The Psalm 102 Bus: Three
Portraits from Zimbabwe
After an overloaded bus crosses the Botswana border into Plumtree,
Zimbabwe, immigration officials begin a regular inspection of all goods coming into
the country. Photo by Katelyn Lucy.
Editor's note: During her year as an exchange
student at the University of Botswana, Smith senior Katelyn Lucy made five trips
to Zimbabwe. She writes about some of the people she met as she crossed borders
into a country struggling under the rule of a military junta.
The overnight bus was some kind of miracle, impossibly
exempt from the laws of physics.
On the roof were battered suitcases stacked around some
unconventional luggage: mattresses, bicycles, entire sets of living room furniture.
Inside the rust–bucket bus was even more mind–boggling: three or four
passengers for every two seats each with bags, boxes and laundry baskets tightly
packed with necessities for their families. But on its nightly run between Gaborone,
Botswana's capital city, and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, this
bus carried so many more stories than it ever could possessions.
During my year as an exchange student at the University
of Botswana, the last place I expected to be as my holiday break began was boarding
a nighttime bus into a dictatorship. But living in Botswana, I had heard stories
about what was happening on the other side of the border in Zimbabwe.
I wanted to reconcile the warnings about thieves, thugs
and tsotsis I had heard from so many in Botswana with the reality that so
many of the Zimbabweans I had met were simply people looking to work and send money
home to their families or trying to escape the violence.
So I boarded the bus named "Psalm 102," exercising
my ability to spot a guide through the border crossing, someone whose universal motherhood
would be moved by my universal daughterhood.
And there she was, toward the back: Fadzai. She was
the first of many mothers I encountered on their way home to Zimbabwe who told the
heavy stories they carried with them onto that bus already overcrowded with physical
baggage. She missed her three children throughout the year while she worked as a
maid in Botswana so that she could send money home to them. Her baby would be talking
by now, and she would finally get to hold him again.
The women on the bus had their hair freshly plaited,
the men had their shirts freshly ironed to show their families that they were doing
fine on the other side of the border. Their energy was one of excited anticipation,
and soon the bouncy kwaito music was turned down so it stopped chattering
the roof and the lights went off— but no one slept. They were too thrilled
knowing that they would see their loved ones when we crossed the border at sunrise.
Thomas looked more like Father Christmas in
the off–season than the ex–colonial officer he claims he was 50 years
ago. At 20 he left England in search of adventure in Africa and was stationed in
Tanzania where he worked for several years before friendships with locals convinced
him to lead a less political life.
He moved to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) just after the
liberation struggle of black Zimbabweans against the white Rhodesian government.
When he learned that his land was next on a list of
farms to be "redistributed" to veterans of the war, Thomas sold his farm
and bought a sprawling old house where he and his Zimbabwean wife now live with their
three sons. Two of the boys, ages 13 and 10, are their own and their third son, also
10, has lived with them for much of his life— but corruption has delayed the
For the past few years the family had been planning
to move to Botswana. The boys had been looking forward to a new and comfortable life
since they were young, but complications with the adoption documents presented huge
obstacles— until Thomas's health began failing and the move became more
Even as he told me of treatment he received in this
country where his white skin has often automatically put him in the role of the oppressor— he
said over and over that Zimbabwe is home; that this is where he has his house,
his family and his heart. After six decades on the continent— four of them
in a country that has changed its name while he has changed his mind— he was
forced to leave this past spring, knowing he would probably never return.
The day before Christmas, a rosy–cheeked
baby girl was brought to Mpilo Public Hospital in Bulawayo and put in a crib next
to a birdframed boy. Both the infants were abandoned in the "locations" (the
ghettos of the city) and brought to the hospital by the strangers who found them.
In a situation where necessities are scarce and caring for a baby is extremely expensive,
many Zimbabwean mothers have made desperate decisions: they have abandoned their
infants in open fields or hospital steps— or considered infanticide. Amandla
and her bedmate Butlhe were two of these tiniest victims of the economic crisis.
With doctors on strike or abroad, often one physician is charged with three floors
of the pediatric ward. With no supplies and little experience, junior nurses often
try to fill the place of the absent doctors as best they can, but many tiny bodies
fill the hospital morgue each week nonetheless. Even as little as a year go, abandoned
infants like this pair generally would have spent shortened lives in a hospital— with
no formula, no spare diapers and no medicine— before succumbing to pneumonia.
As soon as the paperwork was cleared, the two were taken to a new transitional adoption
home in the suburbs of Bulawayo. Only three days after she arrived at the hospital,
chubbycheeked, curious Amandla was placed warm and gurgling into the arms of her
newest caregivers, six infinitely patient and loving women and men who now care for
22 children— the majority under six months old. In repeated trips across the
border into a turbulent Bulawayo, I have seen the crisis in so many familiar faces,
had so many similar stories pressed into my hands to bring home. But in Amandla's
case there is a spark: her beginning months of life illustrate that despite all of
the suffering in this southern African nation, there is no shortage of love, and
though people are weary of the violence, it is human to hope.