02 JAN 1996 - Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
"How can you be lost if you don't care where you are?" These were the hunter's words when he arrived in Kasane two days late. The bearded man smiles as he recounts this story. We are in a vast and open place in the far north of Botswana. Fifteen meters in front of us on a small hill are twenty-one lions. Their bodies shake as they puff and lie listless in the heat. Their eyes glow in round yellow circles; they are watching.
Dereck and his wife Beverly live in this wilderness. They make films. "I like to feel the experience then translate that into a film," he says. There was a male lion here, but he was shot. The two females he left behind gave birth to three males and three females. The three males were then shot, but not before they had mated with their sisters and their mothers. Now there are the five females, no adult males, and sixteen cubs sprawled out on this little hill.
This seems strange that the biggest and strongest, and sometimes all, of the male lions are hunted and removed from passing their genes on to the next generation. I am told that the Germans like to hunt the very old and war-torn trophies. Their pride from the hunt comes not so much from the size of the animal, but from the satisfaction of having left the strongest and most magnificent males to sire future generations. "Last year we saw sixty-five lions, and not one of them was a male. The hunters must back off," I am told.
In 1983, there were about 25,000 buffalo in this area. Now, there are a few hundred. The zebra have gone from 40,000 to 7,000. In the past fifteen years, the populations of wildebeest, eland, and hartebeest have also dropped by eighty percent. This is purely due to hunting. However, as the populations of game have decreased, the populations of cattle have increased by the same percentage; "the biomass has stayed the same." I am curious, only as a visitor and a spectator, if this is something that we are doing consciously, or if it is something that is just happening while we watch.
I remember meeting an elderly heart surgeon in South Africa; he was the first man to successfully transplant a human heart into another human being. He grew up in the vast arid Karoo and hunted rabbits so he could sell the skins. He said to me, "you Americans have your Bill of Rights; you believe freedom is your right. I think you are wrong; you should have a Bill of Responsibility. Freedom is not a right; it is a privilege - and one which demands responsibility." This man became a doctor so he could make money. But money was the one thing that he never made until he stopped being a doctor. His words keep returning to me. And now here, I wonder if we are aware of what we are doing, if there is a plan, and if we have vision.
"You find good people on the bad roads," Dereck tells me. We talk of many things, but we are not catching any fish. The Linyanti river seeps through reeds, and my hook keeps getting caught on these reeds. We all cast timidly from the bank, proud of our casts, but wary that a crocodile might seize us mid-cast. Occasionally, a hippo bobs across from the far bank to have a closer look. Then, like a young filly, it throws its head around and pirouettes - though hardly as gracefully - with a splash back to its species on the other side. This is Dereck and Beverly's back yard. It is the type of place that absorbs you and nourishes your soul; it is open and free and hard to leave.
Sometimes you don't really know the value of something until you have lost it. I am sitting on the floor of a concrete cell. It is small, and the ceiling is high. It smells like hot stagnant urine. I have one crusty blanket. There are mosquitoes. There is a tall steel door that makes a hard secure sound when it closes behind you. It is black outside and darker inside. The smell numbs my head. I don't know if anyone knows I am in here. They took my stripes off my shoulders. They took my belt. They took my shoes. They took my pen, and without completely understanding why, I am now inside of an African prison.
The one man, Constable Admire Shoko, is most apologetic. "I am sorry Captain, but we must detain you." At first, I smile, but then I am careful. He wants to know how high my plane will lift off the ground while I taxi it fifty meters to the other side of the airport; I must not escape. I very possibly could have avoided this if I had made up a little story, but I told the truth. I was fishing; I did arrive late, and I did land at an unofficial airport. It has been my experience many times in Africa that you don't have to have a good memory if you always tell the truth.
Lovemore is sitting on a bench in the police station. They are about to take away my biscuits, so I quickly eat as many as I can and share the rest with Lovemore. I am told he is my cell-mate for the night. I am amazed how relaxed I am. I am just going to jail. No one knows, and I don't know when I will get out. But I am curious about Lovemore; why is he going to jail, how does he feel about it, and is he married? He is very laid back about jail. He has been in before. Barefoot, we are led out through the dark concrete corridor, across a field of tall grass and rubbish to a solitary building. There is a barbed wire fence around the building, and we disappear behind the tall steel door into darkness.
He has done this before, so Lovemore arranges our blankets. There is more padding if we double them. It certainly is hot enough not to need them on top of us. The door slams, and we sit leaning against the wall. It takes a while for our eyes to get used to the dark. Lovemore retrieves a hidden cigarette from the inside of his pants, then a broken match and a piece of abrasive paper to strike it on. "Do you want one," he says. "No, I'm okay, thanks." "I don't bring this to smoke," he says. "When another man comes in the night, I light this so I can see the face." Now this is interesting. "Why do you want to see his face," I ask. "You know," he says, "you can tell a lot from a man's face. Some, they are not good."
The night is long. And soon the tall door opens again. Lovemore lights his cigarette. "It's okay," he says. I am curious why this new guy is in here. "No," he begins, "I told that man to stay away from my wife, but he didn't listen to me. So I went and got a big stick. I hid in the bushes until he came out of the bar with my wife. Then I hit him in the face many times. I didn't want him to be with my wife." I am trying hard not to laugh, "but then what happened," I ask. "Well, I beat that man very much, but then my wife she went to the police. I was at home in my bed, and the police came to find me. Now, they just put me here." There is silence as we sit in this heat staring into darkness. I wonder how often they get Americans in this jail.
Five more times in the night, the tall door opens. One was drunk. One had hit a fat customs official in another bar. One just had a knife and was trying to cut someone else. I am not so interested anymore. This is now my turf, and they are invading my space. I don't feel the need to introduce myself and to become their friend. It takes forever for that door to open the next morning. It is out of your control. It is now a game of the mind. Pretend it doesn't matter; dare yourself not to become impatient. Again, don't have an expectation - because you will always be let down. We aren't even allowed to have watches. Just sit there, smell the stench and wait.
The door does open. I want to be the last one out. If you are in a hurry in Africa, they love it, and you will suffer a lot. My whole body aches from concrete and mosquitoes. We are fed bread and tea from a bucket, and then I am escorted away. My sense of humor has not left me. I am commenting that they should get a television for this hotel. It is by far the cheapest hotel in Vic Falls, and the breakfast is even included. It is a process of turning the "you-are-a-criminal-look" into a smile, and once you have done it, it feels that much closer to being free.
Somehow the word is out. My friend Rich appears and has smuggled me some more bread. I am about to begin the first of many interrogations. Rich is nervous for me; he must know something that I don't. Naivete has a wonderful security and innocence about it. Rich, my friend, has been in jail thirteen times. His brother was in jail for six months, and his other brother was deported from the country. I am about to meet the man who made it all happen. "He is a bad one," Rich says. "Be careful, and whatever you do don't tell him you know me." It's like high school; you haven't done your homework, and you must please be forgiven because you really didn't mean it, and it won't happen again.
But this is not high school. I walk humbly into the office, and a large man greets me coldly from behind a desk. "So, you are Rich's friend." I think of Lovemore's match as I look at his face. There is never any trace of assurance that everything will be all right. I am taken from department to department - The Central Intelligence Organization, Criminal Investigation Department, Police, Customs, Immigration. The only thing that I have is the truth. The same questions are being asked over and over. This country has been through a war, through terrorist acts from a neighboring country, and I am far from being a typical tourist. It is difficult to explain, but as quietly concerned as I am, I am also intrigued by this experience. I don't feel above it; I feel part of it. Anything can happen, and it may entirely depend on what I say and do right now.
The Africans call it "mosi-a-tunya" - the smoke that thunders. This is
Victoria Falls. Nearly a mile wide, the Zambezi river drops down a three-hundred
foot ledge in to a boiling chasm of steamy mist that rises up high above the
canyon. Rainbows slide across the towering mist. I listened to the distant
rumble of the water from a prison cell, and now I soar above it; I have been
released. While it is fresh in my mind, I think about these two extremes. There
is a value in extremes; by experiencing one, you can appreciate the other. If
you are very hungry, you will be very grateful for a good meal. If you are very
lonely, you will appreciate the companionship or love of a friend. If you have
been scared and had your freedom taken away, you will feel stretched and aware
of the tremendous value of something that can be taken for granted. I think back
again of the hunter arriving late in Kasane. He is probably right; you can't be
lost if you don't care where you are. But there are experiences that will make