What's that? You don't agree with His Excellency, President for Life Robert Mugabe's official policies?
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There wasn’t much of a check-in queue at Lilongwe international airport; in fact, there wasn’t a queue at all. I arrived the required hour before take-off and had stood patiently before the Air Zimbabwe check-in lady while she scrupulously ignored me for forty five minutes. I waited slightly less patiently for the next ten minutes from my position on the floor where Zimbabwean diplomatic security men had pushed me. Despite a disadvantageous angle, I had a good view of the Zimbabwe High Commissioner to Malawi, the cultural attaché, the High Commissioner’s wife and her personal shopper.
The lady behind the check-in desk almost curtseyed.
“Of course not!”
“No, no. Well, I’m sure that’s not really a problem. There won’t be anything in them that’s on the banned list.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course there will.”
The lady looked briefly alarmed, attached baggage labels to their cases and pressed the button to have them spirited away by conveyor belt. When the diplomatic party had departed she put my case on the scales and handed back my passport with an apologetic smile and a quiet “Good luck.”
Only five of us boarded the tiny Xian MA60, my worries about flying an African airline not much allayed by the fact that the plane was Chinese. As the only white passenger I wasn’t entirely surprised (or disappointed) when the stewardess told me to “get to the back of the plane.” As I passed my fellow travellers I pretended not to hear the phrase “British spy” amongst the incomprehensible Shona chatter. It was harder to ignore the contemptuous glare of the High Commissioner’s wife as she took in my crumpled jeans and sweaty t-shirt. It was clear from her expression that she had handbags she considered of higher worth. I was glad to have seven rows of empty seats between us.
I read the Air Zimbabwe in-flight magazine while we taxied onto the runway and took off, surprisingly vertically. It wasn’t a good read, being mostly concerned with denying that the last rhinoceros in Hwange National Park had been eaten by hungry Matabele villagers, blaming the price of aviation fuel on American economic imperialism and the failure of the airline to make a profit on MDC sabotage. Nevertheless, it was useful for covering my face when the plane banked steeply, causing two semi-automatic weapons to spill from the overhead baggage lockers. At least, I assumed that they were semi-automatics since they were at least partially covered with stacks of $50 bills.
A few minutes later the stewardess reappeared with the refreshments trolley. She trundled nervously towards the back of the plane, pausing only to offer drinks and snacks to my plane-mates and to empty the contents of the drinks-rack into a large bag that the High Commissioner’s wife had conveniently brought along for the purpose. By the time she reached me there was only a bag of biltong and a carton of Mazoe Orange cordial left. I decided against making a fuss.
Though it was scheduled to fly directly to Harare and then onto Johannesburg, the plane made an unscheduled stop at Victoria Falls, apparently because the cultural attaché lived nearby. I was ushered off the plane before it took off once more. I was surprisingly calm about this unexpected development.
As luck would have it, there was another Air Zimbabwe flight direct to Jo’burg almost ready to board and so I found myself among thirty or so other tourists. I boarded the plane relieved to think that soon I would be leaving Zimbabwe for the car-jackings and gun-crime of Gauteng. The flight was due to depart in five minutes but didn’t. Another apologetic stewardess appeared, this time accompanied by an embarrassed pilot.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am your pilot, Ferocious Ncube. We’re due to take-off imminently but my co-pilot, Mr Kubuyanoko, has had to accompany the connecting flight to Harare due to the illness of its pilot.”
Clearly the High Commissioner’s need was more pressing than ours. I seemed to be alone in not finding that fact strange.
“However, the flight to Johannesburg is only an hour and a half and this is a very small plane which can be easily flown by one man. So I am delighted to say that we can takeoff at your convenience. However, if you’d like to wait for the next flight to Johannesburg with a full air-crew, there will be no additional charge.”
Mr Ncube smiled generously.
“When’s the next flight?” I asked.
Ncube grinned again, in an entirely non-ferocious manner.
“This time tomorrow, if they can get a co-pilot to me.”
I don’t know why anyone was surprised to hear that the High Commissioner’s plane had used all the remaining Air Zimbabwe kerosene to refuel. And I certainly wasn’t surprised to hear that Air Botswana refused to give them any of theirs without cash up front. We had a whip-round. $65 US a head seemed a small price to pay to get back in the air, even if the High Commissioner’s wife had taken all the booze from this plane too.
As the plane flew over the Chobe River and out of Zimbabwe, I relaxed and glanced out of the window at the vast emptiness of Botswana. Predictably, there wasn’t much to see. Twenty five minutes later pilot officer Ncube announced that we were beginning to pass over the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, 16,000 square kilometres of nothing. There’s an awful lot of nothing in Botswana.
He walked along the aisle to the rear of the plane as if this happened every day, which it may well have done. My fellow travellers muttered among themselves and tried not to alarm each other. Even so, I don’t think anyone believed the stewardess when she claimed that:
“It’s all perfectly normal.”
That was the moment when we hit the only pocket of turbulence north of the Transvaal. The plane lurched sideways and fell God knows how many feet. The stewardess fell into my lap, which in any other circumstance would have been a bonus but I was too scared to take any pleasure in it and her head obscured my view of the plastic tape snapping. I did, however, hear the thud of the cockpit door closing. Fortunately, the auto-pilot had been well-trained and we seemed to be on a level flight-path again.
“Is that one of those anti-hijack doors?” I asked as she disentangled herself from me.
The pilot reappeared, with his trousers still around his ankles, to find out. He marched back towards the front of the plane, buttoning himself and tightening the leather belt that he might better have employed securing the door in the first place.
We held our collective breaths as he tried the door handle. He must have known it wouldn’t open from this side.
That was when we saw his ferocious side. He picked up the emergency fire axe and began to hack at the hinges while we prayed for fine weather. He kept up the assault for a solid half hour, pausing only to assure us that we were in free airspace from time to time.
Eventually, the door hit the floor with a bang. Maybe we shouldn’t have cheered; certainly we shouldn’t have organised another whip-round for him. But I had never before been so pleased with the prospect of being ripped off and insulted by the ground crew at Oliver Tambo International.