The Unexpected Lessons One Writer Learned From Returning to Her African Homeland
A river runs through the course of my life, an arterial connection between my mad childhood and my lunatic middle age. But I hadn't thought that way about the Zambezi — Africa's fourth-longest river, and arguably its wildest — until I thought I'd never see it again. Then I couldn't think of it any other way.
For a start — or an end, more accurately — my parents had settled down in the late 1990s on a small farm near the border town of Chirundu, on the river's Zambian side. After more than 30 years of moving around southern Africa, Dad built a makeshift homestead, started a small banana plantation, and dug ponds in which Mum could grow fish.
I spoke to my father by phone a month before he died; me in Wyoming, him on the farm in Zambia. He was 75, and robust. His imminent demise was not evident. "It's hopeless, Bobo!" he shouted. "I can't hear a thing." He held his phone up: a Heuglin's robin serenading from the garden, vervet monkeys chattering from a tree, hippos scolding from the Zambezi. Dad came back on the line. "Put your complaint in writing," he said. "I'll read all about it."
He hung up.
The river was in my father's end. It was in my beginning.
"You were conceived in Victoria Falls," Mum sometimes tells me. She speaks, obviously, of the town on what is today the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi, not the actual waterfall. "The posh hotel with the famous doorman, buttons all over his uniform." But sometimes, when she's disappointed with the way I've turned out, she tells me I was conceived at the seedy gambling joint down the street from the posh hotel.
This was back in 1968, the seeding of my future self, I mean. The gambling joint is gone now, and Victoria Falls has grown into a flourishing, mostly family-friendly town — and Zimbabwe's most vibrant tourist destination. But my point remains. The scent of the potato bush in the evening, Chimurenga music pouring from taverns, egrets floating upriver to roost: I came into being with all that. It didn't matter what else was happening around me. I knew my place, even if that place was an uncertain, stolen thing.
In the 1970s, my early childhood, all Rhodesians could point blindfolded to the 1,600-mile Zambezi on a map, a ribbon of blue defining where our pariah nation ended and the rest of independently governed Africa began. A few years earlier our prime minister, Ian Smith, had run for office on the promise of a "whiter, brighter Rhodesia." Since only the votes of white citizens counted, our tiny nation was ruled by a racial minority with a death grip on power. Black liberation forces massed in neighboring Mozambique and Zambia, from where they planned guerilla attacks deep into Rhodesia. It turned the place into a battlefield for 15 years.
There's a photo somewhere of my older sister and me in front of Victoria Falls, taken in 1979. I was 10, Vanessa was 13. We were living on the other side of Rhodesia from the Zambezi by then. We'd recently suffered a family tragedy and were taking a consolation road trip, the four of us in our old Peugeot 404, headed to a national park in the south, then the falls in the west. An Uzi submachine gun, an FN rifle, and a Browning Hi-Power pistol lay across my parents' laps.
Of course, a heavily armed black family wouldn't have made it to the falls back then. Black people weren't allowed to be tourists. In fact, by 1978, black children could be shot on sight for leaving their family's kraal, or homestead. I didn't find this out until decades later. As a child you're just in it, believing in the correctness of your own worldview.
And I trauma-bonded with the place, its people. I think we all did.
Then, in my early twenties, my love for this incomparable land met its match. I fell for an American river guide. Charlie had come to the Zambezi to run the rapids in the six gorges below Victoria Falls. "The Boiling Pot," they call the place where I agreed to climb into his raft, spray raining down.
"Absolute madness," my mad father declared.
"I'll have a go," my madder mother volunteered.
I was a useless boater, easily overwhelmed by the currents at the base of the falls. But I did learn that it's a matter of common sense to portage around some rapids. You don't have to run them all.
That was a long time ago now, 28 years, but that lesson eventually stuck.
After we were married, Charlie and I lived on the banks of the Zambezi in a stone cottage, a few miles upstream of the falls, on the Zambian side. There was no electricity. We collected water from the river in buckets. Our eldest child, Sarah, was born there — or, not there, I went over the border to a Zimbabwean clinic for the delivery — but we'd brought her back across the river when she was eight days old.
"Mosquitoes," an elderly neighbor fretted.
"Yellow fever," a young mother warned.
I kept Sarah strapped to me under a wearable net I'd had made by a tailor in the Livingstone market. I looked like a Victorian butterfly catcher, but the baby grew strong, fever-free. In the afternoons, we took heat-drugged siestas beneath a tree. I found early motherhood both utterly absorbing and contradictorily lonely, but the river kept me company, slow and swirling, always moving.
I sang Sarah a Mashona lullaby I learned from the women who raised me. "Ehuhwe, nyarara mwana…"
Oh-oh, don't cry, baby.
When Sarah was eight months old, we moved to Charlie's home state of Wyoming. I was loath to leave my twinned first loves — the land and my mother, motherland. But I'd be able to get home for a visit. Also, in Wyoming, I could have babies and not worry about keeping them under nets for most of their lives.
For a quarter of a century, then, half my life, I've straddled the ocean between the land of my parents and the land of my children. Torn doesn't cover it. There's a crude word in Afrikaans for someone who has one foot in southern Africa and one foot overseas. Soutpiel: a man's essentials dangle, the word implies, in the salty Atlantic Ocean. You are neither here nor there, you're in an indefensible position, unsustainable. It couldn't last; it didn't.
After Dad died, I stayed away from the Zambezi for three years. Then, near the end of last winter, a long one, I was offered a trip home. Out of the blue, as if my longing had pinged a cosmic bell, there it was, the safari of my lifetime. A week along the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi, featuring all my foundational hits. Deborah Calmeyer, a school friend from the 1980s in Harare, was now running a long-established boutique tour operator out of New York, Roar Africa; she'd be in charge.
I'd gone on safari before, of a sort, as a child. "Time to see a giraffe," my father would declare. It was invariably exhilarating, and would involve several near-death experiences. This wouldn't be that. Nor would it be the familiar experience of Mum's dissolving farmhouse: pythons in the sheep pen, crocodiles in the fish ponds. "The daily horror," as she describes it.
This would be luxury tented camps, en suite everything, gluten-free meals. I could offset the carbon dioxide emissions from my flight over, bring a guest, get fast-tracked through the airports. I called Mum, and invited her along.
"This is the last farewell," I promised.
"Mm," Mum said. I could tell she wasn't convinced. "Wasn't that one of Roger Whittaker's lines?" She'd worn the vinyl out of that record. All that moving she did, all those farewells.
"Exactly," I said.
We made plans: we'd meet at the Victoria Falls airport. Mum would drive down to the Zimbabwean border from the farm in Zambia while I was being ferried past airport officialdom by Roar Africa guide Humphrey Gumpo.
"Alex," Humphrey greeted me. Those of us raised in Zimbabwe shorten each other's names out of habit, as if worried we'll be dead by the end of a long sentence.
"Humph," I greeted him in return.
Mum was not there to meet us at the airport.
"Perhaps she's at the hotel," Humphrey suggested unflappably.
We'd been booked into the Victoria Falls Hotel, the posh place with the famous doorman, buttons all over his uniform. It's arguably Zimbabwe's most celebrated hotel.
"I think I was conceived here," I told Humphrey as we breached the entrance and swept down the stairs of the hotel's inner courtyard, from where jacaranda trees, canna lilies, and emerald lawns gleamed. "Or maybe at the old casino hotel down the street."
"You should get some rest," Humphrey said.
I felt a bit dizzy, honestly, from the jet lag, and also the way my past was crashing in — and not just in the invited and expected ways. I went upstairs, to my colonial-style guest room, with its high ceilings, crisp linens, and claw-foot tub. I texted my mother, then called her; there was no answer. I left the door ajar and put the kettle on.
"Oh, there you are," Mum said, shouldering her way into our room as if I were the one who'd gone astray. She hung up her hat and put down her bags. "Humphrey Gumpo tracked me down via the immigration officer who talked to my taxi driver who knew about me from the doorman with all the buttons." Then Mum paused and looked around the room. "I think you were conceived in this hotel," she said. She frowned, sizing me up as if trying to jog her memory. "Or perhaps not."
After an early supper, we took a walk around the falls with Humphrey leading the way. It was late June, the winter solstice—cold and clear after the rainy season. Everything shone out of the dark, silver and sparkling: the dripping forest, the rocks, the thundering cataracts. Frogs trilled and bellowed and croaked, a night heron gave a coarse cough. A double lunar rainbow arced over the falls.
"How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless." Paul Bowles wrote that in The Sheltering Sky, which was published in 1949. Everything's been said before, one way or the other.
We made a leisurely start the next morning, a comfortable drive on good dirt roads — "outstanding suspension," Mum observed — to Mpala Jena, a tented safari camp just 10 miles north of the falls. Although "safari camp" understates the place; it was so luxurious and well-appointed my mother and I ran out of superlatives as soon as our feet touched the ground.
"Goodness, what service," Mum said. We were scooped from the vehicle into the tasteful tented lodge and handed towels and juice, as if we'd walked from the equator. "How will I recover from all this luxury?" She gasped when we were shown to our room, a tent so lavish it barely registered as something related to the canvas original. State-of-the-art solar power, thick cushions, plump towels, exotic antique doors from Zanzibar. "Look at the tub," she hissed. "It's actually egg-shaped."
I wandered outside onto the private deck: our own plunge pool, an exercise bike. The river was relatively flat and swirling here, reflecting the sun in giant golden circles. A couple of pods of hippos were bobbing about, staying cool. It took me a moment to orient myself. A lot had happened in 25 years, this side of the river instead of that, a private porch instead of a canoe, but I'd definitely seen this view before.
After lunch, I walked upstream to see if I could spot the cottage, or the bend in the river where I'd brought Sarah down to the water on hot days. I couldn't. But the river was just as it had been when Sarah had been a baby, a lifetime ago. How fearless I was back then, how hopeful.
I never knew the river before it was trapped in its middle by a wall of concrete 420 feet tall and nearly 2,000 feet wide. Kariba Dam, built between 1955 and 1959, created the largest man-made lake in the world. Built primarily for hydropower — tourism and fisheries were lucrative afterthoughts — the project came to fruition under the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi).
I've seen images, and watched footage of the land on either side of the river flooding as the lake filled. From a distance of 60 years, the scheme seems a wildly expensive, ruthless madness. Volunteers saved over 6,000 large mammals and countless smaller creatures from the rising waters — elephants, snakes, mongooses — ferrying them to higher land in tiny boats. Meanwhile more than 57,000 of the Tonga people, who'd lived in that part of the Zambezi Valley since the beginning of their time, were forcibly displaced.
The mind struggles to make sense of their loss. To have it all taken away at once, your whole world, in a preventable, organized flood. Everything you believed to be your rightful inheritance underwater, wiped out, as the river rose and rose, never to recede. Hunting lands, sacred lands, the graves of the dead, the futures of the living. Lake Kariba is considered the worst dam-resettlement disaster in Africa.
Yet Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, a camp set along its shores, is today an Eden. We spent our evenings overlooking the lake, or on a boat, being plied with cocktails and snacks. The sunsets at Kariba are famous, the way they end with a wall of brilliance, swiftly quenched in the water. It's always felt stolen, to be this fattened on this land. There's such wealth here, but also commensurate suffering and exploitation. Zimbabwe's longtime dictator, Robert Mugabe, recently died in exile, ancient and dithering. Emmerson "the Crocodile" Mnangagwa rules now.
Tourism can be the heartbeat of an ecosystem, the lifeline to a school, a way to preserve an ancient culture. There is still suffering in Zimbabwe, but where there's tourism, there's economic vibrancy. In Mola, a village of relocated Tonga on Kariba's southern shore, I spent a day with Madison Siakalangu. He is a safari guide, the nephew of Mola's current chief, and an old friend of Humphrey's.
Madison told us it's been the labor of generations to heal, organize, forgive, rebuild, and reclaim. His village is picturesque, bucolic. But a thriving, intact community doesn't just wake up that way. Their homeland was altered, forever, unmade from land and remade into this unnatural freshwater sea. Madison retreats into the hills during his stints between safari guiding to pray, fast, and sing hymns. "I have to nourish my own soul, otherwise I don't come to any other task correctly," he said.
The story of me and the river doesn't end here, even if I've said my final farewell. My sister Vanessa's son, Tom, is a safari guide in the lower Zambezi Valley now. He works on the Zambian side, not far from the farm, and not far from where Mum and I stayed on our last two nights in Zimbabwe. Chikwenya Camp is in one of the world's most charismatic wildlife corridors, the northeastern corner of Mana Pools National Park. Winter thorn trees shade a lodge laid out along a series of boardwalks, where a huge kudu bull browsed: Elvis, the camp staff had named him, for his curling lip.
On our game drives, wildlife tumbled out of the bush, one breathless David Attenborough moment after the other; a leopard on the hunt, a lion cub with a baboon carcass, elephants by the dozen, thick herds of impala. Waterbuck everywhere along the river's shore, wading birds. It was wilderness and wildlife the way I remembered it decades ago, in those careless times.
"I will never leave this place," I'd promised myself over and over when I was a child, as if afraid I'd forget this love, as if knowing I'd find it nowhere else. How did we not see then that everything, truly, was connected to everything else? How did I not realize that the way you do anything is the way you do everything and that if you don't learn it the easy way, then the world will teach you the hard way?
Observe the wilderness; there is no greater teacher. Observe yourself in the wilderness; there's no better way to notice your own smallness, incompleteness, incompetence, divinity. We're a part of this world, not apart from it, of course.
"Four years in the wild has taught me everything I know till now," my nephew, Tom, once told me. "And it's still teaching me." His grandfather would've been proud. This land was Dad's school, too.
I didn't sleep much my last two nights on safari. I didn't want to miss a thing: the opera of the lower Zambezi wilderness, hippos, alarmed baboons, frogs, nightjars, hyenas, a lion. That much life! And a drought so severe already. Soon the grazers would die, then the browsers. Yet the elephants had had more babies than ever this season. And the river survives, season after season, always moving, eroding, emptying.
The threats to this area — a UNESCO World Heritage site teeming with wildlife — don't end there, or now. A Zambian high court recently green-lit proposals for a copper mine in the Lower Zambezi National Park, where my nephew works.
But the Tonga say the river will win out over this time of heat, wild weather, and environmental carelessness. They have always warned that their river god, Nyaminyami, will one day break the dam, and the great flood that took away their homes will rush to the ocean. In 2014, the Zambezi River Authority estimated such a flood — unlikely as it is, a remote chance — would kill 3.5 million people. "Including, of course, moi," Mum said. "And the dogs."
Motherland, lost. I was born to lose my motherland. Or, there was no motherland to begin with. I was never recognized by a land, let alone a river. I have always been the unsettled settler, perpetually tumbling, both cursed and blessed.
A version of this story first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Call of the River.