By Lance Mason

A lesson in southern Africa, circa 1988.

In Africa, we are all children. Everything is new, and everything is old. The sapling sprouting among the creepers is new; the forest, old. Though the baby in the kaross sling is new, his tribe is old. The dawn’s breeze swirls the dust over the Magadigadi pans and is gone, but the ancient dust remains, the scorched powder of a continent’s bones.

The heat of the Kalahari, thick and mighty across this sweep of gasping desert, has a life-force of its own. Like an animal, it waits, resting, through the African night. But with the day it stirs, and grows with the sun, gathering power like a sky-borne fist. It stalks you as you move, watches for weakness. If you stumble, it will thrash you. Show frailty, and it will murder you. Still, this is Africa, and there are many ways to die. This is known, but no one knows Africa.

From the Gabarone railway station, Sunday morning, late October, the sky grades from ink to plum to, in the east, vermillion. Botswana is well into the dry season. Hundreds of miles north, in the Okavango Delta, the hippo drags the smooth barrel of his belly through the mud-strewn grass, along the swampy troughs that lead from pool to pool, stream to stream, all of them shrinking. He, like the elephant and the antelope, follows the receding water, still taking life from the rains that came but now have fled.

But that is north, up where the rivers spilling out of Angola form that broad, fecund, swampy paradise on the skirts of the Kalahari. Here in the south, across the border from Johannesburg, all is parched. The heat grips its human victims, threatens to grind their strength to sand against the desert’s stones. Threatens to, but doesn’t. For the Africans are at one with the heat, as though with that animal that could kill you and eat you but doesn’t because you are one with it. As strong as the heat is, the Africans are stronger.

It was 1988, and I was in Botswana absorbing the hospitality of friends who worked there. It was one of many such trips I would take—and still take—moving, exploring, untangling the twisted shoelaces of my life. I had been up with Dan to the Delta, seen the hippos and the marabou storks and the tsessebe, the malachite kingfisher and the bat-eared fox and the mud-encrusted, blunt-brained Cape buffalo, black-eyed and brutish.

Dan had taken a break from his duties with the State Department, and we’d gone from Maun by bush-plane into the center of “the Swamp.” We bought provisions at the trading post of a mad Australian who lived full-time in this back-of-beyond, and belonged there. At the post we’d found a guide, and the three of us set off, Dan, Kamanga, and I, covering the hilly grasslands by foot and the waterways by mokoro, Kamanga’s dug-out canoe. We’d tramped and camped in the open, swum in ponds that the crocodiles had surrendered, and followed elephant spoor within sight of a lion’s kill. Three boys in the wild woods, pure and without purpose. On the best of nights, the horizon danced around us under the blue-white branches of a forest of lightning.

Now it was over. I was back in the bake-room of Gabarone, on the platform with my pack, waiting for a train. I was leaving Botswana. The train would take me north-northeast along the border, up to Francistown on the Bulawayo line, then on to Harare. From there I would fly to Sydney, and on to my new job back in New Zealand.

But, for now, I stood in the rising, ticking heat. Dan had dropped me off on his way to the embassy—even on Sunday morning, he had work to do. Our trip to the Delta had cost him some valuable desk time, and now he had to make it up. So I waited in the station’s shadows and tried to comprehend Africa.

The wild Africa of storybook, the vibrant, frightening terra incognita on whose verge Burton, Speke, and Stanley stood, staring and trembling with excitement, has long since passed into history. That Africa, the biologic, ecologic, uncatalogueable cosmic diversity of forms and species has died, in its skin as well as its heart. The Africa we think we know, or at least recognize today, began much later.

In the 1930s and 1940s, confrontation blossomed around the world between geographic sovereignty and imperialist politics. European powers adjusted to new political equations, and Britain surrendered its jewel, India. The culture of Empire was dying. But the stakes were high here, conflicting interests not so easily moralized or recalculated. Opposing wheels of change churned against each other through the 1940s and 1950s, and ideologies, greed, lust for power, old scores, and the myriad promises of what the end of colonialism would bring all combined to set Africa-at-large, and African countries individually, on a violent path to self-determination. To this dream called independence.

The now-terrible irony is that the exploitation and suppression of Africa, honed by European and Arab interests over centuries, found, in the surge to independence, willing collaborators among black African opportunists and outside con-men and -women. As freedom-hungry Africans threw themselves headlong into their passion for self-rule, they too often acquiesced to the charisma of leaders and movements with agendas geared toward tribal and/or individual supremacy. Amin, Obote, Mobutu, Arap Moi, Kabila, Mugabe—the litany of abusers and consequent abuse reads long and sorrowful. Assassination, coups, backdoor deals, cults, civil war, ethnic cleansing, genocide. If Conrad was right, and there is darkness here, it was and is in the hearts of those who led Africa to its current state of decline.

The old black-and-brass steam locomotive snarls and squeals into the station, setting loose in the enervating heat a score of Botswana Railways personnel to scamper or drag themselves from desk to door, from baggage to cart, from cargo storage to track-side dock. Passenger carriages roll in behind the engine, conductors step down, and with no special ceremony, I hump my pack onboard and find compartment C-10.

Botswana Railways wears its livery with pride, only a year into its own independence from National Railways of Zimbabwe. The tan and green paint is holding up, as is the serviceable gray leather-and-fabric upholstery on the seats in my compartment. It isn’t my compartment, but one I share with two others, both black Africans. He is a minister, in clerical dress, on his way from Johannesburg to Selebi Phikwe. She is traveling to Francistown “on family business.” They are both solicitous of my welfare, and we speak of the heat.

Botswana is one of the success stories of independence in Africa. It has no coast, land-locked between South Africa to the south, Namibia and the Caprivi Strip to the west and north, and Zimbabwe and other countries to the east. It has vast expanses of desert, mineral wealth that escaped early detection, and a small native people. The Bushmen of the Kalahari are short and sinewy, not designed by their God for the heavy manual labor that slave-traders to Arabia and the New World were dealing in. So, Botswana was never the exploitation target for outsiders and corrupt Africans that its neighbors were, and it has moved into the current century with a reasonable promise of survival and success.

The train rolls along its narrow gauge tracks, headed north-northeast, due in Francistown that afternoon. For a century, Francistown had been an outpost for frontier survival, gold mining, and the cross-border trade with Rhodesia. It saw, over that time, uncounted tons of legal, if blood-stained, elephant ivory pass through the hands of the merchants and agents in this sun-seared, tin-roofed settlement. Now, 1988, ivory export is illegal, but rumor claims that hasn’t extinguished the trade. Poachers and smugglers move the contraband by other means – bribes, mislabeled goods, trucks by night. But the sins of Francistown aren’t my concern. I am a vagabond.

I have traveled by rail in many countries prior to this, through Europe, Great Britain, the Americas, and New Zealand. But, as Botswana’s wilderness rolls past the carriage window, I can make only one comparison to these scenes of the great Kalahari. Only once have I seen so inviting a stretch of uninviting country. Twelve years ago, I crossed Australia by train. West of Adelaide, spanning thousands of square miles of sand, saltbush, and desiccation, is the Nullarbor Plain, flat as a page and hot as a griddle. You get a hero’s welcome in Perth just for traversing that God-forsaken desolation. Yet, as in Botswana, a certain comfort can be found in its near-emptiness. Knowing that life is actually being sustained, albeit tenuously, by some few hardy species in such waterless terrain makes the place seem less unkind than it appears. And it appears very unkind indeed. For in these deserts, life seems a stranger to the day. At dawn, the disc of the sun slices through the seam between sky and land, and, until it sets on the other side of Earth, your views are of sweeping, barren tracts that appear unmarked by man. The sandscapes reaches are so vast, yet within range of one’s eye, that, as a mere human speck, you feel like a grain of soil on Nature’s ground. And blessed to be so.

Evidence from anthropology and archeology shows that Africa, before the white man’s maps, was a galaxy of clans, tribes, and native nations. It is now beyond modern conception to grasp how diverse and generally functional it was, and today it is too complex to list the factors of change that have brought much of Africa to its knees. If a single statistic could show what is squeezing the continent’s breath from its body, it would be one given to me by a fifth-generation Anglo-African. He was a farmer from Kenya with a graduate degree in rangeland management from Cornell University. As near as he could estimate from available research, the black population of Kenya circa 1900 was 350,000; in 1998, it was 35 million. Are these figures true? The first one may be unreliable, but the second one is close. And then consider Rwanda: 2 million people in the 1950s; forty years later, 9 million. These facts alone paint a broad-brush sketch of what faces Africa. Kenya as it stands cannot possibly provide the work and food needed for 35 million people. Add to these at least another dozen African countries in similar or worse condition, and the scope of the calamity takes shape in one’s mind.

With bursts of steam and whistle, we arrive in Francistown. Around and through the station pulses the street bazaar. Food vendors, trays and baskets on their heads, sashay along the tracks and carriage-sides, selling fruits of all colors, sausage sandwiches, corn snacks, and fizzy drinks. Sweet and spicy food aromas mix with the oil smells of the train. Hawkers sell handicrafts and trinkets—bangles and beads, fabrics and hats, buffalo horn napkin rings. It’s momentary commerce, and the traders will survive the day, if not much richer for it.

The black-garbed minister left us at Selebi Phikwe. Now the African lady, tightly wrapped in her banana-flower prints, and with business in Francistown, also disembarks. As do I, changing to a NRZ train, bound for Harare on the line through Bulawayo.

Some socio-economic process about which I can only guess has given National Railway of Zimbabwe very different rolling stock from Botswana Railways. Or, at least, this stock is different. The BR wagons were of painted steel and “sensible” upholstery, evidently designed, assembled, and finished as utilitarian conveyances for people used to the serviceable basics as a way of life. But the NRZ carriage I enter is a traveling Edwardian parlor—walnut wainscoting, carpeted floors, purple mohair and velour upholstery, burgundy velvet curtains, copper washbasins. It is generations old, pre-WWII, perhaps pre-WWI, and was built and outfitted, probably in Britain, for well-to-do, even affluent, African travelers. Then it served exclusively white families, the men, women, and children who had followed on from Cecil Rhodes in the colonization and wealth-gathering of British East Africa. They and their successors had turned Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, into a farming economy unsurpassed in Africa. Hence the luxury trains, though they were no longer white-only, and no longer luxurious.

From Francistown to Bulawayo, I share my compartment with a new passenger, a Zimbabwean man. A large man. A black man. A large, well-dressed (except for his shoes, which were tatty), black man on his way home to Bulawayo. These attributes, as I list them, may seem obvious, irrelevant, or pedantic. If so, consider this, as well: He is carrying 20 kilograms of rice in a burlap sack.

What does all this mean, all this description? I say these things about this man because, in Africa, nothing is superfluous. I tell you he is black and a Zimbabwean so you know that he comes from the historical majority in that country, and has historical reasons to support the current (and still-current) dictator of their republic (“leader” would be a poor choice of words, though that black president and his party, only eight years before, wrested Rhodesia-Zimbabwe from its legacy of white rule and white control).

I tell you our man is well-dressed because this shows he isn’t part of the poor majority of his country. I tell you he is large, because that means well-fed and powerful, things that tend to go hand-in-hand in Africa. The shoes are a different thing. Good Western-style shoes are not for sale in the bazaars and shops here, and good ones get old and show their age and may not be easily repaired or replaced, despite one’s station in life. So if his shoes are broken, it means that Botswana, and certainly Africa, is possibly as far afield as this man, this well-fed, well-placed, native African man, has been.

Why is all this relevant? And what about the rice? I’ll let him tell you, remembering this was 1988: “While on business in Botswana, I bought this rice. It is becoming difficult to find in our country now, and very dear. It is a disgrace. The farms in Zimbabwe were once the finest in Africa. Everything was here”—he gestures at the expanses of arable land rocking past the carriage windows—“and it was cheap for us. Now we must go to Botswana to buy rice. Botswana!” He uses the voice of disgust and derision to refer to his neighbor to the west. It is unimaginable to him that poor, desert-filled, humble Botswana could sell him rice cheaper than his own proud country, that it makes some kind of economic sense for him to haul 20 kilos of uncooked rice back from Botswana to his home in Bulawayo.

I have heard rumors of this embarrassment. From living, working, and traveling in its former colonies and Great Britain itself, I have tried to keep current with the affairs of the Commonwealth. Though it is my first time in the country, indeed in Africa, I have heard that Zimbabwe is gradually slipping away from its once prosperous, well-fed position in the agriculture and economics of East Africa, indeed of all of Africa.

“And not only rice. Corn, too, and cornmeal. Melons. Meat. All of it is becoming scarce and expensive.”

What can I say to this man? This is Africa and he is an African. This is Zimbabwe and he is a Zimbabwean. I am a foreigner, a stranger with no more advice or comfort to give this patriot and his bag of rice and his marketplace anxiety than a surprised landlubber, watching and listening to the report of a sinking ship, could give to one of the sailors onboard. So, I ask the fool’s question.

“Is the government doing anything about it?”

“Oh, yes,” he says, “our government will face this. Our government will take us out of this crisis.” He has been watching his country slide past the window in the setting sun. Now he looks at me with conviction on his face, but fear in his eyes. “Robert Mugabe and his people—we can trust them. He will fix this. Mr. Mugabe will save us.”

A decade passes before I return to Africa. Now it is 1998, again October, and Michael, another friend with the State Department, is running the reconstruction and rehabilitation of our embassy in Nairobi. In August, more than two hundred people were murdered by Al Qaeda fanatics in the suicide bombing of a bank and the American Embassy. Twelve of the dead were Americans; the rest were Kenyans going about their daily business.

Michael has taken me to the site of the bombing. Nairobi’s Ground Zero. The embassy building, now a perforated block of scorched concrete, squats windowless on a busy corner of the city. Plans to relocate it, or at least re-develop its security, had been delayed and delayed in Washington. Beside it, an eight-story commercial building, the location of the bank, is caved in like a doll-house that’s been dropped from a great height. Nearly all the deaths were there. The bombers, blocked from entering the embassy compound, but on a mission for their cause, detonated the weapon anyway and orphaned hundreds of children in a few seconds. Once again, zealotry triumphed over human reason and compassion. Once again, Africa was chosen as a battleground for ideologies, and innocents paid the price in blood and lives.

From Nairobi, I travel south trough Zambia and, once again, into Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is in his eighteenth year of uninterrupted power. Lounging on a hotel patio, I pick up a copy of the Sunday Mail. Like most of the country’s newspapers, it is government-controlled because, after twenty-five years of “independence” and “self-determination,” the Zimbabwean on the street, according to national policy, is not yet ready for free access to the news. The headline story is of a manhunt: a local shaman and his client are on the run from police for having removed and eaten the heart of a 12-year-old virgin in an effort to cure the client of AIDS.

The traveler, the Zimbabwean man on the train, with the small cargo of rice for his family, comes back to my thoughts. I recall his unshakable faith in Mugabe to lead his country into the light, and I ask myself if there is an ungovernable terrain between Africa and its future.

Lance Mason was raised by working parents, products of the Great Depression. His first job was in his brother-in-law’s gas station in Oxnard, California. During school vacations, he picked lemons, packed lima beans, laid fiberglass, sold hot-dogs, and spliced cable for the local phone company where his mother worked. He has taught at UCLA, the National University in Natal, Brazil, and Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand. In addition to overseas teaching, Mason has lived, worked, or traveled in more than 60 countries during a dozen trips around the world. His first publication was a piece in Voices of Survival, (Capra Press, 1986), appearing alongside writers as diverse as William. F. Buckley, Jr., Joan Baez, Indira Gandhi, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. His work has appeared in upstreet, City Works, Sea Spray, The Packing House Review, New Borders, Askew, The Santa Barbara Independent, and Solo Novo, as well as several professional journals. He is nearing completion of his fifth novel, a saga of wealth, power, and perversion in modern China.