Across Zimbabwe & Botswana and a Week in Africa’s Biggest ‘Swamp’.

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Thus the curtain has come down on another visit to Africa and I fear it may be the last for some time. I arrived with few expectations from a wintry Europe back at the beginning of March. Things were not easy to begin with in South Africa – no car, no guarantee of work, not many friends – but after a few weeks shuttling around the Highveld looking for a non-existent post-doc position at one of two tertiary institutions I took a time-out and visited my extended family in various parts Kwazulu Natal. I’ve written about that a few months back so no there’s need to revisit it.

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

My salvation (again) came through Workaway, an initiative, or rather a platform, I’ve recommended before as a great way to travel economically. It took me to the Central Drakensberg, an area I’ve never been to, and Ardmore Guest Farm. A month as a volunteer, a month as an employee followed and the company of many interesting people: guests, employees and employers alike. I feel enriched and as a consequence rather sad to have to say goodbye (again), having recently returned for a further 2 weeks. In the long-term what has happened in-between will be of far greater consequence to me, having met my dear Mirjam at Ardmore.

Together we went by bus up to Zimbabwe, first to Bulawayo and hence to the Victoria Falls in all their high-water magnificence; camped several nights in Hwange Main Camp; returned to Bulawayo and walked her wide and bustling streets; continued on to Masvingo and the timeless Great Zimbabwe Ruins (last visited by me some 30 years + before); and finally the capital, Harare. I wrote quite a long post on Bulawayo last year which I hope did it some justice. A bit more on the Falls and the other stops prior to Harare.

The Vic Falls had a smattering of tourists but nothing like it was in the 80s and 90s. At least the streets around the more touristy parts are clean and free of rubbish (unlike the outlying townships). It goes without saying that desperate curio sellers hounded us at every turn. Many wanted to sell us old bearer cheques and bond notes from the ‘burning dollar days’ as a resident of Bulawayo recalled them. Others just wanted to sell a necklace charm – usually of the iconic serpent-like Nyaminyami River God – or maybe an animal wood carving, if only for a few dollars for their next meal or a bus ride home. It was sad to see and, being an empathetic sort, I usually gave in if they were desperate enough. Therefore I have a collection of charms and curios to impart to friends and hosts on my onward travels.

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We became friendly with a curio seller called Everton. I convinced him to take us to Chinotimba Township and the local restaurant I had eaten at the previous year, this time for Mirjam’s benefit as well as my own. She made a good go of a plate of sadza nehove (mealie meal porridge with fish and vegetables) and after the ample meal we agreed to go visit Evan’s family and brother in the neighbouring township. His brother had a T-shirt printing business and supplied a few of the shops in town with his prints. A little too touristy for my liking but he said he did well on the tour groups and had some agreement to supply one of the adventure activity operators as well. Evans told us that life was tough and that he was keen to get himself a passport so that he could try some cross-border trading.

The next day we ventured down to his market stall in the official area designated to them. I was astounded by the sheer amount of carvings and other curios in the general vicinity. I had no idea there was so much, some of it of exceptional quality. I spoke to a stone sculptor called Bainos who was busy chiseling a beautiful abstract carving in black serpentine. They were moderately priced at several hundred dollars but they suggested many hours of patient endeavour. I asked how business was and he replied that it wasn’t all that bad. His pieces were too large for the average tourist to just plonk in their hand luggage or suitcase so he would organise for international freight as well. Or so he claimed.

From Everton we bought a few trinkets and the like and then bid him and a dozen disappointed sellers goodbye. The problem with the local economy was that there just weren’t enough tourists for the amount of stuff these talented artists could produce. Many tourists probably wouldn’t venture too far off the main street fronted by the wealthier franchises and adventure outfits like Wild Horizons and Shearwater. Almost everyone we talked to subsequently asked us if we had eaten at the Boma but we didn’t. Sorry! We did splash out on a white water rafting trip which was fun but rather tame considering the reputation of the great river.

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After 5 or 6 nights in the Falls we took the Intercape coach back towards Bulawayo but jumped off instead at the Hwange Safari Lodge. It is a double-winged hotel of some size rather than a lodge and the extensive grounds in front overlook a water hole and acres of Mopane woodland. However, we wouldn’t be staying on our humble budget and caught a taxi ride instead to Hwange Main Camp within the confines of the National Park. To be honest I found some of the staff a little too keen to leverage our forex from us. We made it quite clear that we were there to camp and would consider the game drive after settling in. Furthermore, the woman who booked us in was loath to take my South African Rand from me even though it was most certainly legal tender.

We trudged to the camping sites several hundred meters away where we met a wizened old National Parks member of staff. It seemed as though he had been there for decades. He was happy to tell us where to set up tent and told us he’d be back later to stoke up the old Rhodesian boiler for hot water. It would also become our de facto camping fire for the sake of convenience. A little later strolled back to the NP offices and looked around to see if we could hitch a ride to one of the nearby water holes, perhaps Nyamandhlovu Pan. There were several land cruisers parked nearby with the names of lodges and private camps emblazoned on the door panels and chassis. We weren’t going to have any luck there I figured. Despite the lack of activity we were quite happy to sit and read in the shade of a large,spreading Acacia tree out front and watch the abundant bird and animal life. Go-Away birds, starlings, babblers, spur fowl and bulbuls competed for access to a stone water bath, although some of the glossy starlings showed more initiative and came to drink straight from the source, a tap connected by a leaky fitting to a hose a few feet from away from us.

After an hour or two we walked back through the very extensive Main Camp in a clockwise direction. It had been a decade since I was last there helping out on a foreign-funded conservation initiative, the Lion Research Project. I’d stayed with an old colleague from Rhodes University days in one of the old Park chalets. Nothing had changed. If anything the bush had encroached even a little further more than before and it wasn’t immediately apparent which were occupied and which weren’t. They were all in need of a lick of paint and a little care and attention. This was in contrast to the newly painted cottages and ablution blocks on the other side of the camp, including the area where we camped out.

Whatever the state of the accommodation the one thing that recommends the site to prospective visitors is the wildlife. Just walking sandy tracks around Main Camp brought us into contact with grazing herds of impala, pockets of zebra and wildebeest, giraffe, any number of different birds and at dusk, a trio of kudu, one bull and two cows. The kudu is my favourite antelope with a magnificent pair of ridged, spiral horns, tawny coat, long neck and attractive facial markings.

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We managed to hitch a ride to a nearby pan on our third and last evening there, courtesy of a young white guide and two black staff members from their private camp within the park. His blonde hair was bleached white by the sun, in contrast to his deeply tanned face and neck. He hadn’t planned to go via the pan but happily diverted there for us. Driving along at a sedate pace he stopped every so often to point out an animal in the vicinity and even passed back a cold beer or two for Mirjam and I, perched high up in the viewing seats behind the driver’s cab. God bless the man! In contrast the pan was a bit of a disappointment – only baboons and a few impala. A middle-aged Bulawayo couple gave us a return ride to camp.

We chatted about this and that but when I mentioned my intention to travel next to Tanzania there was an uneasy silence for a few moments. I wasn’t to know that their son, a professional hunter, had been gored to death by a buffalo there a few years before. They were still in close contact with his wife and young son. The sombre change in conversation was lightened considerably by the sudden appearance of several zebra and giraffe not far from the entrance gate. The photos of these animals are all Mirjam’s iPhone handiwork.

The following day we managed to get one of the park wardens to run us back to the Safari Lodge in his private vehicle for US$10 or $15. While waiting for the Intercape we went out to the front and had a cup of tea. A herd of impala made their way down to the water hole and entertained us for the next 30 minutes or so. The young rams dashed and pursued each other this way and that around the perimeter of the hole time and again. Several of them paired off and sparred in a light-hearted sort of way which suggested to me they were playing rather than preparing to rut with the females.

From Hwange it was back to Bulawayo and a few more nights as guests of the Einhorn’s. On the Sunday we hitched a ride with Pete to town and from there caught a taxi to the local bus terminus to find a coach bound Eastwards to Masvingo.

Masvingo was most memorable not for the nearby and infamous Great Zimbabwe Ruins but for the unassuming little guesthouse where we spent two nights. Not long before sundown the bus dropped us opposite the locally upmarket Chevron Hotel. Prices there started at US$60 per night, somewhat beyond our remit. We asked around at the local taxi rank for alternative options. Someone suggested

Titambire Lodge

Titambire Lodge

a guest house in the opposite direction but fortunately on our side of the main road. We traipsed that way, all the time rather sceptical, considering the suburban flavour of the place, but lo and behold it was there – Titambire Lodge – an unassuming white-walled house with a small red-concrete verandah, painted wire furniture fronting a row of large glass windows and a door. The important thing was that it was far more reasonable at US$10 p/n and clean! We had the use of a little two-plate cooking stove and a bedroom with blankets and clean sheets all to ourselves.

I imagine that it had once been a normal suburban home converted to the purpose of taking guests. In the nearest bathroom to our room was an ancient Monarch boiler above a large enamel bathtub inscribed with a nameplate which read Monarch: Salisbury, Kitwe and Ndola. So it was at least 36 years old (Salisbury is what Harare used to be called). The other bathroom had a shower whose use you had to request so that the geyser could be switched on. The water was freezing otherwise as we discovered to our dismay. A cold front was passing through at the time and standing naked on a cold concrete floor waiting for a non-existent stream of water was not really my thing. And then, even an hour of being switched on, there was only a few minutes of hot water available.

But for the budget price we sucked it up and besides the two male staff on duty were delighted to have us stay at the establishment. One of them, called Douglas, made polite conversation but was never intrusive. We left him some dinner one evening (tuna cooked with tomato and onion and some sweet potato I think) which he declared ‘delicious.’ We may travel cheaply but we do like our evening munch!

Masvingo town itself does not have that much to recommend it although it has always been locally important and a provincial capital. We discovered the local TM, now under the umbrella of the South African supermarket chain, Pick’n’Pay, was fully stocked with everything one could want for an average functioning household.  Mirjam had fallen in love with Marbella sorghum porridge and we found it at last along with selection of local ‘organic’ products. I have to admit that the porridge was actually very good. Most mornings began with a bowl of Marbella mixed with a large spoon of peanut butter, mashed banana, nuts and raisins.

Outside the supermarket the reality of life was evident: numerous vendors selling neat little pyramids of tomatoes and onion, boxes of cigarettes, phone chargers and other basic consumables and electronic goods. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the local people, many of them with some sort of impairment. One blind man sat outside another store nearby, his guitar hooked up to a battery-powered amplifier which was in turn being charged by a solar panel. He sang a sad lament with a typically sonorous African voice. Another blind man tap-tapped his way past us, a black acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, a soiled jacket wrapped around his spare frame. Another man who had been on the bus with us from Bulawayo was selling faux fur jackets spread out on the sidewalk. He tried to get Mirjam’s attention but it definitely was not her sort of thing.

I won’t say much about Great Zimbabwe except that it’s an interesting sort of pace for a day visit and of great importance in the history of the nation. Not only does the country take its name from the place (Dzimbabwe roughly translates to house of stones) but the image of the half-dozen or more carvings of stone birds found here adorn the country’s flag, the conical tower in the main enclosure features on the coat of arms, and there are numerous other associations besides.

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At last we made our way to Harare in a shared vehicle with four other occupants. Distorted gospel music blared all the way to the outskirts of the city where we disembarked at around 4pm. The driver took me aside and implored me to ‘trust no-one’ in the capital and to be careful. I smiled inwardly but appreciated that he would be giving sound advice to a new arrival. For both Mirjam and I it was quite an eye-opener as we transferred by minibus taxi to downtown Harare. The place was shambolic, even by my reckoning. We discovered that people preferred to walk in the road and compete with the traffic rather than be squeezed onto crumbling pavements crammed with vendors and beggars. We were conspicuous by our bags, backpacks and Eurasian skin but no-one really bothered us, so frenetic was the flow of humanity at that late time of day.

We finally made it across to a car park on 4th street that I knew well and deemed to be a good collection point and waited for my friend Drew to arrive. He came as promised and whisked us away to the relative normality of northern suburbia. We would spend the next two weeks or so catching up with friends and immediate family. There is Zimbabwe and then there is Harare in its little bubble. And that’s not to say it’s any fault of the inhabitants, that’s just the way that it is,

Like everywhere else we had been people shook their heads and lamented the sorry state of affairs. The economy was wallowing in uncertain waters (again) and there was a chronic shortage of money. Nothing much had changed since my last visit. Our first evening there we joined my mum’s friend, Aurora, who hosted us for a week, at a quiz evening (we came 3rd). We drank coffee and wine, ate good food and met interesting people. The man across from me, Nick, remarked that he’d been a contemporary of my uncle Paul’s at St George’s College many years before. Another, Pierre, was well acquainted with in-laws of my cousin whilst the lady next to me wanted to know if she could put me in touch with anyone in the mining game including her ex in Tanzania.

I was reminded of the incredibly tight-knit community there and indeed how much I missed it, albeit with a good dose of nostalgia. Life had a façade of normality in northern suburbia but beneath the veneer I sensed the disillusion, anger and perhaps even a hint of resignation. There were friends talking of emigrating when just a few years before such thoughts would never have been entertained. My brother was one of them. He and his family are uprooting to Eastern Australia in December. They’d already ventured across twice and enrolled the kids in their respectable schools, and the perused the property market for suitably spacious properties. On that issue my brother expressed the sentiment of many Zimbo’s, unwillingly moving abroad: “it’s not fair on the kids not to give them the space they are used to.”

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After a few inquiring questions I learnt that my brother’s wife was the real driving force behind the move. I couldn’t blame her with all the prevailing hardship and uncertainty but the prospect of their departure saddened me in an indirect sort of way. Post-independent Zimbabwe had embraced a kind of multiculturalism embodied in multi-racial schools and a certain equality of the races but there were flaws at the outset. For some time the project had been failing and it seemed to be failing ever faster and more dramatically. There is reason for optimism though.

Days after we crossed over at Beit Bridge – a surprisingly pleasant experience on the Zimbabwean side and a somewhat unsurprising-but-still-frustratingly-fraught experience on the RSA side – there was an uprising of sorts amongst the local traders, sick of the extortion and repeated readjustment of the goal-posts. They took an exception to whatever latest tax/license fee was recently imposed and set fire to some infrastructure. Beit Bridge border post is desolate and unkempt as it is so it’s hard to see how it could be any worse.

Not very long after this and a matter of days after Mirjam and I departed the country a little over a month ago, this time via the Plumtree border post, there were widespread and coordinated stay-aways in the country and unrest in the townships. The government was evidently shaken. The inspiration behind the protests was a Christian pastor – Zimbabwe is still a very religious country – Evans Mawarire who mobilised a groundswell of support using social media hashtag #ThisFlag. Check it out and lend your support! The latest news reports that the influential War Veterans Association have withdrawn their support for long-time President Mugabe. Considering the violent and vocal support they have given him in the past this is quite some development.

The journey to Botswana was an interesting experience. We arrived late in the day in Bulawayo on a coach from Harare. En route all male passengers had to disembark at one of a dozen or more police checkpoints for a pad down and perusal of our hand luggage. I asked the cop what they were looking for.

“Guns and drugs” was the reply, but his efforts seemed half-hearted and he didn’t even bother to make us unload the baggage in the side compartments of the coach. That reprieve would later be rescinded at the border post where luggage was compulsorily unloaded and checked by the authorities. On the issue of the police, they were particularly loathed by the general populace in Zim because of their corrupt ways. Vehicles could be stopped at random and fines extorted from the drivers for trifling offences: in our case US$20 for not having a wheel-jack in the car we borrowed from Aurora; in other instances, lacking the correct-coloured reflective tape on the bumper for example. On the one hand it was commendable that vehicle roadworthiness and safety was taken seriously but it was the way in which it was implemented that left motorists fuming.

It was no secret that civil servants hadn’t been properly paid for months. Most government employees just had to suck it up but the police had the means to find an alternative source of income. I do not to imply that every cop in the country is corrupt. There are no doubt still a few good ones out there no-one had anything good to say about them on this particular visit!

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

So onwards to Botswana we went. We boarded yet another African ‘chicken’ bus from the roadside edge of urban Bulawayo. Our taxi driver, Enoch, who ferried us there from the Intercape coach drop-off point, advised us to exchange hard currency for Botswana Pula prior to embarking. We found a youngish guy loitering nearby who fitted the bill. He gave us a rate of 1:10 and assured us that a bus would pass by in the next 30 minutes or so. Whilst we waited I asked the currency dealer the cause of some serious scars on his right arm. His reply was unsettling but not surprising.

“Back in the 2001,” he began “I was going to buy a car from Botswana. What I needed was Pula so exchanged US$ 5000 at the border post with some money changers. But these guys they were crooks and they stabbed me with a knife and ran away with my money.” He shrugged nonchalantly as if this was just a sad fact of life. I remarked that it was somewhat ironic that he was now a currency dealer himself but he saw nothing strange in this and when I think back almost every Zimbabwean has been a currency dealer at one stage or another.

Our bus arrived filled to capacity so we made to stand in the aisle. Passengers in the rear half of the compartment observed us with detached interest for a few minutes before losing interest. Yet even in the discomfort and inconvenience of the moment there was humour to be had. Behind the driver was a neatly printed sign which stated – Patrons over 90 can travel free if accompanied by their parents. There were buckets and blankets and bags to contend with and when we stopped at each of the many road-blocks we had to duck down into the stairwell that connected the passenger deck to the rear side-door since we were evidently contravening the law.

We mysteriously stopped just short of the border and two of the passengers got off. I thought nothing of it at the time. The border post involved the usual checks of passports and baggage and we were all compelled to squelch through a tray of disinfectant at a foot-and-mouth control point before trudging several hundred meters to where the same bus would collect us after traversing the border post. A big neon sign declaring “Botswana at 50” greeted us there. (The country gained independence from Britain in 1966.) A local man co-opted Mirjam and I to join him, grinning, for several photos in front of the glitzy sign whilst his friend snapped away with a shiny digital SLR. That’s what I like about Africa – the cheerfulness amidst the struggle of daily existence!

We dined on two portions of sadza and chicken at a border store nearby and a little while later the bus arrived. We hastily threw the bones and gristle to one of several mangy curs hanging around the edge of the uninspiring establishment and re-embarked. We were back in the aisles despite the loss of a few passengers, or so I thought. A few miles on, night having fallen in the interim, we halted at another road block, this time on Botswana territory. A frenzied scuffle ensued whereupon an unkempt woman slithered past me, another converging from the other direction, both of them ducking into the toilet compartment adjacent to the stairwell. The reason soon became apparent: two police officers came aboard and started checking passport documents.

This took several minutes but they completed their check without accounting for the two in the toilet compartment. As we continued on our way they both emerged warily as people greeted them with smiles and probably a few pointed jokes as well. No one seemed in any way perturbed. A short while later at the next stop we were both able to get seats and I asked my neighbour what had just transpired. She described how those same two passengers, formerly undistinguished, alighted before the border post, illegally crossed without passports, and met us back on the Botswana side a little later.

The scramble to hide in the toilet was simply to evade the authorities who obviously dealt with this sort of thing quite regularly. I admired the fact that there was solidarity amongst the passengers and that no-one had spilt the beans. Life was tough in Zimbabwe and probably almost everyone there was only crossing to buy a few goods in Francistown to sell back home for a small margin of profit. I did meet a young guy from Bulawayo who was returning to study in Gaborone but most looked like working-class traders.

Botswana is a country of almost endless sands and scrubby vegetation, punctuated here and there by more established dry woodland vegetation and occasional salt flats and pans. After a night in Francistown we caught a cross-country bus to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The next week was a wonderful experience, even considering the very conservative budget we allowed ourselves. If I am frugal in much of my travel Mirjam is even more so. When we broke our journey somewhere for a few days she would bake bread for the onward journey and almost never indulged in anything I would call comfort food or takeaways. She had an aversion to sugar but happily dined on nuts and fruit and chunks of homemade bread lathered with peanut butter. She was an inexpensive and uncomplaining travel companion.

By night we slept in a tent in the Maun Rest Camp, across the Thamalakane River from the Old Bridge Backpackers. We forsook sleeping mats and lay with sandy ground directly beneath us as we’d one in the Vic Falls and Hwange. Sometimes I tossed and turned in the early hours and I could often feel a dull ache in my hips and shoulders the following day but I slept well enough to feel reasonably well rested. The Old Bridge is a great place to sit and enjoy the numerous kingfishers, egrets, hammerkop, ibis and other water birds that frequent the river at this time of year. The waters had risen only a few weeks before, draining directly from the massive delta north of there, bringing all manner of life to its banks.

Most mornings and evenings we prepared our food at the backpackers on the other side of the river. It could be reached via the ‘Old Bridge’ referred to in the name of the place, about a 15 or 20 minute walk. At the backpackers there was a bar and main reception and it was usually a hive of activity. It also had the best view of the river and Hippo Pool directly downstream of the bridge (we never did see any of the animals though).

It was enough just to sit and enjoy the ambience of the place: the river; the shady sycamore fig above the outside tables and overreaching the pool; the half-dozen or more pied kingfishers plunging regularly into the shallows; and a pair of much larger giant kingfishers chattering noisily as the swooped from tree to tree. We also watched a moderately-sized water monitor (legavaan) wade along the river bank and up onto an artificial stone fountain on the edge of the camp he’d made his home.

The Old Bridge itself was in a state of semi-disrepair. The gaps were spanned by a series of large hardwood tree trunks lashed together and the intervening structure infilled with copious amounts of soil, a crumbling asphalt surface adhering to the top. It had an interesting history as testified by a rusty information signpost on the opposite bank. It alleged that the bridge was built in the first part of the last century to assist migrant labour from further north – Zambia, Angola, the Congo – making their way southwards to the great gold and diamond mines in colonial South Africa. These days young boys sat and fished for barbel on the leeward side of the bridge whilst couples loitered in the evenings with bottles of beer. All the while a fairly regular back and forth movement of pedestrians, ourselves included, benefitted from the bridge crossing.

I am really very of birdlife wherever I go. I am a self-confessed Twitcher. Everywhere we went I was doing my best to inform Mirjam of the local avifauna. “What’s that over there?” I would ask her later, testing her out. By degree she came to know a boubou shrike from a butcher bird, a sacred ibis from a hadeda. I think I probably drove her mad but she didn’t seem to mind too much. It is interesting how a few birds could be said to define our time together, be it in South Africa, Zimbabwe or Botswana. One was the boubou (southern mostly) which was locally common in all the towns, parks and camps we stayed in. Another was the African hoopoe with its characteristic crest and brown, white and black plumage. But probably the most characteristic was the fork-tailed drongo, present wherever we went and conspicuous by its mimicry of other birds, inquisitive nature and conspicuous foraging.

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After a few days at the rest camp we booked ourselves a transfer by boat upstream to the Boro Community Centre to where we boarded a local mokoro boat for a short trip into the delta itself. It was really a lot of fun and good value at 800 Pula per person, far cheaper than most of the other advertised activities. The mokoro is a boat, traditionally made from a long hollowed-out tree trunk (but in our case reinforced by fibreglass), pushed along by a man (or woman) much like a gondolier or punt, with the aid of a long wooden pole.  Since the delta is only a meter or deep on average this is not an impractical way of getting around. I was really quite surprised how fast our driver shunted us along.

That evening we camped on an island and the next day we went for a 3 hour walk in the vicinity. We were in a wilderness area which acts as a sort of buffer zone between the adjacent communal land and the Moremi Game Reserve further in. We were still some way from Moremi but there was plentiful wildlife here nonetheless. We saw several bull elephant, a small group of lechwe antelope, a large herd of wildebeest (over a hundred Mirjam counted), a herd of zebra and a reedbuck, not to mention a variety of birds: geese, ibis, plovers, stilts, saddle-billed storks, sand grouse, bee-eaters and many more beside. On the return journey the following day we even spotted a pelican foraging in the shallows.

I was sad to have to leave the delta without being able to explore further in, but time was pressing. After a week we jumped on yet another bus for the overnight journey to Gaborone. Packed tight for the initial part of the journey the bus became less compacted after a few people disembarked. A stowaway was discovered in the seat in front of us and ejected by the stocky ticket issuer who poured a tirade of abuse upon the unfortunate young man. Mirjam felt quite bad for him but in Africa many people have so little that seeing another person try benefit from cheating or theft elicits very little sympathy.

At daybreak we arrived in Gaborone and a short taxi ride later we arrived at our faithful Intercape coach, this time headed to Johannesburg. Fortunately tickets were readily available and 45 minutes later we were on our way. The border with South Africa is only a matter of kilometres hence so we arrived there shortly. The rest of the journey was not particularly exciting – certainly nothing to compare with what went before.

For Mirjam, this leg of her holiday was virtually over. She flew out two days later to join her parents in Israel. I will join them shortly. However, in the interim, as you may remember, I went back to the Guest Farm in the Drakensberg. It was hard settling back into things initially but by the time I departed yesterday morning I felt an integral part of the team once again. It’s hard uprooting but in this case it couldn’t really be avoided. At the Gaborone Border Post they had only given me a month’s leave to remain. As two of the new volunteers there commented, “You’ll be back. You belong here!”

The GNP, Then and Now (And the Futility of it All)

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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.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

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.

The dark profile of the 'praying tree', a little sinister-looking here perhaps but venerated by the individual I refer to.

The dark profile of the ‘praying tree’, a little sinister-looking here perhaps, but a sacred place to the individual I refer to.

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.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

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.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

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.

Intro

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.

 

 

 

 

Childhood Memories

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Index
My Early Years
The House in Harare
Cousins & Neighbourhood Friends
Early Holidays
Visiting Family in Durban, South Africa
The Cub Scouts
Highlands Junior
The Family Home in Marondera

A little over three years ago I went through a retrospective phase and managed to sit down for several months and dedicate myself to writing about my life and experiences from childhood to the present day. Yes, it was therapeutic to a certain degree, but also a testament to things that have come and gone, things worth remembering. It is easy to grow nostalgic and sentimental looking back at the innocence of childhood, which can distort the objective recollection of the reality of the time, but this is not meant to be a historical piece.

Fortunately my mum was a quite an avid amateur photographer. I recall her brandishing a fairly basic but decent Minolta film camera at birthday parties, festive occasions, early family vacations: basically whenever she deemed it an appropriate moment to capture the moment for posterity. This foresight has been an obvious boon to me now because these undoctored pictures are objective snapshots of the past. They capture smiles and moments of shared joy long forgotten and the details of scenes and places only sketchily remembered. My mum is some years departed now but I have spent many hours pouring over this collection of prints, negatives and early slides. I have inserted many of these into the text.

I have written further chapters, some of which I may post, others probably not. If there is a school of thought whose belief is that one should only write about the past whilst keeping in the mind its implications for the future, then I would subscribe to it. Only someone approaching the very end of their days can really be forgiven indulging in nostalgia for its own sake.

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

I was born in the UK , I would tell people with a certain satisfaction; Hammersmith Hospital, London to be precise. I have no recollection of the place however, since my parents had returned to Harare shortly thereafter and registered my birth again. Fortunately, my mother retained my original birth certificate, the one which stated that my parent’s ‘usual address’ at the time had been ‘48 Kenilworth Road, Ealing’. Thus I was able to claim British nationality at a later date when I felt sure I would want to travel back to my country of birth. That was many years later, however.

My early childhood had been a happy one; we would all look back on those days nostalgically. The burden of the civil war between the ‘whites’ and the ‘blacks’ the decade before, in the 1970s, had ended after the Lancaster House negotiations. Multi-party elections had been held for the first time and a black political party had taken office in the new state of Zimbabwe.

Like my childhood peers I was born on the cusp of the transition between Smith’s ‘independent’ Rhodesia and Robert Mugabe’s ‘independent’ Zimbabwe. I have no memory of the times before, nor the changing of the guard. My earliest memories involve our original house at 44 Warwick Rd, Greystone Park, Harare, a relatively recent development (at the time) in the low density, north-eastern suburban fringe of the capital.

In my mind’s eye I can see my mother’s white bedroom dresser with its oval-shaped mirror; the pink lace curtains in the bedroom; the pied mongrel Trixie, a family pet, its tongue lolling to one side; the gravel driveway out front and my folk’s old Datsun 120Y station-wagon parked near where the front door once stood. I can also clearly remember my neighbours from across the road, the Turners; well, not Mr. Turner because he had died of appendicitis whilst I was very young, but his wife Mona and her old Afrikaans parents. The old man’s name was Tom, Tom van Graan to be precise. I don’t know why but his name has stuck firmly in my memory.

Old man van Graan was probably already into his eighties at the time which would mean he was born somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. I recall him sitting there in his chair facing the glass doors to the patio and the tree-covered hills of Greystone Park that lay beyond. His face was lined and mottled in the way that some old person’s skin will become blotchy with age. His milky blue eyes would look out on a landscape that very few would then remember. He talked of hunting buffalo in that very valley, something that had impressed the young boy enormously.

Even then in the early 1980s it was a fairly undisturbed urban fringe; the hill slopes were too steep and rocky to farm and the soils in that part of the valley were either dark and prone to being waterlogged, or stony and difficult to work. I remember seeing the occasional small duiker antelope on an early morning walk and there was all manner of snakes and small mammals that inhabited those parts.

Only some twenty years later would the hungry urban masses tax the natural resources of the city more heavily than ever before through urban cultivation and wood-cutting especially. Back then and for many years after that, the valley and its surrounds held a special place in my heart. Later I would dream of extending our urban nature sanctuary to encompass the entire area.

It was certainly considered highly desirable real estate and many of the nouveau riche had built their houses and mansions on the surrounding hills with superb views out over acres of farmland on the one side and attractive natural woodland on the other. Years later I would become friends with a girl, Michelle, whose father kept a small herd of impala antelope on their property on the flank of that very range of hills. Old Tom would have been pleased.

I have a vague recollection of the garden whilst a new glitter-stone swimming pool was constructed. Glitter-stone is a type of metamorphic slate-like rock with a high percentage of mica which gives it the ‘glitter’ in its popular name. It was mined in terrain near the Zambezi Valley, not far from the northern limit of Lake Kariba and was prized as a material for surfacing swimming pools and patios.

Digging the pool had proved to be quite an undertaking since Greystone Park was so named for the prevalence of hard, grey dolerite, an igneous rock that originated from molten material injected as dykes and sills between the older greenstone-type rocks.

The builders had to build fires on the raw, grey stone and then hose it down with cold water; the rapid thermal changes would fracture the rock and make it easier to cleave open with picks and chisels; it must have been intensely physical work. The rock was never wasted however, providing the building blocks for stone walls and rockeries. Dolerite and similar greenstone rock types are iron-rich and weather to give red, loamy soils, which are agriculturally productive and on which many of the country’s commercial farms were previously situated.

The other thing I remember about the property from a young age were the trees. The previous owner had planted a variety of exotic specimens: silver oaks out front; pine trees along the fence line at the bottom of the property and also close to where the swimming pool was constructed; a purple-flowering Jacaranda tree outside my brother’s bedroom; a large spreading syringa with yellow berries next to it which had proved very difficult to remove entirely; and an enormous Kenya coffee tree on the road-side of the property which my father cursed for all the debris it shed into the swimming pool. Far older than any of these recent introductions was an ancient Acacia sieberiana, below the level of the swimming pool.

It was a magnificent old tree with twisted limbs as thick as an average tree even at a height of ten metres or more and a huge fissured trunk which hosted a hive of bees for most of my childhood, despite the repeated efforts made by my parents to be rid of them. The crumbly, flaky bark was always covered in lichen and it flowered once a year in summer; numerous scented, yellow balls constituting the clumps of minute flowers. Later the tree would be covered by irregular, flat woody pods with loosely embedded pale green seeds which would rattle musically when shaken.

Numerous birds would forage in the canopy of that tree and various goshawks and other raptors would alight there from time to time. There was also a line of Eucalyptus gum trees set a little further back in the greenbelt area which had originally been preserved as a bridal path through the northern suburbs. Only many years later would they be felled in the interests of preserving the adjacent wetland area. They were a common plantation species grown throughout the Highveld area of the country for timber.

My childhood years were spent romping around the garden with my brothers Dan and Ivan and neighbourhood friends: Robbie Taylor from Coventry Road a few hundred metres ‘down the hill’; Rob Standsfield a few houses ‘up the hill’ and Ben Murray half a mile or so away in the latter direction. Ben was my earliest friend and the one I would be at school with all the way from infants through to when we finished sixth form prior to university. His aptitude was for gadgets and devices from a young age but he was academically talented in just about everything he put his mind to.

Rob Standsfield was not one for books or learning but he was lean and muscled from a young age and always seemed to have the best selection of BMX bikes. Me and the others found it easy to wind Rob up and unleash his explosive temper, which of course was the whole objective. He lost his mum to cancer at a young age and he had some very verbal altercation with his father on occasion.

I remember going through a face-painting stage which explains our unhealthy pallor.  All of us except Robbie Taylor pictured here holding our young Fox Terrier, Foxie.

I remember going through a face-painting stage which explains our unhealthy pallor. All of us that is except Robbie Taylor pictured here holding Foxie, our fox terrier.

Robbie from ‘down the hill’ was the naughtiest of them all, driving all the mothers mad with his tricks and antics. With Robbie we would raid neighbouring vegetable gardens or take a ‘skinny dip’ in Geoff Reilly’s pool at the top of his road.

“I know Mr. Reilly and he wouldn’t mind” a grinning Robbie would claim if any doubt was expressed. I have a clear recollection of Dan and Robbie playing squash naked on his custom-fitted squash court after a dip in his pool, leaving wet footprints on the expensive laminate floorboards. I’m not sure if Geoff would have been so happy with that had he arrived back home unexpectedly.

Geoff had made a lot of money as an earthmoving contractor in the region and was one of the first in the neighbourhood to get a satellite dish. I remember my dad once getting up in the early hours of the morning to go and watch a heavyweight boxing match at Geoff’s place, along with a few other gents, beamed live from Madison Square Gardens in New York. That was before satellite dishes and digital decoders were to become commonplace in the mid to late 90s.

My brothers and I also spent a lot of time in the company of our cousins from nearby Ballantyne Park, especially Dominic (born in the same year as me) and Justin (Ivan’s contemporary). Michael, the eldest, seemed to grow up faster than the rest of us. He was an academic high flyer who, after four years of senior boarding school, left to Canada on a scholarship and thereafter a degree at Harvard University no less.

I remember collaborating with Mike once on drawing a magnificently illustrated eagle in a ‘Birds of the World’ type book for a children’s drawing competition. To my mind the results were never made public if the pictures were judged at all and both of us were gutted.

I didn’t think of Michael as a competitor as he was a year and a half older, but I clearly remember my cousin faulting me for having too many interests. “You have to concentrate on one thing and become good at it” he had said as a youngster. Perhaps he had been right, thinking back. I loved collecting things, whether it were bird feathers, cards, stamps, rocks and pebbles, curiosities or Airfix model airplanes. Maybe it was this propensity for collecting all these things which had drawn criticism from my cousin.

My mother was very arts and crafts oriented. She had hosted a play-group in our family garage when we were toddlers; happy days filled with paint and music and toys and all sorts of innocent nonsense. So too was Ben’s mother, Barbie. When at Ben’s house we never wanted for paper or paint or crayons or tubes of cardboard from which we could build aeroplanes or objects of our imagination. Likewise there were buckets of Lego and building blocks and marbles.

Ben was an only child and after his parents split up and his father had moved to the UK he always had the best selection of toys. Both his parents had struck me, even then, as being rather arty and non-conformist. His father, an architect, had built the most unusual house consisting of a series of interconnected domed rooms with interesting acoustics and their garden was almost completely wild. It was a great place to play games of all kinds and Ben had hosted a memorable birthday party where he and his classmates had battled the length and breadth of the garden for military supremacy.

It was also occupied by numerous unusual rusty metal sculptures his father had welded together from pieces of scrap metal. I remember Keith at those early birthday parties watching proceedings amiably through bespectacled eyes. It was he who had taken Ben and me on our first trout-fishing expedition to the Nyanga National Park, something that would become a favourite holiday past-time growing up. After he and Barbie had split up he had emigrated and it would be another fifteen years or so before I would see him again.

Myself, Dan and Ben, probably in Lk McIlwaine Recreational Park near Harare

Myself, Dan and Ben, probably in Lk McIlwaine Recreational Park near Harare

Barbie had continued raising Ben as a single mother with her sometime boyfriend Rob Thompson, another architect, later accompanying us on the trips to Nyanga. In fact Rob had been the architect responsible for designing the extensions to my parent’s house at 44 Warwick Road.

My best memories of Ben’s house on Rye Hill road were of the arts and crafts and playing in the garden that had been left wild. Our best achievement in the creative department had been the construction of a four-foot Iguanodon dinosaur out of cardboard boxes and egg cartons and painted green, for a school project. There is a picture of Ben and me standing proudly next to the finished article in one of my photograph albums somewhere.

Like all children I had loved dinosaurs and loved sketching them as much as I loved sketching birds; an interesting correlation considering the undisputed evolutionary link now established between the two groups.

Two families stick in my mind as being particularly closely associated with mine: the Hickman’s and the Davison’s. We had gone on a number of holidays together, one year to Mana Pools, a popular and scenic spot along the Zambezi River in the Zambezi Valley, often referred to simply as ‘the Valley’.

I’d been sick on that excursion and whilst the others were out fishing or on a game drive I was confined to a camp bed in one of the tents. A troop of vervet monkeys had arrived on a foraging expedition and one had given me a tremendous fright when it had strolled casually up to my camp bed and jumped up onto the end of it out of curiosity.

It was one of the few National Parks where one was able to camp in an area in the vicinity of big game that included lion, buffalo and elephant, but like many campsites around the country it was the scavengers who proved to be the real nuisance: monkeys, baboons and hyenas. It was not unusual for a hyena to chomp its way through a cooler box if it thought there was some tasty morsel inside.

On that trip one had made a significant dent in a metal food box my parents had borrowed from friends back in Harare in which they had kept some pieces of fresh meat. Although it had not managed to penetrate the sturdy metal shell, the animal had shredded the outer leather padding, which had required replacing back in town, as well as deep scratches inflicted by its bone-crushing jaws in the metal casing itself.

Another trip with the Davison and Hickman families had been to the other side of the country to Gonarezhou National Park. Gonarezhou translates as ‘Place of the Elephants’ in the local dialect. I don’t remember much from that trip but one photograph showed us boys (there would have been seven of us between the three families, no girls) and several of the parents in front of the famed Chilotjo Cliffs: stratified, red and yellow sandstone cliffs along the banks of the Runde River. There were also a number of photographs from the Zimbabwe Ruins near Masvingo which we probably visited on the outgoing journey to Gonarezhou or on the return leg.

With Ben and Barbie I spent many a holiday at Rhodes Nyanga National Park and countless hours fishing for the plentiful rainbow trout in the Park’s dams, and occasionally the rivers too. There were occasions when I went with my own family and Dan had come along fishing as well, but it was with Ben and his mum that I went most regularly.

The time that sticks out most vividly was when I got a fly hook embedded in my right index finger after trying to haul a fish onto one of the little wooden Parks rowing boats without a landing net. We had to return to Harare to have it removed by Dr. Pringle. Years later my mum had extracted the multicoloured fly, a Little Rainbow, from a compartment in her wallet. “Remember this?” she said with a smile and a flourish. I blanched: Could I ever forget?

On a break at the Lake McIlwaine Recreational Park adjoining Lake Chivero (new name) with my older South African cousins, Grant and Brett.

On a break at the Lake McIlwaine Recreational Park adjoining Lake Chivero (new name) with my older South African cousins, Grant and Brett.

I don’t have much of a recollection of exclusive family holidays but there were a few occasions I recall when that had been the case; holiday outings to the chalets at Lake McIlwaine National Park just outside the capital amongst the best remembered.

We’d gone on holiday there with my mum’s parents (my grandparents) and my Aunt Liz’s two boys, Grant and Brett. For Grant and Brett, raised in the city of Durban, it had been an eye-popping experience: feeding squirrels and rock dassies by hand and walking amongst impala, zebra, kudu and even the few white rhinoceros. The two older boys had loved it and would talk fondly about it years later.

McIlwaine was a Recreational Park so, unlike Mana Pools, there were no lion, elephant or buffalo and one was free to walk anywhere within the Park. Only the white rhino could potentially maim or even kill. They could make short work of someone if so inclined but it was the black rhinoceros, native to the Zambezi Valley that was by far the more dangerous of the two species.

My Uncle Paul (my mum's brother) who spent his last few years in Zimbabwe just outside Harare at a place called Resthaven.

My Uncle Paul (my mum’s brother) who spent his last few years in Zimbabwe just outside Harare at a place called Resthaven. Here he is outside his little bungalow.

In later years my uncle Paul, who had served with the Rhodesian Security Forces loyal to Ian Smith’s regime during the ‘Bush War’, would tell me of the many times he was chased by chipembere (the name for black rhinos in the indigenous tongue) whilst on patrol in the Valley. One would have no option but to scramble up the nearest tree which usually proved to be covered in thorns, in order to evade the irritable creatures who would stomp around the base snorting and puffing until satisfied that the invader had been repelled. He had even had the head of a black rhinoceros tattooed on his shoulder in green ink in memory of those days. I saw it whilst staying with him in his little council flat in Plymouth, Devon, a few years back.

We had also taken annual pilgrimages to the coastal city of Durban in South Africa. That stretch of coast was referred to as the East Coast, a stretch between Durban in the north to the vicinity of Port Shepstone in the south. Further south of that one would be in the Transkei, a largely undeveloped former homeland area of the country. Mostly we had stayed with my maternal grandparents in Durban itself, but on occasion we would spend time in holiday homes in coastal towns south of the city: a few days in Uvongo near Margate, another couple in a holiday home in Scottburgh.

I can recall how much of an affinity I felt for the sea and the coast then, walking for miles along the yellow, sandy beaches where one could find shells, mostly scallops, and broken fragments of conch shells, incomplete but amazing to my young eyes nonetheless. Occasionally one would come across cuttle-fish shells, not really shells at all but their pithy, chalky, calcareous skeletons shaped like flint axe-heads.

I had a particular love for birds from an early age and would sit for hours copying the pictures of familiar species from the field guides and books I had been given as birthday and Christmas presents. Inspired by birds seen in the vicinity of our home in Harare I had drawn a spotted eagle owl, woodland kingfisher and Senegal coucal. I can still remember the pleasure derived from copying the illustration of the owl from my old grey edition of the ‘Birds of Central Africa’ (in two parts), a musty smelling bird guide written decades before.

Unlike the other bird books I had like Newman’s Field Guide and Roberts Birds of Southern Africa this guide included birds one could find further north in Zambia, Malawi and even the Congo; mysterious birds like Bannerman’s Turaco and flycatchers endemic to a particular forest in Mozambique. In Durban I copied a picture of the hadeda ibis, a distinctive and noisy bird and whilst in Scottburgh I drew a crested barbet, although it was the related black-collared barbet that was more numerous in those parts. I would come to view the barbet family with particular affection; quirky, intelligent birds with distinct calls and a sense of curiosity and boldness.

We spent many a Christmas in Durban and many hours in the company of our cousins Ellysa and Matthew, who lived fairly close to our grandparents. They were my Aunt Liz’s children from her second marriage; her other two, Grant and Brett, were a few years older than me and from a previous marriage. Being a practising Catholic it had not been easy to get the marriage annulled, but her first husband had been an unsavoury character from what I heard and read, and she had eventually succeeded.

I remember going to watch my cousin Brett playing in a rugby match on one occasion; he had been stretchered off with an injury, but had nevertheless derided the opposition and cheered his own teammates from the sideline.

Back in Harare I was a member of Borrowdale 2nds, a cub-scout troop. I really had enjoyed being a cub-scout, tearing around the yard outside the hall playing games of ‘hunter and the animal’ or in the hall itself where we had friendly competitions for which we were awarded beans (which accrued throughout the term) and had talks on aspects of bush craft and that sort of thing. There was also an annual jamboree held out at Ruwa Park where troops from all over the Mashonaland District would gather to compete in a plethora of competitions from knot-tying to seeing which troop could recite the Scout’s Motto with the most gusto.

Ironically, it was the Highlands scout group that inevitably seemed to scoop the top prizes on offer. There leader (or Arkela) by a disciplinarian woman, Mrs Wilmot, who would later become my high school biology teacher. On the last evening we had all joined together for a huge game of ‘Jack, Jack shine your light’ where one of the scout leaders slunk off into the dark with a torch and the rest of us set off in hot pursuit as he or she flashed their torch when us boys shouted out the obvious phrase; a sort of optical equivalent of the swimming pool game Marco Polo.

The highlight of my cub-scout career was being given an award by none other than Gerald Durrell, the famous English conservationist, who was visiting the country at the time and who was asked to preside over an awards ceremony at Christ Church, an Anglican establishment not far away from my house in Greystone Park. I had read many of Mr. Durrell’s books about his adventures growing up in Corfu in the Greek Mediterranean, so it was a real honour to shake hands with the man himself. In my enthusiasm I had hoisted myself straight onto the presentations stage directly in front of me, instead of walking sedately up the stage-side stairs like everyone else.

I remember Mr. Durrell as a large, white-bearded, smiling man with a firm handshake. As a prize I had received the Mobil Colouring Book of Indigenous Plants, signed by both Gerald and Lee Durrell, which I never deigned to touch lest I spoil it. It resides in a box or trunk in Harare to this day. The church in question was later to become under the guidance of an Anglican Priest, David Bertram, whose three children had also attended Highlands Junior School. His son Matthew would become a good friend of mine after we had finished school.

Richard, Dan and I are engaged by one of the Rhino Girls on the evening we were awarded our World Conservation badges.

Richard, Dan and I are engaged by one of the Rhino Girls on the evening we were awarded our World Conservation badges.

With my Brother Dan and Richard Davison, Celia’s eldest son, I set off to attain the World Conservation Badge, the cherry on the cake in so far as cub-scout achievement went.

As with all my projects my mother was very involved and supportive. It was probably the efforts in trying to achieve this award that had nurtured my early conservationist spirit more than anything else: there had been indigenous trees to plant in our backyard and monitor closely; posters to draw and illustrate; articles to research and more besides. In line with one of the requirements, we had decided to try and draw attention to the plight of the rhinoceros’, both black and white, but especially the former whose population was decimated by years of poaching in the low-lying Zambezi Valley.

The project was given an extra boost by a pair of campaigning women, known as the Rhino Girls, who had been cycling all the way from the UK, some 22 000 kilometres, to raise awareness as to the plight of the continent’s rhinoceros and funding for anti-poaching operations. They were there at the scout hall after completing their epic trans-continental cycle to present us our World Conservation badges. Some of the pictures which record our flattered and slightly embarrassed young faces had even made the inside pages of one of the national newspapers.

From school I recall happy times amongst children of various colours and creeds. My parents sent my brothers and I to a local government school in a decent, middle class suburb of the city. Unlike other government schools which exclusively catered for the newly enabled black, working classes, Highlands Junior maintained an unusual mix of ethnicities, bolstered in part by the attendance of a number of children whose parents were diplomats or members of foreign businesses, aid agencies or the representatives of collaborative projects between well-meaning foreign donors and the new government.

All of my friends would remember our days at the school fondly. Ben had gone on to take many of the academic prizes including the prestigious Dux Award for all-round academic prowess in their last year, Grade 7. Rivalries were generally friendly, certainly less intense than they would become at high school. Prize giving evenings were held as much for the benefit of the parents as for their blushing children.

I remember playing in the school orchestra conducted by Mrs Di Wright, who, to the best of my knowledge, is still conducting school orchestras in Harare; learning the recorder from the kindly Mrs Bruce who had also been my very first class teacher at the Infants School; and singing in the school choir conducted by Mrs Reynolds, whose daughter Jessica was a pretty and popular girl later destined to become Mrs Highlands. I had been voted her male counterpart.

The memory still elicits feelings of embarrassment, but it had all been fairly innocent and popularity was measured by a different yardstick at that age. Boys voted for boys and girls for girls and most classes would get together and agree to vote for someone in that class. It was common knowledge that I had only just held off Ross Brans who was the most popular boy in the second stream class which my Aunt Nick had taught.

The school plays had been a lot of fun. We had performed Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in my final year. I had a crush on a brown-haired Finnish girl also in the play but remember that her affections were only for the star athlete of the year, a boy I simply remember as Tigere. I made the mistake of telling the class fog-horn, a girl called Nomusa Mbanga, of this crush. She had promptly broadcast it to the whole school. It made the last few weeks rather awkward because I was to learn, and not for the first time, that having a secret infatuation does not necessarily translate into a workable relationship.

At our Leavers Dance evening I had selected Suzanna to partner me for the first dance, as was my entitlement as ‘Mr Popular’ of the year group, but the dance had felt awkward and embarrassing, my limbs wooden and clumsy. I do remember the two class jesters, Tom Newman and Ant Kashula, going to great lengths to try and impress the young Jess Reynolds. They had brought her bunches of flowers, professed their undying love and done a dozen other things to try and win her affections. It went to neither of them.

I remember Tom inviting Carrie Sudlow instead, a tough-talking ‘mate’ from our class, who was quite pretty in her own way I suppose, but not really the sort you showered with roses. Carrie had managed to have me thrown into the lake at Geoff Cox Adventure Camp by one of the instructors, Heath, alleging that I had said something nasty to her. I remember her delight at the soggy results of her machinations. Tom emigrated to New Zealand after school but Ant still lives in Zimbabwe, running walking safaris in the Lowveld region. He always loved the bush and he and his father were forever going down to Lake Kariba on weekend fishing trips, something the rest of us boys were incredibly envious of.

My clique back then consisted essentially of five or six of us boys: Ben who has already been introduced; Mike Alcock, son of an Anglican deacon; Brett Mead, bigger than the rest of us and a bit of a thug; Chris McManus, son of a farmer; Rohan Bruce, son of Mrs. Bruce the recorder teacher; Rowan Donahue, an Australian; and myself. Others like Tom, Ant, Ian Ullyett and Rob Brine would drift in and out of the loose circle of friends. There were occasional rifts like when I fell-out with Rowan about the money he was stealing off his mum to buy vast amounts of tuck which he literally used to buy his friendship with other members of the group.

My relations with the girls of the class were amicable, except perhaps for Nassim Madjzoub, a pretty dark-haired girl whose parents were Persian I seem to remember. She sat next to me in class and had ensured that Mrs. Cockburn, our class teacher, knew my every misdemeanour. We played on the fields before and after school and during break times. A game called window was a favourite, whereby a tennis ball was kicked around until it went between someone’s legs. At this point it was a free-for-all for all those present and often a few spectators too, as the windowed individual dashed to touch some designated object like a tree or classroom door.

I seem to remember Rob Brine having his arm broken one morning when a game got a little out of hand and Rohan Bruce was almost always on the receiving end during the games the group of us would play at break-time. It was usually Brett mead who would go in with a flying tackle at the crucial moment Rohan was in touching distance of the tree. There were tears and bruises and grass-burns, but Rohan’s desire to be one of the gang kept him coming back time and again. Ultimately it was too much and he had said something to his mum, we had all been called up before Mrs Cockburn and the game was banned outright.

Years later, when I met Rohan after high school in Harare, he reminded me what ‘bastards’ we had all been and I had felt some measure of guilt. Still, Rohan seemed forgiving and we had laughed and reminisced about happier memories over a few beers that evening. I understand that he is a psychologist now, probably with a great degree more insight into the tortured mind of the pre-adolescent boy I imagine.

There were athletics and cross-country days and swimming galas, which were well attended by the parents of the children. I was never a particularly good swimmer, except for the breast-stroke which I won narrowly from my cousin Dominic in my last year, although Dominic took the Victor Ludorum trophy as the best all-round swimmer.

I remember that Mrs. Coventry, mother of Kirsty a few years below him, had expressed some faith that they could make a ‘decent swimmer of him yet’. She had been one of the assistant coaches and all Highlands pupils from that time, indeed Zimbabweans in general, would be proud of the achievements of her daughter Kirsty in the swimming pool in later years: two Olympic golds, four silvers and a bronze medal, undisputedly the country’s most successful Olympian ever.

I did well at cross-country, with the encouragement of my dad who loved the sport and the training derived from the pre-class morning running sessions of Mrs Harnden, my Grade three teacher. Her son Kenny would go on and represent the country on the athletics track as a 400 metre hurdler.

The other thing I remember well is the very strong sense of community fostered at the school. The various sports days aside, the school had regular family braais or barbeques which were sometimes augmented by a live band. A South African trio, the Blarney Brothers (of Irish stock, allegedly), made a couple of appearances on a makeshift stage set at the top of the school fields.

Rows of sectioned fifty-five gallon drums filled with hot charcoal and overlaid with mesh grills were at hand for people to cook whatever meat they had brought along with them and drinks were served from tented stalls set up at various locations. Jumping Castles had arrived on the scene and these also became ubiquitous at such events.

There was the opportunity to socialise and most of the boys and fathers engaged in informal games of rugby, football and garden cricket whilst daylight remained. Sometimes there would be a firework display organised for the children after dark and perhaps some music in the school hall.

I remember sneaking over the fence surrounding the school pool and having an illicit ‘midnight swim’ with Dominic, Dan, and one or two others. We were careful not to splash around much and it was more about risking punishment and getting away with it than actually swimming. It would become something of a ritual I remember doing even after having left Highlands, when returning for family braai evenings because one or other of my brothers was still there at the junior school. Dominic was usually the one instrumental ensuring that the tradition continued. He kept his hair cropped short so with a few shakes of his head it was usually dry, unlike my own lank hair which would remain damp. I worried about being questioned by a suspicious teacher or parent but that never happened.

When ‘The Cousins’, as we collectively called ourselves, met off the school grounds, it was to muck around the neighbourhood on our bikes ringing gate bells and causing minor mischief here and there. On other occasions we would light fireworks and hurl them onto the usually quiet suburban road outside, panicking pedestrians and causing the occasional car to come to a standstill.

The best recollections of time spent together were of family Sunday lunches at the Marondera house with our Yia-Yia (grandmother in Greek). We usually drove out after 8 o’clock Sunday Mass, our cousins proceeding separately. Sometimes my father would grumble about having to go out there, citing better things he could do with his day-off, although once out there he seemed to enjoy himself.

This was the house where my father Ray and his brother Tony had grown up. They were fraternal twins and they had three older siblings: Nadia, Monica and Byron. When we Cousins were little boys our great-grandmother had been alive (old Yia-Yia). She couldn’t speak a word of English having come out to Africa from Cyprus with her daughter after the latter married our Papou (grandfather) in the 1950s. Our Papou had been born in settler Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, sometime in the 1920s but had gone back to Cyprus to find a wife.

The old Yia-Yia had a kindly smile which showed her missing several teeth. I remember well her walnut-tanned skin, slight stoop, thin white hair neatly brushed back and her blue-veined hands. She would give us boys twenty and fifty cent pieces when the ice-cream man came cycling past the property in the afternoon, waving good-naturedly for us to make haste outside before he departed.

The house itself had apparently been built by my grandfather, obviously with the assistance of hired help. Marondera was granite country and the soil was very sandy, unlike the red loamy soils of Greystone Park. The front drive we used as a soccer and cricket pitch and our own version of baseball when we were given an aluminium bat by one or other of our South African cousins. To the left of the sandy driveway, as one faced the front gate, were two concrete flamingos on rusty iron legs, one of which was stooped as if feeding from a pan or lake.

Further back against the fence stood a mini-acropolis constructed of precast concrete pillars, deliberately etched and broken in an effort to imitate the original. The property was quite extensive and had some lovely trees I remember, especially the spreading wild Mobola Plum out front, which someone had dubbed ‘the lavatory tree’ because of the sickly sweet scent of the flowers, reminiscent of a lavatory air-freshener.

In the garden we were able to extract camel worms, a sort of hairy caterpillar with two humps on its back, from their vertical holes with pieces of moistened grass. In the adjacent park area, if we were lucky, we would be able to dig up the occasional large, brown, hairy scorpion. I never saw one above surface but they probably came out of their burrows when it was cooler.

Our Yia-Yia was an unapologetic horder of commodities, perhaps because of the tough war years she would have spent in occupied Cyprus. In her pantry could be found all manner of items, some decades old and probably a hazard to one’s health. Occasionally Ray or Tony would dig these items out and berate their mother light-heartedly (before discretely disposing of them). The house was always full of laughter and activity whilst we were visiting.

The kitchen would become a focal point as the food was prepared by the bustling old lady on her old gas stove and old worn countertop which must have seen the preparation of countless meals over the years. The lunch itself was always something to look forward to. It usually started with a bowl of Avgolemono soup; pale with lemon juice, chicken bits and grains of rice, followed by the main course: moussaka, dolmades (small packets of mince wrapped in spinach or grape-leaves), pasta rice, very well oven-cooked lamb served with baked potatoes, and batter-fried salted cod.

My grandfather, a life-long heavy smoker, had died of heart failure when I was only seven, so most of my memories of the house only involve my Yia-Yia (the older Yia-Yia had died around the same time). The house was always very neat and clean; there was leather furniture in the lounge-dining area and on the walls were two bugles and a bayonet, both relics of World War II, in which my grandfather had fought. Adjoining that room was a smaller area with another table on which the children would eat when the main table was full (it usually was).

On the side of the white enamel cupboard nearby the heights of all the family, especially the kids, were recorded over subsequent years. There was also a splendid formal dining room joined to an entertainment room that was seldom, if ever, occupied. It housed an old piano. The furniture too was old and well-polished and made of a handsome dark hardwood of some sort and on the quarry-tiled floor was a Persian carpet. I remembered hearing my Aunt Monica playing that piano once and my cousin Sera playing a Polonaise; otherwise it was more ornamental than functional.

Round the back of the house were the sheds and workshop where an assortment of bric-à-brac had accumulated over the years, which provided us boys with all sorts of curiosities from rusty hose-pipe fittings to old Anchovette bottles with the labels still intact. There were also kennels housing several large Rottweiler dogs, the largest and meanest of which was Shadow. My grandmother unleashed them in the evenings either there or at their leather factory nearby as a very successful deterrent to any prospective thieves.

There was also a gate leading out to a communal area and an expanse of bare granite rock where our fathers had themselves played years earlier. They called it Pirate’s Rock, so we did too. It wasn’t much to behold but it was exciting to think that our dads had once been at the age that we were then and played the same games at the very spot on which we then stood.

Despite what would later transpire to mar my relationship with my father, I remember him as a good storyteller when I was a youngster. He would spin a yarn about a mysterious and deadly character, the Black-Widow Lady, who had inhabited town and countryside, cocooning little boys like us in a spider-like thread that she spun before devouring them at leisure.

These tales had held us rapt and begging for more after each instalment. My father had fostered a legend about a penknife he possessed which was the only known item capable of cutting the silk thread of the cocoons; this fabled knife was now lost but we spent hours and hours searching every nook and cranny of the house and garden in search of the mythical item.

Our Yia-Yia had finally passed away shortly after my own mother had in the early part of the last decade. Until the final week or so of her life, when she needed full-time attention by my Aunt Nick, she had resided in that house where all her family memories from the last half-century had accumulated. It was her express wish that the family continue to use the house as a family holiday home, improbable as that may have been. Ray and Tony had consulted with Sera, then living in South Africa, who had inherited the property and decided to put it on the market. They rented it for a year or two and then sold to a black family.

Looking back I can understand my Yia-Yia’s sentiments entirely and why so loathe to sell the home where I grew up. All the same, it’s best remember the place for what it was and not hanker for a past that’s irredeemable. It is enough to appreciate that places hold memories and memories bring a sense of continuity and belonging. Tony and Nick, Dan and his family all live in Harare now, but our ancestral home was that house in Marondera.

From R to L: My mum's parents, My Yia-Yia and my father. Taken outside Goksel leather factory, Marondera.

From R to L: My mum’s parents, My Yia-Yia and my father. Taken outside Goksel leather factory, Marondera.