Crossing Porous Borders

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I grew up in Canada with the firm belief that borders were sacrosanct. You couldn’t treat them lightly. Then I moved to Africa… Namibia, specifically. My teaching post was about 10 kilometres south of the Angolan border.

The first friday that I was there, I got taken out drinking by my co-workers. We went to a shebeen (bar) in the middle of a forest, about halfway between our school and the Angolan border. There we met up with a larger group, including one very friendly giant of a man (I’ve lost his name now, sorry). On his arm was a scar from a recent cut of some kind, a very long and thin cut, as if from a knife.

He offered to smuggle me into the country to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police

He told me that he stole cars for a living and that he could get one for me if I wanted.

Then he started on a long story about how his friend had died recently, just across the border. He offered to smuggle me into the country to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police -- right then. The border between Angola and Namibia isn't open at night, and even if it was, my passport was safely locked away somewhere else.

He wasn't going to listen to my objections, telling me that he would smuggle me across the border and not to worry. At the time this challenged my sense of propriety on a number of levels. You can’t just walk across a border. Also, he was pretty drunk - they all were. I was desperately holding on to sobriety so that I could drive us all home, if i could figure out where that was.

I guess I objected enough, as eventually he got bored of the topic and  moved on. Later, I did get us all home, but not without some “fun” as the passengers kept grabbing the stick shift, trying to change gears on me.

A few months later I learned just how insecure the border between those two countries actually is. There’s a river called Kunene that runs through Angola and into Namibia at a scenic waterfall called Ruacana. The river then takes a sharp right and becomes the boarder between the two countries.

You walk through a hole in a small fence, and voila, you’re in another country.

The base of the waterfall, the Namibia side of the border, is infested with crocodiles. At the top of the falls there are some nice swimming holes. This is the Angola side. You walk through a hole in a small fence, and voila, you’re in another country. They even put a nice marker there for you to see. We all took our pictures at the marker, mine is above.

I think we went there four or five times in my two years in Namibia, not once worrying about entering Angola without our passports or permission. Further west, it’s not uncommon for people to wander across the border, as families often live divided by it. There may or may not be a police officer sitting at a table under a tree. If there is, you’re expected to check in, otherwise, carry on.

Near the end of my time in Namibia, i did some white water rafting on the lower Kunene River (crocs don’t live near rapids). Our hosts thought it’d be a cool experience for us to have lunch on the Angolan side. We were all “phfft, been there.” They were disappointed.

Oddly enough, even though I was still hung up on borders when I arrived in Namibia, I’d crossed into a country ‘illegally’ once before. I walked into North Korea. It’s not hard to do, and relatively safe, as long as you do it properly.  Panmunjom is a small, deserted town on the border between what is now North and South Korea. During the Korean War, it was the location of a number of talks that lead to the signing of a ceasefire agreement (but not a peace treaty, it must be noted).

The building where these talks were held was arranged so that half of it is in each country. The main negotiating room is likewise set up, with small flags on the table demarcating the border between these two less-than-friendly nations. I’ve been in that room, and I’ve walked around that table, putting me in North Korea for perhaps a grand total of two minutes.

Later in my travels around southern Africa, I spent some time in Zimbabwe, visiting the beautiful Victoria Falls. Like the Kunene river, the falls starts in one country (Zambia) and ends in another (Zimbabwe). It also then becomes the border between the two. In this case, the river has cut a deep gorge and crossing it means walking a large bridge. So we did. At the other side, there’s a very typical guard hut and gate, but no guard.

So we walked in…

… About 20 metres before a guard opened the door of an outhouse, shouting at us to get back to the gate and wait for him. So we walked back, and kept walking across the bridge back to the Zim side.

The funny thing is, while considering writing this, I remembered that years ago I’d seen a tv show called TV Nation, and in it, Michael Moore had demonstrated just how insecure the Canada/USA border was by having a hockey team roller blade across the border. I’d forgotten about that until just now. Fortunately YouTube remembers it, and you can watch the clip below.