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Beitbridge

The Greyhound bus pulls into Beitbridge, the Zimbabwean border to South Africa, under cover of darkness. Three ‘chicken buses’ are lined up in front of it. They are yellow double-decker buses laden with goods on the roof held down with tight ropes and covered with tarpaulin.

I am travelling with my boyfriend – heading to Bulawayo. As we walk to join the queues I cannot make out the landscapes around us. The darkness is heavy and the air grainy with dust. We are directed to a prefabricated room where two air conditioners and a standing fan fight the stiff heat which refuses to lift. A woman, sweating through her blouse does not look up as she fingers my passport and punches it with the stamp.
As we walk through the crowd back to the bus there are beggars working in pairs. One able-bodied guiding the other who is blind and rattles a tin cup with a few coins scratching the metal.
We now await the immigration officers who are expected to come and inspect the luggage. I study the chicken buses still ahead of us. Their roofs are being unloaded, buckets, bicycles, striped straw bags full of clothes, bulbs and cartoned food.

The crew doing the unloading are strong men with wiry bodies darting about, lowering the heavier suitcases with a manual pulley system and simply throwing down the lighter ones. They use hand signals to communicate.

‘Why are they doing that?’ I ask my boyfriend.

‘They are deaf,’ he says.

His answer suprises me. Embarassed by my prejudice I admit to myself that deafness seems too delicate a detail for this hard landscape.

Their hand movements are quick. Does the experience of life get watered down in the absence of spoken words? Again I am embarrased that I think having speech gives me more of life than those who have signs. I watch as one of the men recounts a long story to another who nods every few seconds. Do they really understand each other though and how can they be sure? I feel stupid for worrying.

These men wield a power at the border. They comminicate with the officers and know how to get a bus through quickly. Our bus driver standing nearby engages the men and they soon have him laughing. There is one in particular, dressed in blue overalls with a scar down his cheek and a broad grin – he is the one cracking all the jokes.

After speaking with the bus driver the man in blue walks over to where us passengers are standing in amidst our luggage. He makes a simple gesture that I have now forgotten. Without hesitation we all bend down to open our suitcases, ready for inspection when the officers arrive.

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