We take our first steps out of South Africa, crossing into Botswana with a group of old women wrapped in blankets and head scarves. The border official seems amused at our impossible quest; he turns, announcing to the rest of the office: “Ey guys, labafana bafuna ukuya eEgypt”. They all laugh. So do we.
It’s a weird feeling starting a journey like this, and although we started back in our hometown Durban, our first footsteps into another country feel like we’re starting again. The same insecurities well up, the same questions. Where do you start? Do you keep it safe and get a lift with a friend to the nearest neighbouring city? Do you ask beforehand of people going to Jo’burg? Do you just go to the nearest trucking weigh bridge and wait?
Finding lifts in our own country was strange. I felt like one of the odd, dodgy looking people I’d always driven past before. I felt ‘not foreign enough’. Yet here in Botswana it was different. Easier. There was only one empty road and we knew no one, so we just stuck our thumbs out.
But cars were suddenly a rarity and the dusty road lay empty in front and behind us.
We walked. And walked. Then we stopped for water, and suddenly saw what we’d been waiting for - a white bakkie, moving slowly in our direction. We jumped up. Stuck out our thumbs, indicating frantically. Lucky for us, here we were a ‘rarity’, three young white guys in the middle of dusty Botswana. The driver pulled up; we jumped on the back.
Passing his bag up to me, Jordan leans into the passenger window. “Hello. Thank you. You can just take us till you stop.” The vehicle takes off and I feel my body relax, this is the first of many lifts we’ll need to reach Egypt. But we stop after fifty meters or so, the man in the front taps the window with his knuckles and signals one of us into the front. Looking at Jordan and Robs I know I’m the one getting shunted.
“It is not good that one travels alone on a journey, surely? Come, you must join me inside.” I agree, embarrassed at our ignorance. I’ve grown up in the city, but I’m not exactly modern city kid. I’ve travelled all over South Africa, stayed in Shangaan villages up in northern Mpumalanga. Gazankulu, for instance. I should know African culture better. I am African. No one does anything alone.
The driver is a short stout man. He wears a grey shirt and a blue worker’s coat with black pants. He looks almost like a Zionist, and I watch the cross swinging from his rear view mirror. We talk about his family and his cattle. He says he uses the bakkie to transport his vegetables to the market - and back, he laughs, if no one buys them.
We drive past farmlands and other swathes of ground that seem empty. Conversation dries up. I see some kids walking to school on a pathway in the distance.
“Sorry I’m Luke, I haven’t even properly introduced myself.”
“I’m...” he mumbles a name I can’t pronounce.
“Pardon?” I say feeling less and less African.
“Soka,” he says this time. “Just call me Soka.”
“Soka” I say, repeating it lightly.
“Yes. Like football. I used to be good at it when I was young. So that’s what everyone calls me, but it’s spelt differently; ess - oh - kay - ay. Soka.”
Driving on, he points down a dirt road, “I have some cattle there. Two hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty. One of my sons watches them. They are almost his.”
I ask how big his farms are and what vegetables he grows. We chat about different methods of farming. I tell Soka that Jordan, in the back, is my cousin, our moms are twins, and how he’s studying environmental management and sustainable farming. Soka proudly talks of his success with the Arab farming method in such dry parts. “This way you need little water and little work. The government give you land here for free. It is easy. But still many people cannot farm. Me, I have been doing it for forty years now.”
He is a proud man, not arrogant but dignified. His life work has been hardship. Only now, he says, is he reaping the benefits of his labour.
After half an hour or so on the road we draw near to the town. Soka seems reluctant to let us leave, almost as if he owes us more. I can see him thinking.
“Tell me something Luke, do you have time?”
I nod. I tell him if there’s one thing we have, it’s time. Definitely.
His eyes light up. “Good. Will you meet my family?”
Unable to discuss with the guys in the back I make a solid group decision. We’d be delighted.
We turn left at the next road. “Not far, not far” Soka repeats. I can see he’s chuffed with himself.
We drive past simply built brick and mud houses, all pastel pinks and greens.
“My village,” his pride outshines him again, “I was one of the first to move here. Maybe a hundred of us. Now it is big. Say one thousand, maybe two thousand people.”
We drive past pedestrians who stare, waving at Soka. One young girl stands with her mouth gaping. Her wave is slow and unsure. Soka announces in further triumph, “My daughter”.
I’m still thinking about how casually we passed her and if it’s his real daughter, when we slow down and Soka points over his steering wheel. “My home.”
We enter the yard; a dusty patch of bare earth staked out by a neat hedge that grows along the boundaries. At the back lies a whole lot of building stuff and a tractor with four flat tyres. A Citi Golf sits on bricks under a corrugated iron shelter. A few chickens dodge the car as we coast in, and a friendly dog comes to greet us as we jump out.
“My son is a mechanic. Not properly, only practicing. The house, it is not finished, we are still building more rooms”.
“And the tractor?” one of us asks.
“My son can fix it when it’s ploughing time.”
“And the rooms?”
“It is for you when you come back”, he laughs. “Otherwise I’ll rent to other people.”
We walk into the main house, wiping our feet on the doormat which slides on the marble floor. Two dying ferns sit either side of the doorway. We are greeted by Mary and a Priest hanging on the door.
“Mama we have visitors”, Soka shouts. Taking off our hats we greet the large lady who shuffles along the floor toward us.
We sit on cheap leather couches. My skin sticks. The ceiling is high and the walls yellow in one room, pink in the other. On one of them is a giant TV which shouts the news to us in Tswana.
Slowly but surely we’re introduced to all the members of the household. We meet a daughter, two grandchildren, the mechanic son and his friend. Later, we meet a neighbour.
We’re served coconut biscuits and Fanta Pineapple for breakfast, as well as a giant watermelon.
“It’s from my farm” Soka boasts. “My farming methods are working eh?” He hands Jordan a big silver knife. “You can cut it and see for yourself”.
As big as the knife is, it isn’t big enough. Jordan cuts crude, skew rings, which are then segmented into lopsided triangles and handed around the room. It’s juicy and sweet. Pinker than the walls. We spit the pips into our hands. Taking another piece, Soka laughs, “I gave it to you first because I wanted to see how white people eat it.” We await our judgement. “You are very similar”. Everyone laughs.
We finish up with bloated stomachs and sticky hands. A jug of warm water is brought round and poured over our hands into a plastic bowl below.
We thank Soka and his family, deeply. We say we must be on our way, as there is a long journey ahead. We hug and bid farewell, promising one day to return. His daughter walks us to the nearest town to continue our hitching.
We pass a barber shop. The painted hairstyles look quite slick and we consider cutting our hair. Along the road I kick stones instead of speaking. I find myself wondering if I could live here. Perhaps even behind Soka’s home. A taxi driver friend of Soka’s daughter gives us a free lift to the nearest fuel station. I squeeze up next to a woman in a green cloth with bananas on her lap. As the taxi takes off, I glance over my shoulder and see Soka’s daughter, waving. She is standing outside a little ‘Tailor Suits’ store, growing smaller and smaller. Suddenly I think it will be impossible. We will never return.