Hardly Working

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African born in Zambia to a South African father and Zimbabwean mother. She now lives in Kenya. In Hardly Working, which she refers to as “a travel memoir of sorts”, she takes the reader with on her family’s trip through Africa and then her own trip through Europe.

She opines that “one does not travel just for the sake of it.” For her family, Team Hero Squad as she calls them, they embarked on a road trip through Africa for four reasons. They wanted to expose their eleven-year-old son, Kwame, to the continent through experience. This was to form part of his school project. Secondly, this trip marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of Zukiswa’s first book, The Madams. Thirdly, the timing of trip was such that she could be in Zimbabwe on her birthday, to celebrate her 40th with friends and family. Fourthly, what better way to bond as family for Zukiswa, Kwame and Tchassa, her husband.

Their route through Africa took them from Kenya, to Tanzania, to Malawi, to Zambia, to Zimbabwe and finally to South Africa. But Zukiswa proceeded to Nigeria for work. From there she flew to Denmark, and undertook another road trip from Denmark, to Germany and to Poland. She then drove back to Demark where she was to spend her three months fellowship.

Zukiswa, being the brilliant and accomplished story teller that she is, makes effective use of simple prose and descriptions, littered with humour to take the reader along on her eventful trip. She sees layers and layers of stories everywhere on this trip. I kind of envied the family for their courage of “roughing it” through the continent, starting with public transport, to food, accommodation and the rest. Zukiswa advises that for a trip of this nature one should not attempt to draw a detailed plan. Instead, a broad framework will suffice because a lot can change. To start with, they left home three weeks late because of visa fun and games!

I am not sure why immigration officers across the world treat everyone as an aspiring criminal. I am not sure about everyone else, but their demeaner always makes me doubt my own innocence. Visa officials seem to have this unlimited discretion in the way they choose to interpret the rules and the process thereof. I am not sure how they are trained. But it seems to me that they should be trained to facilitate rather than police travel. They should understand their role in promoting versus impeding tourism. Zukiswa draws interesting comparisons between the immigration officers of the different countries they travelled through. She singles out Malawi and Ghana as the most welcoming: “There were no bribes to be paid and no harassment by the policemen…(unlike Kenya and South Africa where) we automatically get our backs up when we see them.” To the latter list she adds Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria and Tanzania. Somehow, I was disappointed at Tanzania and Botswana. But Zukiswa’s experience with Ukrainian immigration officers left me uneasy both as an African and as a woman. I felt a deep sense of being “othered”.

The book covers more than travel; it also exposes the reader to Zukiswa’s eventful and busy world of writing and writers (which I quietly wish I was part of). I was surprised at the politics of it all. I was reassured by Zukiswa’s disappointment (it’s not just me) at African bookshops that hardly stock African authors. But be that as it may, many African readers like myself make it their business to find African authors “with or without” these bookshops.

Zukiswa does not sanitise her experiences on this trip. She openly talks about the struggling economies and crumbling infrastructure, filth, late buses and bribery. She concludes that there are three constants in these countries: illegal gambling; drinking spots; and gospel churches. But she equally highlights acts of generosity and humaneness. And of course, you would not be in Zimbabwe if you did not hear names like Brave and Doubt!

Hardly Working is an easy and fascinating read. I recommend it to anyone interested in immersing themselves in the African experience.