Ubuntu on the Zambezi

When you're stranded on the wrong side of the river in the dark

It had been an especially long day.

The mission was to visit some of the small settlements and outposts that dot the swathe of land hemmed in between the Angolan Border on the West and the Zambezi River in the East.

Working with the Zambian Environmental Management Agency, I’d set up meetings with local Tribal Chiefs to discuss with them how best to ensure that planned Mineral Exploration activities (geophysics looking for copper) could be undertaken on their tribal land with the least possible intrusion and most benefit to local communities.

To cross the mighty Zambezi River we had to board a rickety ferry, which only runs at set times, and trust that it would deliver us safely to the other side.

Fortunately, it did and our day was spent making very slow off-road progress on some very challenging terrain traveling from one village to the next. Added to this was a flat tyre and some other unforeseen delays and we’d run way over schedule.

By the time we got back to the western bank of the Zambezi it was after 10pm, completely dark with an eerie mist hanging over the water and everything was dead quiet. The ferry’s last run had been at 6pm.

We were stuck. Milling around our vehicle discussing our options a face suddenly appeared out of the dark. It was a local guy. He’d seen us approach from the opposite bank, jumped in his Makoro (dug-out canoe) and paddled across in the dark to come see if we needed help.

We’re talking a river that is more than 500m’s wide at this point with a very strong current all in pitch black night. A quite impressive feat.

Without hesitation Brian, our new friend, jumped back in his Makoro and disappeared in the mist. Within 30 minutes we heard the chugging engine of the Zambezi ferry rattle into gear, the sound growing louder until we finally saw the craft’s muted bobbing lights grow brighter and come to a standstill against the jetty in front of us.

After a brief negotiation with the Ferry Captain, an exchange of pleasantries and apologetic thankyous we were safely making our way across the river. Back on dry-land we asked the now gathered, crowd where Brian was. Calls of “Brian”, “Brian” were met with silence. Brian had already made his way home.

Bemused we stood there looking at each other. Brian had, of his own volition, paddled across the Zambezi River at night in the mist against a strong current. Determined what our need was and headed off again by himself to solve our problem for us. Having been satisfied that the ferry was going to collect us he took off back to his home.

There, on the shores of Africa’s fourth longest river, in a remote part of the continent I learnt what Ubuntu is.

Thanks Brian! For everything.

Charl van Rensburg

I have explored all over the African continent and presently make my base in beautiful Cape Town, where my whitewater pursuits in rivers and ocean surf keep me challenged on a regular basis.

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