Christopher Mlalazi’s Many Rivers, published by Lion Press Ltd in 2009, is a chilling account of a border jumper’s ordeal when he leaves his native Zimbabwe for South Africa in the late 1990s. Qinisela who is from Bulawayo, in southern Zimbabwe, is escaping a low-paid factory job and an economic crisis which is just beginning to bite. Like other like-minded, he has his sights on Egoli – the place of gold – as Johannesburg is famed. He survives a treacherous journey across the border but once in Johannesburg finds himself sucked into its criminal underworld with no easy way out. The story is a brutally frank journey into the world of border jumping , a journey that remains etched in the mind long after the last page has been turned.
The story opens with Qinisela and other border jumpers, being guided across the Limpopo River, which marks the boundary between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Their fear of a crocodile attack is very real and once safely across, they find – to their horror – that they are two men short. But their problems are not over. They are spotted by elements of the South African Border Patrol and made to pay a hefty bribe before they can proceed. But this supposedly innocent encounter, as Qinisela later discovers, has been prearranged between the Patrol and the guide for their mutual monetary benefit. Another long walk and a ride in a van paid for in advance in Bulawayo, sees the illegal immigrants finally arriving in Johannesburg.
Qinisela finds himself penniless and alone in an unfriendly city. An encounter with a group of street kids serves to emphasise his vulnerability. His contact, Prince, who is meant to be his support base until he can set himself up, is nowhere to be seen. Qinisela searches vainly for a job and barely survives by eating leftovers from tables at free discos. Meanwhile in Bulawayo, his widowed mother, a struggling food vendor in a beer garden, awaits his first money order. In desperation, Qinisela commits a petty crime which puts some money into his hands and allows him time to regroup.
As Qinisela’s story unfolds, a gang of thugs, sometimes posing as police officers, is wreaking havoc close by. The two stories inevitably merge when Qinisela joins their ranks and becomes a part of their life of violence, murder, prostitution and big money hauls. This tense and fast-paced thriller is made even more interesting by the sudden appearance of Qinisela’s long-forgotten friend, Prince.
A well-told and insightful tale of the lot of the illegal immigrant in South Africa and the workings of the highly lucrative business of border jumping on both sides of the Zimbabwe/South Africa border. If the scenes of sex and violence are a little graphic, they are only in keeping with the no-holds barred approach of the account as a whole.