To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 


If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!


Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.


Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.


The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.


Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.


On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.


People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.


Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.


“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009


A Gift From The Gods

13 05 2008

Caprivi camp

Namibia: The dog days of summer

Sometimes, the best and most cherished souvenir from any trip is that given reluctantly by a casual acquaintance. 


The campsite was idyllically situated beside the Zambezi near Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. It was an oasis of green lawns, with a bar and toilet block constructed of bamboo walls and thatched roofs so as not to detract from the natural beauty of the spot. Large blossoming trees afforded shade, flower beds provided colour and a stone pathway wound its way lazily throughout. The place was enlivened by several small dogs which raced around playing with each other and anyone kind enough to offer a good belly rub. In short, it was bliss.


The owners welcomed us to their slice of Nirvana and invited us to pitch our tents wherever we liked. They offered hot water in the showers, cold beer in the bar and table tennis and pool tables overlooking the river. Before leaving us to settle in, they offered one stern warning.


“Beware of snakes” they said, solemnly. “We’ve had a bit of a problem, so when you walk around, particularly after dark, use your torch and stamp your feet. Snakes don’t look for trouble, but if you stumble upon one and surprise it, you’ll likely come off the worse.”


“What types of snakes?” someone asked needlessly, as if it makes a difference which venom kills you.


“Black mambas and spitting cobras” he answered, nonchalantly, before giving us a happy wave and strolling away.


We looked at each other nervously before laying stake to a plot of grass. The campsite was soon ringing with the sound of mallet on metal tent peg and before long a small village of rag-tag travellers had found a new home. Each of us carefully inspected the ground before pitching the tent, anxiously scanning it for snake holes. My spot was pristine and with the job done, I headed for a refreshing shower.


The evening passed uneventfully except for the increasing glow of a raging bush fire in the Angolan distance. We stomped off to the toilets and our tents, wielding our flashlights like light sabres. The next morning we awoke to another beautiful dawn filled with the song of birds and the yap of the campsite dogs eagerly seeking playmates.


After breakfast I returned to the tent to pack it up. I withdrew the pegs, poles and flysheet. Then, with a long stick, I raised a corner of the ground sheet to ensure there were no dozy snakes still slumbering away. With the coast clear, and the tent stuffed back in its sack, I noticed a small object on the flattened grass. I edged forward cautiously before picking it up for closer inspection.


It was a very small, crudely carved, wooden rhinoceros. Well worn, and bearing none of the craftsmanship or polish of most of the carvings found in markets, its naivety and honest character instantly appealed to me. But where had it come from?


I had scrutinised the area before pitching the tent, and had pegged it so closely to the ground that not even a breeze could have blown in. Strange things happen in Africa. Perhaps this was an ancient spiritual totem that had simply materialised in my presence. Never one willing to offend the Gods, I reverently placed it in my pocket and adopted it as a very special good luck token.


As we drove away, the campsite owners waved good-bye and the small dogs ran after us, yapping and jumping as if losing a playmate.


Later, I recovered the little icon from my pocket and examined it more closely. It was scratched and worn and bore little indentations, almost like…like…bite marks from small dogs who used it…as their favourite toy…


I have been wracked with merciless guilt ever since.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008