Surviving the Zambezi

On a pleasant summer day back in 2006, Harrison Lowman was brutalized by the harsh mistress known as the Zambezi River.

He and his family were on Safari in southern Africa. They spent many of their afternoons camped out under the blistering sun, waiting to catch a glimpse of one of the beasts that roam the veldt. It could get frustrating, Harry said. There was never any guarantee that they would see anything.

So they decided to try something different – white water rafting. On the morning of their excursion, 80 vacationers piled into a series of white school buses leaving the resort. They passed groupings of thatch-roofed houses as they rode through the Zambian countryside clutching life vests and helmets in their laps.

The buses came to a stop in the middle of the forest. After a quick lesson on how to paddle and “holding on tight,” they started down towards the rushing water. Where the Zambezi cuts through the landscape, it leaves two shear cliffs on either side more than 100 feet high. The winding path was enough to make those in flimsy footwear a little uneasy.

At the parts of the river too rough for tourists, the raft’ers would stand at the edge and watch each guide steer their 10-person raft through the rapids themselves.

“Our guide would always go first,” Harry said. “He was fearless.” When he went down these parts of the river, he stood up on the raft and let his dreadlocks and beads shake freely while the other guides kept their helmets tightly fastened. He was a short black man with bloodshot eyes, big blue lips and a thick Jamaican-sounding accent.

“I’m gwan keep ya safe Mamma, don’t ya worry boot it!” he would tell Harry’s mom, Lisa. Whenever they hit a big wave, the guide would grip her lifejacket to make sure she stayed in the raft. Everyone else would have to reach for the frayed rope that ran along the side to hang on. Harry didn’t.

They went over a drop in the rapids that bumped him out of the raft. Instead of grabbing the rope, Harry grabbed his younger brother.  Both of them ended up in the churning waters.

“It’s so crazy the way your body feels when you hit that water,” he said. While Harry’s brother was pulled right back into the boat, he was sucked underneath it. The crisscross of currents pulled him down to the bottom, tossing him around like a doll in a washing machine.

After he got free of the currents, his mom grabbed hold of him before his dad and the guide were able to pull him up from the water. “It was totally blown off, I don’t think people realize that I fucking thought I was going to die. They were just like, ‘okay, he’s back in the boat, let’s keep going.’”

At the foot of the rapids were gentler waters and a chance to enjoy the scenery. Afterwards they all piled back into the bus where they got drunk on cheap African beer. Harry was 15.

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Surviving the Zambezi

A Rainy Day

There aren’t as many people as usual climbing the long, beige stairwell from the parking lot to the university centre’s atrium. It’s late in the day and it’s raining outside.

At the bottom, people funnel through the narrow glass doors smearing dirt all over the wet tiles as they try and avoid the already dirty spots. A symphony of squeaking rises from the bottom of the stairs but grows quieter as everyone spreads out and their boots begin to dry.

The food court is the first stop on the staircase, about halfway to the atrium. On the right, one or two students stop to check out the career development t-shirts and pamphlets that two – rather distracted – students in uniforms were handing out…at one point anyways. Directly in front of them, there are students coming in and out of the food court, grabbing a snack before a late-evening class or a bite before heading home. Most of the ones leaving have their hands full of fountain drinks, slices of pizza, pitas, or sushi.

Most of these students continue either up or down the stairs but a few of them stop and search the cluster of tables behind the distracted career development guys for an inviting seat. At all but two of the tables, students have their bags spread out alongside more than one open book; a well known tactic to disguise the fact they’ve been perusing facebook for the last hour and a half.

One girl – a cute girl – seems to have gotten comfortable, wrapped up in her deep green fall jacket, black-rimmed glasses, and thick wool socks peeking out of the top of her brown boots. But she has a strained look on her face, like she can’t decide if she should risk disrupting her situation to get rid of the small coke cup or half-finished box of chicken fingers sitting next to her computer. Instead, she just keeps clicking between an online lecture and her notes.

Beside her, a guy in a green polo is sorting stacks of cards from a fantasy card game – the kind most people won’t play after turning 15. The look of intense concentration and a conversation with one of his fellow players suggest he probably fulfills the stereotype for the kind of man who didn’t stop playing at 15. But then again, lots of us still live with our parents.

The people coming down the stairs from the atrium – who have successfully navigated the sea of signs, fundraisers and assorted enthusiasts – adjust their hoodies in preparation for a charge to the bustop or the car. A few girls in plastic rain boots – and obvious proponents of the compatibility of practicality and style – ready their umbrellas for the ‘pop’ once they walk out the door.

Behind one of them, an Asian student with the demeanour of an English gentleman taps the tip of his long umbrella along each tile step as climbs down. He came prepared – rain boots, sweat pants, and all.

A Rainy Day