time I looked into the room. I felt their pain but offered no sign of emotion. I’m in their country. And in Zamiba, I learned, they don’t treat kindly to thieves. Obviously.

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The beating went on for nearly an hour inside this police shack Kazangula, Zambia near the ferry border crossing from Botswana while I stood under the eaves trying to stay dry.

Ronnie had to buy me a visa for $100, carbon tax for another $30 and liability insurance for another $50 – perhaps the most expensive border crossing in my two-year journey. With a handful of soggy papers and rubber stamp ink running in the pouring rain, I packed the papers in my top box and headed toward Livingstone less than an hour’s drive away. Even in the pouring rain to the southeast I notice an oddly shapped cloud rise in an distinct and almost cylindrical fashion. I knew it was created by the might Zambezi River as it dumped down massive amounts of water down the legendary Victoria Falls.

Weary and waterlogged we arrived Arriving at Jolly Boys Backpackers in Livingstone where I confirmed with DHL in Windhoek to send my package for pick up at the local DHL office here. Ronnie and I shared a simple A-Frame chalet with a thatched roof. Bathrooms and showers were just off a simple courtyard fitted with comfortable benches lined with cushions and large futons. A nearby bar, eating area, pool and Jacuzzi made for a perfect place to chill after taking in the falls, kayaking, rafting, bungee jumping or whatever activity the young crowd gathered here takes in. For Ronnie he is on a fast track to get to Lilongwe in Malawi where friends wait for him and they’ll spend the next weekend on Lake Malawi. I will catch up on my writing and wait for DHL to bring my camera.

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