When I was a child, I hitchhiked a lot. You see, my grandpa taught me how, and whenever I used to go to his house, I’d always go out hitchhiking. I’d stand at the end of his driveway, stick my thumb out, and wait. Then whenever my grandpa’s red station wagon came down the street and slowed for me, I’d hop in, and together we’d ride down the driveway to the car port behind the house. It was exciting.
And it was, until recently, my only experience with hitching—either seeking a ride for myself or giving someone else a lift. Though I often feel for people standing on the side of the road with their thumbs out, I don’t stop. It’s just not a risk I’m willing to take.
But in Africa, hitching is a way of life. The majority of people get around by hopping in the back of a passing pickup or cramming into the backseat of a compact driven by a compassionate soul. As we had our own car as we traveled through South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, and Botswana, we didn’t need to worry about how to get from place to place. But we were in the lucky minority. Every day we’d pass tens if not hundreds of people looking for a ride. Though I was sometimes tempted to, we never stopped. Our backseat was overflowing with all of our stuff, so we wouldn’t just be able to quickly pull over and have someone hop in. And unfortunately the status of our world has taught us to be so suspicious.
But then we went for it. Well, we eased into it, first giving a lift to three British girls who were taking the Baz Bus around South Africa but found that the connecting bus they were planning on taking between towns was full. We then picked up a park employee at the gate of Etosha, who needed a ride to the junction about 20 km away. And finally, in Botswana, while waiting for the three-car ferry that slowly, slowly, slowly took cars and foot passengers across the river, we agreed to give a ride to a guy about our age who was going home to Seronga, the village we were heading to for an Okavango Delta experience.
And though we didn’t get paid for the lift (and weren’t looking to be paid), we were rewarded. Having the hitcher in our backseat was like having a private guide offering insight into life in this rural part of Botswana. He told us about his uniform–a khaki outfit complete with medals–which I mistakenly thought was a military uniform; turns out it was the outfit he and all other male members of the Zion Christian Church (South Africa’s largest) wear to Sunday services. He pointed out the makeshift villages on the east side of the road, explaining that these were the temporary homes of people who had to be relocated from villages on the west side of the road because of flooding, and he identified all the bodies of water that in a normal year would not be there. He talked to us about soccer, a favorite Sunday afternoon past time as witnessed by the many games we saw going on (all with teams in surprisingly matching and official uniforms). And he told us about the upcoming elections when we passed a political party gathered under a large baobob tree. When we dropped him off at his home–a traditional mud and thatch hut, he made sure we knew where to go from there and then thanked us multiple times. It was a good experience for both parties it seemed.
And though I don’t plan to make picking up hitchhikers a habit, especially once I’m back in the U.S., I’m glad we let our walls down and let this guy into our backseat. Thanks to him what would have been pretty but context-less scenery was translated into an insightful look at life in northern Botswana.