The following extract is from my childhood memoirs (unpublished except for chapter one, posted here) with reference to a particular place where I spent much of my adolescence. What photos are included are scanned prints taken by myself. Following this are some photos (mobile phone camera) and an account of my most recent visit to the GNP only a week or so ago on a return visit to Zimbabwe.
It was relatively early on in my high school career that I had met Mr. Rob Burrett properly, when my mother and I were walking in the green belt near our property one afternoon. Until this point in time it had been a neglected strip of seven or so hectares which was impenetrable in parts due to the proliferation of vegetation. The local gardeners and maids fished in the old farm dam up top, but the catch was usually small, as were the fish. However, a local initiative had recently commenced to spruce the place up, transforming it into a recreational area whilst trying to return it to a semblance of what it may have been like prior to the effects of urbanisation. Rob had been a master of sorts at Highlands Junior School, but I hadn’t known him then. Later on he had come to teach Geography at St. Georges.
He was a charismatic teacher with a sharp mind and an ability to bring out the best in his students, although he had a fierce temper when the marks were not what he expected them to be (they seldom were). I attribute Mr. Burrett’s teaching in large part to my later attaining an ‘A’ at A-Level Geography. It was a voluminous syllabus which he never quite managed to cover entirely, but nevertheless in sufficient detail to get me the grade. I stress emphatically that there were no favours on his part done to me. If anything he was harsher, and I very seldom got over fifty percent for any of the assignments he set us.
I never managed to figure out exactly how Rob, as I came to know him outside of school, had come to be involved with the Greystone Nature Preserve. He was more than happy to explain to me the aims and objectives of the GNP Association, which were to try and eradicate the invasive and exotic plants and re-establish the native flora and fauna. It resonated strongly with my own environmental inclinations and before long I was spending as much of my free time as I could hacking paths through the thickets of Lantana camara and prickly bramble. Best of all I was given permission to use fire to incinerate impenetrable clumps of shrubs and weeds. Perhaps I wasn’t given permission per se but I had observed a series of controlled burns around the dam and had managed to convince my parents that this other burning was equally within the mandate of the GNPA.
Perhaps none of the primal elements can invoke as much awe and wonder as fire. Retrospectively I have to admit to being something of a pyromaniac, but fire was an important part of the ecosystem there, something not always appreciated. A few weeks after a blaze, from the scorched earth would arise a multitude of shoots from perennial plants and shrubs whose roots and tubers housed the water and starch they needed to survive until the rains arrived late in the year. By incinerating the old plant and grass matter above ground, fire would provide a stimulus to the living plant below to send up shoots, and perhaps even germinate their seeds.
The analogy of a phoenix rising from the ashes could not be more appropriate. I remember Robbie Taylor being severely berated for having started a fire in the field or vlei nearest their house in an adjacent neighbourhood. “He’s such an unruly child” my aunt Nick had said at the time, “Lyn is very worried about him.” (Lyn was his mother). She must have been aware of my activities in this arena and maybe she spoke to my mum or others about me – I don’t know. But even if other people had voiced disapproval it wouldn’t have stopped me. After all, I was sanctioned by the GNPA who had an extensive lease on the area. It didn’t extend as far as Robbie’s house so Robbie was labelled a pyromaniac and further actions forbidden.
The other thing I was permitted to do was to spray herbicide on the undesirable plants; the noxious weeds perceived to threaten the natural order. This was initially restricted to Lantana camara, attractive when flowering but possessing acrid-smelling leaves as well as thorns that had a tendency to form thickets. It was poisonous to cattle where it had spread to grazing pasture in the countryside.
In time we came to use herbicide, Rob and I, on a selection of exotics. The flowering cherries whose blossom was so admired in suburban gardens, for instance, was a proliferating nuisance in the GNP where the birds would spread the seeds far and wide. The coppiced growth that arose after felling them proved to be very susceptible to the effects of Roundup, the herbicide of choice. Other plants were more resilient like a leguminous pasture shrub called silver leaf, introduced for cattle fodder was a problematic invasive and could survive the Roundup treatment.
The GNP became my own personal project, a garden where I was the gardener and the evolution of the space within of my determination. Perhaps it was an outlet for my frustrated soul yet I never thought that at the time; I simply loved being there. Like most habitats in the country that had not yet been overwhelmed by man’s activities, this area had a wealth of diversity, most noticeable in spring just prior to the rains and during the early part of the rainy season, before everything became swamped by the more vigorous plants like silver leaf and morning glory.
My favourite time was the weeks after fire had swept across the grassland; seeing the emergence of the red-winged pods of the shrubby ground Combretum and the delicate flowering stalks of the Gladiolus species particularly prominent amidst the various other herbs and shrubs. A local botanist, Mark Hyde, had remarked on the enormous diversity of the grassland flora and urged the Association to protect it. He lamented that the grassland habitats around the city had come under increasing pressure due to agriculture and land clearance.
I was never really lonely, except perhaps on a deeper level, but generally liked to be left alone and avoided contact with people walking there. In the evenings the older, middle-aged inhabitants of the neighbourhood would come out walking with their dogs. They were generally predictable in their routine so I could avoid them when necessary.
Other visitors included the inevitable young lovers, fingers interlocked, sitting together for long periods on the benches and sometimes wandering into the undergrowth for secret trysts. They were mainly black teenagers but white teens were present too, although they seemed to spend more time at the dam, especially with a few bottles of liquor on a Friday evening.
Another regular was the Shona man who came regularly to pray beneath a particularly large musasa tree that grew not far from our house. He prayed loudly and imploringly, perhaps to God or perhaps to an ancestor and although I couldn’t understand much of what he said he imagined that he was praying for what most people prayed for: assistance in the rigours of daily life, good health and prosperity.
I can also recall the old medicine man or N’anga who would occasionally arrive to dig up the bulbs of plants, or collect aromatic leaves from particular trees and shrubs. He was old and stooped with matted hair and a lined and weathered face. He carried with him a plain, hessian sack in which he would collect the various articles. Once he even raided a hive of African honeybees with nothing more than a smoking roll of newspaper, extracting combs of rich, succulent natural honey as the angry bees swarmed about him. He remained undeterred.
I started the process of trying to ‘move on’ from the GNP when it became clear that I would be expected to go to university directly after finishing my A-Level studies. The thought of leaving home and my piece of Africa made me sad. I always felt I could identify with the Zimbabwean bush but I also felt an intense solitude at times when in the GNP akin to the one that Terry Waite experienced (see this extract). The closest I can come to rationalising it is to say that I knew there were some deep-seated problems in my life rooted in relationship dynamics (things that would come to light in the next couple of years actually).
I have written about the general facts and dates of my tertiary education in my biographical notes (unpublished). There was a 2 year stint at Rhodes University in SA which was quite excruciatingly difficult at times – socially and emotionally-speaking that is. In that time my mother decided, finally, to act on her suspicions regarding my father’s fidelity. She discovered that he was indeed being unfaithful (no surprise in retrospect) and after some negotiations divorced him. I was informed of much of this remotely so that, after dropping out after 2 years at RU, it was pretty much a fait accompli.
I did manage to vent a little of my considerable vault of anger at my father but he was in a state of self-denial which made it difficult to understand how much guilt he really felt. My mother sent me off to a psychologist, ironically enough, although it did help to have someone impartial to talk to. My one regret was that this particular bloke, John, obviously had his own issues, as we all do I suppose. I sometimes think he helped, at other times I’m not so sure.
Anyway, I digress – back to the GNP. It was at this juncture that I made the decision to get involved once again in the GNPA (A for Association), the body that ran the GNP. It consisted of a committee which met on a monthly basis to discuss things which needed to be done: the wages for permanent and casual labour; outreach programs; fencing issues; maintaining working relationships with various other members of the community and so on and so forth. I think I stood as a member without portfolio for one season and as VC for another. It was comprised entirely of Europeans sadly, but in theory anyone was eligible for nomination. I have no idea of the real demographics of the neighbourhood (except that it was mixed) and why no other ethnicities came forward for nomination.
As the youngest member of the committee I found some of the monthly agenda wearisome. There were a few personalities who always had to have their say and sometimes they laboured whatever point they sought to make. Another lady, Sarah, probably a good 8 or 9 years my senior, said how refreshing it was to have some other young blood to relieve the tedium of the ‘old farts’! To be fair there was also James, the son of our family GP, also in his late 20s or early 30s. He was also someone who liked to get to the point in a determined fashion. What I tried to do in my time on the committee was to inject some of the passion I had felt as a teenager. I wanted recognition and I more than anything I wanted to see my dream realised of turning it into something akin to modern-day Eden.
I energetically sketched drawings of bridges and pathways, mist-spray schemes to feed arboreal orchids, lists of trees to be planted and so forth. I constructed an enormous scale map of the entire area on a number of A4 sheets taped together, noting every prominent tree and all the various paths and habitats. When I presented my ideas to the committee it was met with a mixed response. One old chap thought it was a great idea but he was at the end of his tenure and about to go off and retire to another part of the country.
Roger, probably the most influential member on the committee, it’s founding father so to speak, gave a lukewarm response. The idea of an Education Centre had been mooted some years before but nothing had ever been done. I was keen to realise this goal but without Roger’s backing it never got off the ground. His was basically a hand’s-off approach. Essentially he just wanted the place to remain undisturbed so that he could walk his dog/s with his two boys. I respected that but it hurt nonetheless.
And so it was that my own enthusiasm slowly diminished until I realised that it was all a bit of pie-dream really. The country was going downhill rapidly as the government seized private commercial farms as part of its badly-executed land redistribution programme. Besides the exodus of people and skills from within there was a huge devaluation in the Zim dollar and a corresponding squeeze on people’s income. Everywhere in and around Harare the native inhabitants seized their hoes and picks and fell upon the land in a desperate attempt to cultivate crops to subsidise their meagre wages and diets. In the main this was maize, the staple, but I also saw squash, tomatoes and a local variety of spinach called rape planted as well.
As a result a number of other initiatives which sought to emulate the GNP ‘experiment’ – it was unique to the best of my knowledge in that it was leased from the municipality for the purposes of conservation – came to a grinding halt. The local councils actually did try for a time to crack down on the illegal cultivation, but the perpetrators were just too many and too desperate. If it weren’t for the perimeter fence around the grassland surrounding the dam and at the opposite end on Warwick Rd (where our house was built) I have little doubt that the GNP would itself have become victim to the illegal cultivation phenomenon. It was something of a miracle that it never did (even to this day).
What I managed to do was to divert some of my energies to other projects like planting an aloe and succulent rockery garden on our property and building the bridge shown in the previous gallery with help of the resident labourer, John. There were moments of satisfaction and I did love my rockery garden, but when I look back I can’t help but consider the toll all of it was taking on my mental health. I was estranged from my father, my mother had just died from cancer (November 2001) and I was soldiering on with a degree in geology for which I felt increasingly at odds with. I had only started it because I felt bad about what had happened to Wolf and because I was made to feel as though any other sort of job connected to ‘the land’ was beneath me and the family’s aspirations. It wasn’t as though I had much support for my bachelors degree anyway.
But continue I did, back to South Africa and the University of Pretoria this time. This was undoubtedly the most profound year of my life. The studies were incidental. Day and night I felt the heartache of separation from my father, family and the home I had once known. This was life interrupted. I found myself redirected on a course which I’m still travelling to this day. Sometimes I flounder and come close to giving up on this reality. Today is one of those days but I’ll feel better tomorrow.
My father too passed away in early 2006. It was meant to be, of that I have little doubt, but it has not made it any easier. Perhaps I focus too much on the man’s death and not enough on his life; as I do for my dear mother. Both of them were vital individuals, despite their flaws. Life shone from their eyes when I recall those same people, the parents of my childhood and adolescence. When I started this article I had it in mind to highlight the futility of my life in Africa but I feel that it is somehow a perversion of a complex truth and one that I have yet to fully grasp.
Over the years I have returned to the house in Greystone Park episodically and the GNP as well. Every time I go back it seems to be wilder than before and the weeds that we formerly sought to suppress, grow taller and taller still! How futile it was to try and create something pure and exact in this mad hybrid-nation that is modern-day Zimbabwe. I can see all sorts of metaphors in the tumultuous riot of native and exotic pants which choke the wetland areas:- poplar, syringa and Ipomoea competing alongside bush-willows and waxberries. It’s unclear who has the upper hand. It seems impossible for either side to win out completely and eliminate the other. Perhaps, if left alone long enough, an equilibrium will be reached.
This time around I walked slowly around the dam marvelling at how the trees and shrubs had encroached upon the grassland there. It was thick and green in parts but also quite moist, in contrast to the dam itself which was largely empty.
This dam bore many memories: fishing it periodically as a youngster, meeting new friends like big Ralph Heron, bird watching (literally and figuratively speaking), even drinking beer and braaing (barbecuing) on its banks. I greeted and introduced myself to a man and his young son, Tafadzwa, a common Shona name. He told me how the dam, now unseasonably low, had been plundered of its fish by unscrupulous netting, although I still noticed a lone fisherman casting several lines in from the bank. Whilst I watched he caught what appeared to be a bream of average size which surprised me. What usually came out of there was rather smaller. One season, however, there had been a huge harvest of catfish (locally known as maramba) and word had it people had been wading in and depositing them in sacks.
I continued around the dam and reached the other side of the wall where I could see someone sitting on a bench overlooking the dam. To my right was the spillway and behind me to the left a house that someone had started to build many years before but which remained unfinished. The wetland area below the wall was the usual riot of green.
As I walked below the main wall alongside the flanking property with its unfinished mansion I encountered an enormous stone wall, something to rival one of the perimeter walls at Great Zimbabwe. It was ridiculously large. Was it meant to convey power and superiority? Was it simply meant to prevent outsiders from looking in? Security perhaps? I didn’t know and the empty house stood in contradiction to all these possibilities.
A little further down I heard voices and peering through the vegetation flanking the stream I spied a pair of teenagers chatting on one of the stone benches the GNPA had built years earlier. He was black, she white. In itself this meant nothing except perhaps a reinforcement of the previous metaphor. At least this relationship appeared to be friendly. Whether it was anything more I couldn’t tell.
At the bottom end of the GNP I came upon my old property. I stopped a few minutes to take in the trees and the garden I had once known so well.
The thing that struck me was that, with the exception of the few plants that I had transplanted and which had survived, most of what grew here now had grown here before my intervention and would still be growing here well after it had ceased altogether. All the same I am glad that in some small way I did manage to leave a mark – not in what I sought to destroy but rather in what I created. In transplanting a few saplings in the right conditions I have endowed a legacy of sorts to the GNP. Perhaps they will survive this present period of turmoil and uncertainty and live to see the next era? God-willing an era of peace and prosperity.