He had spent years in a refugee camp, thrown out of his country in the late 80’s, but eventually decided to walk from what is now Southern Sudan to the south. He ended up at a gas station in Botswana where my brother and I were temporarily held up.
This was 2002, and that’s a breezy 3,000+ mile stroll, but it sounded like it really was his only recourse. His story on our brief road trip with him was the first time I’d ever heard about the Lost Boys of Sudan, which is now much more part of the public consciousness with the amazing Dave Eggers Book What is the What (2007), and the influential documentary God Grew Tired of Us (2006). This drew attention to the more than 2 million killed and many hundreds of thousands that were displaced in the over 20 year Sudanese Civil War (or the 2nd one as many refer to it). I was thinking about our short time together recently, because he didn’t look like a boy, it had been years since he’d been displaced- he was probably around my age now.
I’m really pissed at myself, because I recorded a lot of our conversation and can’t find it. It’s probably on some long lost dead hard drive, somewhere. I thought it was on the digital recorder I used and still have, despite its recording capabilities being worse than my iPhone. I checked it yesterday and while it does have a terrible interview I did with Tom Smith of the great UK Band, Editors, in 2006 (I was an even worse interviewer than I was a writer) — nada from our road trip in Botswana. I also had a photo of him and my brother that I can’t seem to track down either, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that he existed and was with us.
My brother was an exchange student at the University of Natal in Durban South Africa in 2002 and I went to visit him, partially to make sure he was coming home (there was big fear in my family at that time that he may become a dissident/bomb-thrower, living and organizing in South Africa, never to return) and partially because it was going to be an awesome time. We took a bus from Durban after a couple of days seeing his school, friends, and life to Springbok to pick up our rental car for a drive (on the left-hand side, fun!). We drove north through Namibia, then down through Botswana, and returned the car in Johannesburg a couple of weeks later.
Aside: Why does it feel like it was a lot easier to book crazy travel like this prior to the modern internet? I’m pretty sure we did it all relatively easily over the phone. Yes I realize you could book trips over the internet in 2002 and yes I did have a tech startup then, but I’m still pretty sure I used the phone. I also understand that automation from web booking makes it cheaper, and that savings gets passed on to the…. company. Never mind.
You can see the map of our trip across Southern Africa on a Google Maps (I included some notes/thoughts on the trip there as well).
We had just come from the game reserve in Etosho National park in Namibia, which was a totally surreal experience that included driving up to wild animals like Lions (DON’T GET OUT OF YOUR CAR, signs-warned), and crossed into Botswana running a bit low on gas. I’m sure we were sputtering on the very last of our fumes.
We found a petrol station, which was significantly harder than it is in even the most remote parts of the US. It was a destination gas station for Botswanans, and as it turned out, Africans of all kinds. We learned this because the gas station was out of gas too and we spent close to 24 hours there.
As you might imagine, in our 24 hours we had quite a lot of time to kill and met some really interesting people that were regularly trickling in. I’m not sure if we were the only Westerners, but if we weren’t, we were 2 of 3 or 4. We dazzled some local kids by showing them “the bridge” when shuffling cards during our games of cribbage and when we broke out the frisbee their little heads practically exploded with joy!
A diamond runner driving a sleek black BMW approached us with an amazing business opportunity (perhaps he was related to that Nigerian Prince that just needed your bank account number to offload a couple of million to you??), and I felt a bit disgusted by how un-disgusted I was with him. Maybe I didn’t actually, and my brother just gave me shit for listening to him.
We also met Dave. Dave had had the incredible journey of a lifetime and he needed a ride from where we were in Northern Botswana to the capital, Gaborone, which is in the southern end, to complete a journey that had started years and thousands of miles ago. After the petrol truck finally arrived and we were ready to get on our way, he was coming with us to what he said was his final destination.
Botswana and Namibia are both very unpopulated countries with huge swaths of dusty flatland, and it’s a bit like driving through Utah or Colorado outside the Rockies (I’m sure there’s a more apropos metaphor, but it’s escaping me).
On this 8 hour drive from the petrol station in Nokaneng we had a lot of time to get to know him. The guy had undoubtedly been through more than anyone I’d ever met. We rode with him through desolate countryside in our tiny red rental and he seemed really amenable to talking about his life and travails. Because he’d had so many, I oscillated between extreme guilt and fear, because I was mildly racist and worried he might want to rob us. And bouts of uncontrollable laughter, because I remember him having a good sense of humor.
Guilt was a pretty obvious emotion, even though in my early twenties I lacked a lot of empathy and really any life experience. The guy had walked over a thousand miles to perceived safety and hope that he could start a life. I also felt guilty because a big part of me thought that he wasn’t going to be ok — even with the strength he’d gained after everything he’d endured.
He let me record some of his stories, and then what seemed suddenly… we unceremoniously dropped him off at the bus depot in downtown Gaborone. On the drive we shared a lot of comfortable and uncomfortable laughs and the last 2 or 3 hours of them he slept deeply.
I remember it was unceremonious because the bus depot just looked like a couple of benches and a sign. He didn’t really have a plan for what he was going to do or who he would meet and it was late at night when we dropped him off. There was no one around. While we did give him a couple of bucks, there was no way to keep in contact with him and I guess sleeping on that bench was not the least comfortable place he’d been. Gaborone had a decent reputation, but we drove on because I needed to get back to South Africa for a flight home.
If we had stuck around I’m sure we would have tried to help him more (or at least my brother would have). Now that I’m older, and have experienced more and endured more trials myself, my gut says he’s ok. I’m sure he has an email address now and probably a Facebook page (probably a WordPress blog too), but I can’t think of a possible way I could track him down?