Aidan Hartley

Entrance exam

Aidan Hartley's Wild Life

Entrance  exam
Text settings

Before disembarking at Bulawayo airport I stuffed the book I was reading in the front-seat pocket. It was Peter Godwin’s fine When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. I did not want to be carrying anything that might identify me as a subversive — or a foreign correspondent. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF goons threatened two-year jail sentences for Western journalists entering Zimbabwe illegally. Most hacks went in pretending to be ornithologists. My best friend Jonathan Clayton had arrived in Bulawayo with a set of golf clubs. He was rumbled, blindfolded and beaten. They threw him into a succession of overcrowded cells where, despite the chill nights, starving inmates stripped down to their underwear to reduce the infestations of body lice. His paper rescued him a couple of weeks later but this veteran newsman was clearly shaken. I did not want to endure a similar ordeal. Incarceration at a prep school on Exmoor trained me to bear most types of suffering — except imprisonment itself. Nothing on earth scares me more than the thought of jail.

For weeks I had planned my entry. As the passengers filed into the barn-like airport terminal, I realised this was the moment of truth. The immigration officer asked, ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ ‘Business.’ ‘That will be $50.’ I gave him a hundred. Predictably, he had no change. ‘You can pass.’ Right — so far, so good. Customs was next. I was travelling light, but the female officer looked at me sternly and said, ‘Why are you in Zimbabwe?’ Here goes, I thought. ‘Madam, I am an expert in artificial insemination. Cattle are my speciality, but I can do sheep, too. I feel this is exactly the right time to be investing in Zimbabwe, so I am here, prospecting for business. Please have a look at my company brochure.’ She took one and studied it closely.

We really had got a brochure printed up. On the front page it had a photo of my favourite Boran bull from the herd on my farm at home. I had had a business card printed giving my name as ‘Aidy’ Hartley to put anybody who checked google off the scent of my hack’s background. I thought it was impressive stuff. I am a hobby farmer, not the large-scale cattle rancher I should like to have been. But for weeks I had enjoyed swotting up on subjects like frozen-embryo transfer, bovine oestrus cycles and the history of the Boran, Africa’s best beef-cattle breed. I figured I would need to know such details to avoid any gaps in my story in case I was interrogated.

The female customs officer looked up at me, her features softening. ‘Do you have any samples of this, ahh, product you are selling?’ She pumped a large, imaginary artificial-inseminating syringe. ‘Samples of our bull sperm? Er, no, madam. Not this trip. Just the brochures.’ She looked disappointed. There was a silence as she processed this information. ‘Tell me,’ she said. (‘Oh dear,’ I thought, ‘she knows I am lying!’) ‘Tell me: are your cows very big cows?’ ‘Yes, madam. They are very, very big cows.’ This seemed to make her happy. She gave me a bright, warm smile. And I felt so sad for Zimbabwe, because this woman clearly thought that, yes, investors were coming back to rebuild her country at last — with extra large cows that would help put the poor people here back on track.

‘You may pass,’ she said. I beamed at her, swept up my bag and made for the exit. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned round and my heart skipped a beat. It was a policeman. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he said. ‘Is this your book?’ ‘No, no, no, not mine!’ I shot back. ‘Perhaps you should keep it to read yourself.’ The policeman looked at me long and hard. ‘Yes, maybe I should. Have a pleasant stay in Zimbabwe, sir. You may pass.’