The year was 1998 and I’d gone to Zimbabwe on a mission trip. There’s a lot to say about what I did there and how I felt about it but that’s a story for another time. Getting to and from America to Africa is its own story.
The first leg of our journey was the big one: a 23 hour non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Johannesburg. It sounds long but we shared the flight with pop R&B group Dru Hill. I had great fun chatting to the support musicians who worried the flight crew with their slightly anti-social behaviour of consuming much of (if not all) of the alcohol on board the flight. You see, they had been invited to play for the birthday celebration of Nelson Mandela.
Yeah, that’s right. At the age of 21 I was onboard a flight, transporting an African American pop group to the birthday celebration of the previously incarcerated, now laudable leader of South Africa, 7 years after the abolition of Apartheid legislation.
Apartheid had finished, or so they said. We had a layover of a day and a half in South Africa before the onward journey to Zimbabwe. Having virtually no education or understanding about geopolitics and how differently people could be treated because of the accident of where they happened to have been born I was vaguely cognisant of the significance of the pale green visa sticker that was put into my dark blue American passport. It was also baffling who two teenage girls, members of our travel party were detained and prevented from leaving the airport. They looked as American as us, spoke like we spoke, dressed fashionably and attended our church. But their passports were issued from Cental America. That is to say, they were the wrong sort of Americans.
We took an airport shuttle to our hotel. I watched out of the window at the population of dark skinned workers, making their way home from Johannesburg on foot over unpaved roads.
The following day was pleasantly passed at a local shopping mall. It was clean, pleasant smelling and comfortable. Its constant upkeep was the task of an army of silent women with buckets, rags and wiper blades on broom handles.
We made our way back to their airport that evening for the final leg of our journey to Zimbabwe and departed South Africa in the pouring rain (it was late Winter). A transport brought us from the terminal to the airplane. We were of course by then reunited with our detained girls who’d passed their time confined to the airport hotel. I’d learned of a strike of disgruntled airport workers. I saw them, I watched them from my seat in the shuttle. They were Zulu, protesting on the tarmac in the rain
We finished our time in Zimbabwe (for what it was) and back into South Africa began the long voyage home to California. It’s a long voyage and this time, ours was a thirsty plane. We stopped in a pace to refuel: the Cape Verde Islands. I’d never heard of them prior to landing there and would have been completely ignorant of the latitude but for the helpful graphic on my seat’s LED screen,
We were hurried off the plane. We couldn’t understand the rush or hush imposed upon us as we were urged to walk quickly across the tarmac to the terminal. As we hurried, my friend said urgently, ‘Wait! I know this language!’ She stopped to speak to an official of some description and we were barked at to move along – quickly! But you see, this language WAS very similar to the one spoken in Central America: we were hearing Portuguese.