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Ben Trovato

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

I don’t know why there is a group called Doctors Without Borders and not a group called Columnists Without Borders

I don’t know why there is a group called Doctors Without Borders and not a group called Columnists Without Borders.

Doctors are the last people on earth to worry about going through borders. And even if they do have a panic attack, they can mask the symptoms with any number of so-called legal drugs that they carry with them at all times, a luxury not afforded to columnists, especially not those about to cross from northern KwaZulu-Natal into southern Mozambique with nothing more than an old Land Rover, an obsolete map and a crushing hangover.

Minutes before hitting the border, Brenda spotted a roadblock and shouted at me to fasten my seat belt. I slammed on anchors, sending the beer bottle flying from between my legs. Stupidly, it wedged itself under the brake pedal while the seat belt did what all seat belts do in times of emergency. Release. Lock. Release. Lock. By the time I had the capricious bitch engaged, the cop was at my window.

“Why are you trying to kill your wife?” he asked. Good god. What does he know? Who has he been talking to?

I played dumb. “What do you mean, officer?” I asked, trying not to breathe on him. “You’ve been driving like this,” he said, making his hand move like a black mamba on the run.

I assured him that I would never try to kill my wife. Especially not in front of the police. His mouth twitched in what must have been amusement because he let us go instead of taking us back to the police station and harvesting our organs for muti.

The border was a tremendous disappointment. Nobody insisted on searching us. Nobody asked for a bribe. I felt offended. Were we not worth harassing? I wanted to confront someone and ask: “Is it because we’re white?”

Instead, I accosted a grizzled war veteran and asked him which road led to Maputo. Half a dozen tracks fanned out like a sandy delta. One sign said Ponta do Ouro. Another said Ponta Malongane. A third said Ponta Mamoli. The veteran looked in the direction of Mamoli and nodded imperceptibly.

The Land Rover went 100m and sank up to its ankles. This was a brutal start to our holiday. Brenda looked at me as if to say: “What kind of man are you that you can’t drive a 4×4?” I looked at her as if to say: “Well, who wouldn’t rather be lying in a meadow in a turquoise sundress with flowers in their hair, writing poems to lovers we have never met?”

I slammed the flailing beast into low range and got us back to the border, where a heavily armed Frelimo soldier laughed long and hard when I inquired as to the whereabouts of his capital city. The only reason I never got out of the car and smacked him sharply across the side of the head was because I knew he would shoot me in the face.

Good thing we got stuck because we were on the wrong road. Imbecile car. After endless screaming and gunning the engine, the right road took on all the characteristics of a road that was very, very wrong. Nobody had warned me that I would need the instincts of a migrating swallow to find my way around this godforsaken country.

Instead of bringing a GPS, we relied on verbal communication to get a fix on our position.

“The sea is on our right.”

“Rubbish! It’s on our left.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No, you’re crazy.”

That’s how we found ourselves violently veering along the desolate fringes of an elephant reserve where no white man has been since 1 Reconnaissance Battalion was here and no elephant has been spotted since a Renamo patrol impaled the last one on a telephone pole and turned it into a spit braai.

Brenda had sent us down a filthy road from hell that left the Land Rover covered from head to toe in mud and me a gibbering wreck.

The civil war might be over, but there’s a new battle being waged for the hearts and minds of Mozambicans.

“This is mCel turf,” Brenda whispered nervously when we passed through villages with abandoned spaza shops painted bright yellow. Several goats and a dead dog later, we would enter enemy territory, the vivid blue shacks demarcating a Vodacom stronghold.

 

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