Four countries meet at Impalila Island, Namibia. This tiny island is forged by the meeting of two great rivers – the Chobe and the Zambezi. The rivers are strident and powerful, each current wanting to rush ahead, to the great plunge that is the Smoke that Thunders – the Victoria Falls.
When I first ventured into the northern Botswana wilderness in September of 1986 e, I was on the lam from extended military service in Apartheid South Africa, and the South African military had just struck at refugees/liberation fighters/exiles in Gabarone.
A young white male from over the border was viewed with great suspicion. That I was riding a bicycle did ameliorate some fears that I was there to kill and maim. When I stopped at the desolate Dudkwe refugee camp to try and find South African exiles, people I felt I could befriend – the Batswana police guarding it decided to have a bit of fun with me before sending me on my way. They told me that South African President PW Botha, die Groot Krokodil, had died. It was amazing news that might affect my self-imposed ‘exile’, as he was the guiding hand behind South Africa’s ‘kragdadigheid’ and ‘Rooi Gevaar’ policies. Perhaps my half-insane country would retreat from regional conflicts.
We toasted his death with Coca Cola before I pedaled off with a light heart and a heavy bike. It was weeks before I realized that far from dead, PW was leading my people with a lively belligerence.
The tar road arrowed north, and so did I, at a snail’s pace. The thick Kalahari sands to the West and the attractions of the Okavango Swamps were not ideal for my overladen butcher boy bike. It was thus that I ended up on the border of the place I had been trying to avoid – occupied South West Africa. I set up my hammock on the banks of the wide Chobe River and gazed across at a country that seemed to be rather peacefully at war.
My extended military service (‘camps’) should have seen me sent to The Border, as South Africans called the war zone between Angola and South West Africa, and as a vaguely Marxist, vehemently atheist and militantly anti Racist young man, I felt it beholden on me not end up in a brown bush uniform with a rifle in my hands.
Chobe was, and is, a wildlife paradise, but it also abutted a war zone and so I can only assume there was an endless stream of spies and spooks in that geographically sensitive area, and that many viewed me as one.
Nonetheless, after several months of hanging out in villages, I was approached by guerillas of the Caprivi African National Union, or CANU (later merged with/subsumed into SWAPO) was a organisation seeking independence for the Caprivi from South African controlled SWA. The man who approached me was short and strongly built, with low-lidded eyes and a slow, determined way about him. His name was Ernst Likando. After a couple of meetings, he invited me to cross with him into SWA, by dug-out canoe. It was a test. Apparently I passed, because some weeks later, when I crossed more conventionally by car at the border post, I was welcomed back at Impalila Island by my new friend Ernst, and a cell of CANU activists, some of whom looked like they had just fallen out of a Seventies fashion catalogue.
At a clandestine meeting observed by just a few dozen villagers, I was asked to supply them with information on SA troop movements, and more importantly, to try and get publicity for their movement. I agreed to try, but doubted I would have much luck. Within a couple of hours after the meeting, as Ernst and I sat with our feet dangling in the Chobe Rivers rapids, sipping warm beer, a helicopter flew low overhead.
“That’s for you,” intoned Ernst, his face impassive, as he stared into the waters.
“Me?” I responded, surprised.
Sure enough, soon a message arrived that I was to come to the village – the Security Branch wished to have a chat with me. There were two white South Africans. One fully bearded and the other clean shaven. The bearded one never spoke, but the other was a Sgt Basson, and he let it be known they knew all about my illegal visits, and that I had overstayed my Botswana visa (hence the need to cross in the Caprivi Strip).
In fact, he knew a lot more about who i met and what I did than I was comfortable with. He threatened to have me deported whenever he chose. Then he switched tack, and commented on how expensive it must be, this traveling and all. Perhaps he could assist me meet those costs. All he wanted in return was for me to let them know when something happened that would endanger innocent lives, or the lives of my countrymen. They wanted to know when terrorists crossed into SWA.
I was walking a tightrope. I had to convince him that of course I would, but also that I did not want to endanger the research I was doing. Did I mention that I was doing research? Ah, yes, that was my cover – anthropological research on the effects of the border on the culture of the BaSubiya people. And yes, I was doing just that, except that I had not even passed the first year at university and the research was well … really something I could hold onto in the exquisite boredom of hanging out in Botswana, the Switzerland of Africa.
The chopper took off, and no-one in the village would meet my eye. I went back to Ernst and told him about the conversation. He laughed and said, “We can give you information to feed them. It will be useful.” And so began my short and uneventful life as a double agent. Very short and very uneventful. And since I refused the Security Branch’s money, it was not even lucrative, silly me.
After my third relaying of imaginary information at the SB headquarters at Katimo Muliolo, Sgt Basson grew angry. The previous nonsense they had accepted so eagerly had probably led to a lot of confusion. It was time to retreat back to Botswana. As I write this now, I realize that I could/can be considered a traitor. Technically speaking, of course. I think I can live with that.
By then, I had in reality, made an anthropological breakthrough. I had established a relationship with the most powerful and sought after Basubiya spirit medium healer in the area: Shakanda. I was able to attend his Morupas or drumming ceremonies in both Botswana and the much more culturally conservative Caprivi Strip, where he hailed from.
Years later, when I passed through Caprivi in 1999, I sought him out and he invited me to yet another all-night ceremony. After a long and tiring night, as he slumped in a chair, facing the rising sun, he asked “So, you like my new act?”
Copyright Greg Marinovich 2011
more images can be seen at http://gregmarinovich.photoshelter.com/gallery/Caprivi-Strip-Chobe-1985-6/G0000CsAhJVZ08nE