We were on automatic pilot. There was no time to worry how we’d get the job done. We got our assignment Tuesday night: to go up to the border with Zimbabwe and interview border jumpers, refugees, officials, whoever we could find willing to talk with us. We wanted to take a train and a bus, but we didn’t know when or even if either was leaving. We didn’t even know if there’d be Zimbabweans riding it. But Wednesday night four of us boarded a night train to Musina, in northernmost South Africa. And then we found ourselves with plenty of time to think. 18 1/2 hours, to be exact. The train chugged at the speed of a golf cart and made inexplicable stops in the middle of nowhere. We thought we’d have to worry about our luggage being stolen, but there were a lot of families in our train car, and it wasn’t a concern. The train was full and most people had heaps of luggage packed in sturdy plastic bags the size of large footstools. One man somehow vaulted himself onto the luggage rack, laid down a blanket and slept up there.
Buhle, the South African student with us, led us individually through the train to “look for something interesting” and get interviews. She listened for people speaking the main Zimbabwean language, Shona, but unfortunately there were mostly South Africans on board. We did talk to four people, though. Oddly, two of them were Zimbabwean doily makers who sold their wares in South Africa and took the profits, along with food, back to Zimbabwe, where the grocery stores are empty and a loaf of bread costs something like 5 billion Zimbabwean dollars (about $1 US). Our problem throughout this experience is that people are very afraid to talk with us. If the Zim government finds out you’ve been criticizing the country to the press, you could be arrested, beaten or worse. Some people would allow us to record sound but not take photos or video and many would not give us their names.
As the only white people on the train, we were somewhat of a curiosity, especially among the adorable children. When we arrived in Musina, among the bustling, smoky market stalls and the jam-packed taxi vans and the warm air, I felt almost for the first time that we were really traveling in Africa. I also felt absolutely disgusting, exhausted and, quite frankly, rank.