Airline check-in counter clerks have so much power. They can, in one swift move, relegate you to a middle seat or one of those at the back of the economy section that doesn’t tilt. Equally, they can elevate you to the dizzy heights of First Class — not that that has ever happened to me despite being 6ft 2” tall and a blatantly obvious prime candidate for needing more leg space than others. But it never happens.
I now thank the check-in clerk at the Kenya Airways desk at Harare International Airport who refused to grant me any extra leg room at all, but inadvertently placed me in an aisle seat next to the Bishop of Botswana. The genteel Reverend was returning to Gaborone after meetings in Zambia and Zimbabwe, the latter with the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.
I was on the first leg of a tortuous journey from Harare to Dubai, flying via Gaborone, then Nairobi, before getting anywhere near home. I had considered changing to a more direct flight, but feelings of impending doom, should I meddle with fate, urged me to stick to the original plan. Maybe every cloud does have a silver lining, for it turned out to be the most interesting flight I’ve ever had.
For starters, it wasn’t necessary to instantly resent the fellow passenger sitting in the middle of my three-seat row as one is apt to do, according to a Lonely Planet survey of 5,800 flyers who, when questioned on what bugged them most about air travel, put invasion of personal space at the top of the list.
Sure, I would have resented him had the Right Reverend Trevor Mwamba persistently kicked my shins, definitely, had he stolen my headrest or entertainment console and absolutely if he had with him a feral child. Top gripes in this survey included assaults on the olfactory system. Stinky feet were rated by respondents as nastier than baby vomit, while stale cigarettes, body odour, highly fragrant foods and perfumes could induce the gagging reflex.
Obviously he had none of the above. The dapper gentleman in an immaculate suit complete with pale pink handkerchief in his jacket pocket and what looked like a monocle tucked into it chatted as if we had known each other from way back. None of the polite but boring flight-companion-type conversation seemed necessary. We got straight down to the nitty gritty taboo subjects of religion, politics and although not quite sex per se, I learned about his advisory pre-marriage course offered to those about to embark on that perilous road.
He was so unlike a stereotypical bishop (aloof, imperious and of condescending manner) that I started to wonder if indeed he was one. Reading my thoughts, he pointed out the regular regalia that identified a bishop whatever they were wearing at the time. And there they were; a big gold ring with a dark burgundy garnet on his right hand and a gold chain around his neck carrying a pectoral cross which was tucked into his left jacket pocket. It wasn’t a monocle after all.
He had been in Harare along with other Central African bishops to support Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams in handing over a dossier to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, detailing alleged abuses suffered by members of the Anglican Church in the country over the last four years at the hands of an excommunicated Anglican Bishop Nolbert Kunonga and his followers.
It’s all so political of course, with Kunonga being supported by many powerful people. A chronicle of seized property including schools, clinics and orphanages and details of the harassment going on by this renegade bishop was contained in the dossier and the collective bishops asked Mugabe to put an end to it. The Bishop of Botswana said the meetings were beneficial and he was sure that justice would prevail.
We discussed our current reading matter, both of us happened to be focused in the 1960s. His was a biography of president John F. Kennedy by Richard Reeves, while mine was Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Naturally, we got onto Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of books, in which the bishop is mentioned. He also played a starring role — himself — in an episode of the BBC TV series of the same title.
I bought his own book of wisdom Dancing Sermons when I returned home. This is a book that does not demand readers to be any particular religion, rather it discusses various scenarios typical of human nature, encourages people to be humble and most importantly, retain a sense of humour at all times.
After a standard airplane lunch, the plane touched down in Gaborone. I was sorry to say goodbye.
From Gaborone to Nairobi my next-door seat was empty, but on the flight from Nairobi to Dubai it was bursting with people destined for the Haj. I could get an aisle seat too, which I did a few rows down.
My new flight companion seemed new to flying, so I showed him how to buckle up the seat belt.
I also offered him my carbohydrate heavy meal via gesticulations and gestures as we didn’t share a language; and thumbs up and smiles was all that was necessary.
Cheryl Robertson is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.