“Pewandicile?” (Are we getting close?)
He just laughed in reply. It was then that I knew I was in trouble.
Having lived here 10 years now, I should know better than to believe someone when they tell me that there is a good road out to their sister’s farm in the middle of the bush. It’s not that they lie necessarily, more that they only ever go out there on foot or by motorbike and what seems like a decent path to them doesn’t really translate to something that a car can safely travel on. I mean to be fair, we did end up making it to within about 300m of the farm so it wasn’t impossible… but it wasn’t without cost.
I had set out about 2pm with Mama to visit a grandma in a nearby village. It’s about 10km away, along one of the bigger roads – just a 10 minute drive. When I got there, I realised I’d forgotten my phone but I wasn’t too worried as we weren’t planning to be long. The grandma we wanted to see wasn’t home so we decided we’d just turn around and head back home.
Earlier that morning, I had heard someone telling Mama that her daughter was sick out at the farm. The messenger told her that she needed to tell her son to go out on the motorbike the following day and pick her up. It was out in the same direction that we had gone in the car so in Mama’s mind, it was a no-brainer, “Let’s go and get her!” I asked her whether there was a road to the farm and of course she said yes. She didn’t know the way thought, she’d only been once and went a different way on foot. Instead, she called her so to come and accompany us and to hurry!
When she called him again about 15 mins later to ask where he was, he said he was close – just around the corner. I decided to drive back towards home to meet him. After quite a few corners, we saw him running along the road towards us. Once he had hopped in and we had all greeted one another, I asked him whether or not there was a road all the way to the farm. He said yes.
It was the middle of the wet season but thankfully there hadn’t been any rain for a few days so the first part of the ‘road’ was really quite good. I didn’t have any idea how far we had gone, I hadn’t checked the odometer and my phone was back at the house. At one point, after maybe 10km, we drove through a small creek. When we got through to the other side, Mama turned to ask her son whether we were getting close yet. He just giggled and I knew I was in trouble.
Just after the creek crossing, there were a couple of wooden log bridges to cross. They looked pretty decent and they weren’t very high but bridges make me nervous so I stopped the car to check each time. The guys on the motorbike behind me thought that was quite funny.
We continued on a fairly decent road, through a small village and alongside fields full of maize. Soon after the village, Idrissa directed me off the main ‘road’ and basically into a field. I was like, “Ummmm, are you sure?” But he just smiled and assured me we needed to snake through a few fields before joining back in with the ‘road’ on the other side.
Driving through fields and alongside farms is fraught with danger. The grass and crops are so tall, it makes it hard to see the hazards lurking underneath. I crawled along at snail’s pace making sure the way was clear.
We went on and on and on. At one point, the path went straight between two fields. People had planted right up to the edge of the path – only leaving enough room to pass through on foot. I felt a bit bad for running over their crop but Mama and Idrissa just complained about people have planted their maize on the path – apparently they should know better.
Despite being super careful and travelling at about 5km/hr, my worst fear was realised when all of a sudden, there was a massive crash and the steering wheel was wrenched out of my hands. “Shit!” I exclaimed (some of my best Ciyaawo). I had somehow managed to bruise and scrape my elbow (on the steering wheel?!) and we’d clearly run into something quite large.
I hopped out to inspect the damage. The front left wheel had clipped a massive tree stump which then smashed into the wheel arch. I hopped back in, reversed up a bit to dislodge the car and then got back out to inspect it more closely. Amazingly, everything seemed to be intact underneath. The wheel arch was badly damaged and the passenger door made a sickening clunking noise when opened, but all things considered, it wasn’t too bad.
We hopped back in the car and I drove off tentatively. The steering felt a little bit looser but everything else seemed ok. Mama was shaken up – she was literally shaking and worried about how Cam would react to the news. I was also quite shaked up and rapidly cycling through feeling angry – at Mama and Idrissa, at the farmers who planted their maize on the path but mostly at myself for having made the dumb decision to drive out there in the first place.
I was also feeling a bit angry at God. I had felt a lot of peace about going, despite the risks – but it didn’t work out how I had planned. I was also feeling pretty sad – smashing the car was a dumb and expensive mistake. And my arm hurt! I didn’t have my phone, it was getting late and I knew Cam and the kids would be worried.
I was also feeling grateful – the damage could have been so much worse. A car is just a thing, relatively easy to fix. At least we weren’t hurt and we didn’t hurt anyone else. By this stage I’d been driving for about 2 hours, concentrating intensely the whole time. I was exhausted (and clearly on an emotional rollercoaster), but somehow, I managed to hold it together.
I gave myself a pep talk and we just kept going. Idrissa walked along in front of the car for a lot of the rest of the way. We weren’t taking any chances. I consoled myself with thoughts of rescuing Mama’s sick daughter just in the nick of time – perhaps there would be a happy ending.
At around 5pm, we finally arrived near the farm. Refusing to try and push ahead any further, we stopped and walked the last few hundred metres on foot. There is no phone reception at the farm so no one was expecting us. We found the ‘not very sick at all’ daughter / sister and she and her kids began the made dash to pack up so we could get back on the road as soon as possible.
I sat on a log, resting a bit and watching everyone pack. In the distance, I saw a lady walking towards me and soon realised it was the wife of one of Cam’s good friends. Her field was nearby and a few people had grouped their grass huts together for company and protection.
We sat and chatted while Idrissa and kids chased chickens and loaded them into a bucket. Clothes and blankets were stuffed into sacks, the mattress was rolled and tied, pots and pans were gathered into bundles and everything was ferried up the hill to the car.
My friend at the farm told me how she had been sick for days. There was no village nearby – it was about a 30km walk to the nearest clinic. She’d managed to find someone who had one panadol tablet, but that was all. She was really hoping that her husband would come out on the motorbike soon.
Once everyone was loaded in, I gave a bag of potatoes, originally destined for the first grandma we had tried to visit, to a tiny, stick-thin grandma who also lived at the farm.
The sun was beginning to set and I was pretty desperate to make it back to the ‘good’ part of the ‘road’ – out of all of the fields – before it got properly dark. We farewelled everyone and loaded back into the car. As we passed back through now familiar territory, Idrissa and Mama recounted tales of our trip out to the daughter and her kids.
Idrissa told her that we arrived at the third log bridge along the way (pictured above), which looked way more treacherous than the first two, I had just turned, sighed, laughed a little and then said in an exasperated / nervous / playful way, “Idrissa?!?!?”
By some miraculous grace of God, despite my exhaustion, I managed to avoid any more tree stumps and remember all of the turns back through the fields. It took us another few hours for the return trip! By about 730pm, we could finally see the lights of Massangulo in the distance.
Cam had been at home, wondering what had happened. He eventually hopped on the motorbike to start a search. He came up short so returned home and started trying to call Mama again. Finally back in range, she saw the call was coming from my phone and home and handed her phone straight to me. I explained to Cam that we were safe, back on the main road and just minutes from home. I said that I’d just drop everyone else home and be back soon. We drove slowly through the village and finally arrived back at Idrissa’s house.
Mama has 9 children (the ones who are still alive at least) and I think every single one of them was there to welcome us. Sisters were hugging, the grandkids were all reuniting and brothers were helping unload and sweep out the car. I think that was the moment that was the hardest one of the whole trip. There was just so much joy and love and it made me feel incredibly homesick for my sisters, brothers in law, nieces and nephews.
Idrissa and his brother inspected the damage done to the car by the light of a phone torch. We explained what happened and talked about how Baba (Cam) would be sad but not too much because he has a good heart. I was about to leave when Mama told me to wait for a little while – she wanted to get something for me. I stood waiting, greeting people as they passed by – some returning from a long day selling goods at the market.
Before long, Mama returned with 1000 Mets (about 15% of a month’s salary) which she placed into my hands with instructions to give it to Baba to help fix the car.
I farewelled everyone and hopped back in the car for the very short drive home. Cam was there waiting with dinner. He was just glad we were ok… and only a little bit sad about the car.