I was in Nairobi with my friend Lindi, looking at locations for a TV series. Nairobi was hot and dry and the air tasted like dust and sun and metal filings. We had to travel to Arusha in Tanzania and we’d booked a private transfer but through some mishaps and ill-discipline we over-extended our budget and one night over glasses of Tusker we thought it might be a good idea to travel by public transport and use the saved money to take a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti.
The vehicle was smaller than a bus but bigger than a minibus. We wedged ourselves into the only available seats, with our knees up around our shoulders. It was late afternoon and we watched the shadows falling over the Kenyan countryside. The vehicle swerved now and then to avoid potholes and ruts and animals and small children and bigger children and adults. It did a lot of swerving, but not much braking.
“He’s going pretty fast,” said Lindi.
The later it became, and the darker the dusk, the faster the driver seemed to drive.
Lindi frowned out the window, where the countryside was passing in a blur, like a smudged charcoal drawing.
“He’s trying to get as far as possible before it gets dark,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Then he’ll slow down.”
Night fell and he didn’t slow down. He drove faster. I didn’t think he could drive faster than he was driving, but then it started to rain, and for him the combination of rain and darkness was like a double espresso. It was New Year’s Eve. It filled him with exuberance. This was what he was waiting for! He put that pedal to the floor. We couldn’t see the landscape any more because it was too dark and there are no lights out there in the Tanzanian countryside, but by the way we were being thrown from side to side we appeared to be on some twisting mountain pass.
I looked around at the other passengers. Some of them were sleeping. Others stared blankly into space. None of them were as worried as the two neurotic South Africans. East Africans are made of stronger stuff.
“Tell him to slow down,” whispered Lindi.
“Yes! Go on!”
“Why not you?”
“You’re the white guy.”
“I know I’m the white guy! He’s not going to listen to some white guy trying to tell him how to do his job.”
“If he’s going to listen to anyone, he’s going to listen to the white guy.”
“I’ll just annoy him. He’ll drive faster just to put me in my place. You ask him.”
“I’m a black South African. Kenyans don’t like black South Africans. They think we’re arrogant.”
“Don’t tell me nonsense. And I’m a woman.”
“Well, I’m not telling him to slow down.”
“I’m not either. I guess we’ll just have to crash then because you’re too much of a chicken!”
“I guess we will!”
And then we didn’t talk any more because we were sulking with each other. She glared out of the window into the terrifying night and I glared around the dark interior of the vehicle. Every now and then we rushed through tiny unlit towns and villages and we saw yellow candlelight in windows and sometimes small fires and I wondered where we were and how our bodies would get back home from the mangled interior after we crashed. There was no doubt we were going to crash. It was impossible to drive at that speed on those roads in that rain in that darkness and not die.
I was too scared to sleep but also it felt like I had a responsibility to stay awake, as though the only thing keeping our wheels on the road and moving forward was the quality of my attention, that I was holding us together through sheer will power and fear. It’s a little like the way so many South Africans keep reading the news and the social media and listening to talk radio, exhausting ourselves, terrifying and depressing ourselves, even though there’s nothing we can do about it.
It’s as though we think that we are personally responsible for holding it all together with the quality of our attention and outrage, that if we stopped anxiously, fretfully following the doings of Trump or Zuma or climate change, somehow it would finally spiral out of control.
But finally Lindi and I stopped fighting with each other, and we surrendered to fate and placed our trust in the world. She laid her head on my shoulder and I rested my head against hers and finally the tension left our bodies and we slept, and it was a good sleep, and when we woke things didn’t feel so bad, and then we were in Arusha and we laughed and waved the driver goodbye and we went and had a damn good meal.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter
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