Storm over the Zambezi

Perhaps everyone remembers the country of their birth with particular depth and pathos when they no longer live there.

Perhaps one’s ‘first abode’ inscribes something indelible upon the heart that ever afterwards creates a longing to be back.

Whenever I return to Zimbabwe, where I spent the first twenty-one years of my life, I’m overwhelmed by the trees, the grasses, the ochre-umber-flint colours of the earth, the glittering mica and the smells after-rain, all laced through with the sounds of Shona and Ndebele and mbira. These give me a deep sense of being back home – home in a spiritual sense.

Last month, to celebrate my sixtieth year of life, I spent two days at Victoria Falls and then six days crossing Lake Kariba from Binga to the dam wall, with my immediate family, sleeping on deck under stars that spread from horizon to horizon.

When I was a child, my mother worked for Impresit Kariba, a consortium of three Italian engineering firms that built the wall across Kariba Gorge, so I feel a certain intimacy with it. When it was still under construction and before the British Queen Mother flicked the switch to symbolically set the electricity-generating turbines into motion, my brother and I were taken inside the vast, excavated tunnels to take a look at what seemed to us to be the bowels of the earth. What impressed me was the darkness beyond the lights and I remember the fortitude of the electric bulbs that illuminated those immense excavations.

The dam wall stopped the Zambezi River from free-flowing and harnessed its waters into what became the largest human-made lake in the world, larger even than the Three Gorges Dam of China. The water is dark and there is no visibility down into its almost-black colour. On some days, when we sailed, it was smooth, and on others, the wind chopped away at its surface, causing white rills to run across its waves. Beneath us lay the drowned woodlands of what had once been valleys open to the sky. Beneath us lay the ancestral graves and bones of the displaced Batonka people and the stones that marked their abandoned villages. At the edges of the lake and around the islands, stood the white skeletal forms of dead, half-submerged trees, their branches held up like the arms of drowned men.

It felt as though we were travelling above and over another country – a sort of Atlantis – muffled by vast waters, yet strangely, eerily, still very much alive and magical.

On our last night, in the far distance, we saw the white, flashing, sheet-lightning of an approaching storm. It reached us at an incredible speed. Its force was massive and impossible to escape from so that, although we were already moored in the harbour, our boat was pounded upon and clawed at. I had been watching the far-away lightening and had just lain down on my mattress on the open deck, under mosquito netting, when the rain came down, literally in buckets, instantly drenching everything. The wind whipped up into frenzy. The crew had already gone to their cabin and could not emerge because of the wind. My son strapped down what he could, but the force was magnificent and he had to just ‘let it all be.’ We managed to get back inside and stood there watching the raw power around us. We felt awed and thankful that we were not out on the dark, open lake of the trapped Zambezi River, for surely the waters, torn by the storm, would have pulled our vessel down to the doomed villages below.

All the way back to Cape Town, I thought about that storm and about ‘being home’ and about the many refugees and migrants who form the Zimbabwean diaspora in many other countries. Surely their collective longing includes a simple desire to inhale the after-storm smell of wet earth, a smell that I imagine must be unique to central Africa.


Found poem: This is what I have
Elderly waiter at restaurant, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe 2012
Name withheld

It is a small place in the rural areas.
Just a small piece with some small crops.
Just a small piece that my wife watches.
Sometimes there is no rain.
Sometimes it is too dry.
It is a small place.
When I go home, my wife cooks for me.
Sadza with some stew and a bit of salt.
I like wild spinach.
My place is small in the rural areas.


Found poem: Do you see what we have?
Dispossessed elderly white couple, Kariba, Zimbabwe 2012
Names withheld

It is because of that …
Just look at it.
Where else would we get that?
That is why we stay.
No one can take it from us.
They can take everything.
But not that …
Not that view
Not that sunset
Not that bush
Not that …
We will die here with nothing.
But we will have that beauty, as you see it.


Found poem: This is what I have and Found poem: Do you see what we have? are two of the poems included in Africa! My Africa! An anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein.
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The boat we sailed on was The Lady Jacqueline, skippered by Captain Stephen Litaba, assisted by Albert Matsika and Takesure Ncube.

If you’d like to take an unforgettable ride across Lake Kariba, contact Flame of Africa

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