My first day in Zambia found me lagging behind my family, having spent longer mooching around a marketplace near the breath-taking Victoria Falls which we were visiting, but they were only five minutes ahead of me and nobody rushes around the Falls so I wasn’t worried about catching up.
The path I had hastily chosen from the several possibilities circling around the falls started to lead away from the constant roar of rushing water becoming rapidly quieter with no other people passing. I attributed the odd silence to the thick tropical vegetation surrounding the falls, the spray plume acting as a constant water source giving dense foliage in what was otherwise an arid, martian landscape.
While registering this botanical detail I noticed a soldier following about thirty metres behind me. At first I thought he might just be looking out for me as it was probably obvious I wasn’t totally sure where I was going. I decided to stay on track for a few more minutes in an attempt to try and not look stupid. After a minute or two of increasingly eerie silence and no other people in sight I decided it was time to swallow a little pride and stop heading in what was clearly the wrong direction, I made an about turn and started back the way I’d come.
The soldier had maintained his distance and pace throughout but as I approached from the opposite direction he slowed to a stop at the point where we passed, he raised his hand in obstruction announcing “Excuse me sir”.
His tone immediately had me on guard. It wasn’t the casual friendly tone I’d encountered so far in Africa, it was official and authoritative. I stopped and faced him, he looked young to be a soldier no older than 23 and quite short, I’m not particularly tall at 5’ 9’’ and he was several inches shorter than me. He was dressed in usual military fatigues with no obvious designation of rank or unit. All the same he was broad shouldered and his neatly folded shirt sleeves barely concealed his bulging biceps and obvious physical strength, I was certainly going to answer his questions politely.
“You are from hotel?” He asked in slightly broken English, by hotel I assumed he referred to the Zambezi Sun, the closest resort and indeed where I was staying.
“Yeah, up at the Zambezi Sun”, I answered. I didn’t like the way he kept looking up and down the path as if on the lookout.
“Okay. You have room key?”. I didn’t, I was sharing a room with my mum and she had it.
“Errr no, my mother has it”.
He paused thoughtfully for a few seconds before responding.
“Okay, well you are supposed to have your key all times. . .” A slightly threatening tone had crept into the soldier’s voice, or perhaps it was just my growing awareness of how isolated we were. “Normally, fine of fifty dollars for this”, he continued “but I am reasonable man, I’m sure we can arrange something”.
Ah. Right. He had fabricated an offense and was now looking for a bribe.
“I’m reasonable my friend so what are we are we going to do here? Do you have dollars? Or pounds? What are we going to do here?” He repeated several times, his English also seemed to have improved. Then I noticed the holstered pistol on his belt, this exchange had ugly potential and I was very ready to return to the crowds and relative safety around Victoria Falls. The soldier looked at me calmly and expectantly, no longer scanning the pathway for passers-by. It was time to leave. “Well I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to find my family”. With that I started walking briskly (with what I hope didn’t look too much like running) back in the direction of Victoria Falls. I was extremely relieved when my footsteps were not echoed by pursuit and a few minutes later I found my family as part of a larger group who had had their attention distracted from the magnificent Falls by a pair of Vervet monkeys gleefully tearing their way through the contents of an upturned wheely-bin.