“Get in, quickly. The convoy is about to leave.” As I haul myself up and into the passenger seat of the truck cabin, my excitement at being able to enjoy today’s lengthy journey from an unusual vantage point is quickly dampened by the sight of a bullet hole in the windshield, at head height and directly in front of me. “Ah yes”, explains Aboubakar, Mozambican long-distance truck driver and saviour of the moment, “We were shot at by the Renamo rebels two weeks ago. Luckily I was alone that day.” Lovely. Seeing a chasm-deep frown on my forehead and an instinctive clenching of my day pack tighter to my bosom – cunningly placing both a 762 page Lonely Planet tome and my laptop between any opportunist bullet and either of my heart’s ventricles – he smiles and reassures me unconvincingly that lightning does not strike twice at the same windscreen.

Despite having officially given up any political hope of seizing power after the Mozambique civil war ceasefire more than two decades ago, some of the more militant factions had not given up their weapons and were still popping up sporadically with a shooting here and a kidnapping there. Capitalising on my visit and unintentional magnetism for civil unrest and minor revolutionary activity, Renamo had recently taken control of a swathe of land in Sofalo Province, including a 100km stretch of the very traffic artery that was to expedite me towards the Zimbabwean border. With the only reputable bus company suspending services indefinitely, my only option other than a five day detour back down and across into South Africa was to hitch a lift with one of the fifty heavy goods vehicles in a convoy allowed safe passage through the lawless strip every day at 9am by virtue of a heavily armed military escort.

Aboubakar had descended from his driver’s seat to buy some fruit for the journey just as I was alighting from my hostel tuk-tuk at 5:20am, and had immediately agreed to give me a lift. As a Muslim still fasting despite Ramadan having ended, I clearly understood that he had to eat enough in the forty minutes before daybreak to keep him awake and vigilant during the 12 hour drive he had to Beira; but unless Mozambican citrus fruit was periodically laced with amphetamines, I was at a loss to explain his bulk purchase of twenty-six oranges. Once we are settled inside the cabin, he proceeds to line them all on the dashboard, creating two neat lines of imperfect, gnarly oranges on the inside of the windscreen. Unable to hide my consternation any longer, he answers the unspoken question with a rueful smile and a curt “You will see.”

As the convoy prepares to start its journey, a military jeep pulls alongside us and the soldier in the passenger seat stands up to engage Aboubakar in conversation. Picking up the words proteção and contribuição from the short exchange, I am not surprised to see a one hundred meticais note ($1.30) dexterously pass from driver wallet to soldier pocket in a sleight of hand manoeuvre worthy of David Copperfield. When this action is followed up by the removal and transfer of three oranges from the dashboard to the soldier’s eager hands, the penny finally drops. With the protection racket secured, the jeep slots in ahead of us and leads the way into the rebel-held area. “Actually, I would rather they didn’t drive in front of us, the rebels are more likely to shoot if they see soldiers. The soldiers are useless anyway. But we had no choice”, Aboubakar hisses with undisguised contempt. This is brilliant: we have actually offered bribery money and fruit to a corrupt and underpaid military squad that is giving us a higher chance of getting targeted by their mere presence.

Three oranges and a buck thirty do not buy you much, however, and our escort pulls away after ten minutes in search of the next contribution to their five-a-day. So much for protection, I think, but good riddance to them anyway. As my sleep-deprived brain struggles to compute what has just happened, a new jeep appears to our right, overtakes our vehicle and flags us to pull over in the exact middle of the rebel-controlled strip of highway. My face registers absolute disbelief and Aboubakar’s glum resignation as a carbon copy of the first bribery exchange takes place once, twice, three more times over the course of the disputed 100km. That we get through the danger zone without any incident is almost of no consequence with the corruption charade that has played itself out. Even my tub of Mentos chewing gum is sacrificed for the cause as one soldier spots it in the drinks holder, viva la revoluciòn!

During the remaining four hours to Inchope, where Aboubakar is to drop me off before heading back towards the coast, we are stopped a further eight times by both transport and regular police, bringing to an incredible total of twelve the number of extortion attempts on our vehicle in the last six and a half hours. A truck windscreen that was practically vitrified vitamin C when we left Pambara now has one single mangy orange sitting in its recess. Just as I prepare to bid Aboubakar farewell and express my sincere gratitude for providing both a ride and a spectacular insight into the absurd underworld of local officialdom, he takes the last orange and peels it, passing me alternate segments as they are freed. We share the fruit in silence, a nutritious symbol of our eternal bond and righteous consecration of the absurd gangster parody we have just experienced.

🎶 Bullet In The Head 🎶

My ride: a truck towing a car with two dudes on the roof

Hard currency on show

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