The man in the Mazda sedan tightens his grip on the wheel and flicks an anxious glance at the rear-view mirror. He’s heading north on the N1 highway, eating up the miles through the flat grasslands of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. In a couple of hours, so he hopes, he’ll reach the Limpopo River and the border crossing at Beitbridge. If he makes it through Zimbabwe’s labyrinthine immigration procedures in reasonable time – three hours would be good – he’ll be home by midnight.
His destination is Matthew Rusike Children’s Home on the outskirts of Harare where Astonishment (for that is the man’s unlikely name) is responsible for 150 AIDS orphans and other child victims of the economic meltdown in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. It’s early 2009 and Zimbabwe’s inflation is the worst in history. It takes a billion Zimbabwe dollars to buy a tomato, a suitcase of notes to go shopping, though most of the time there’s little to be had on Harare’s supermarket shelves.
Hence Astonishment’s latest foray south to buy supplies for the children in his care. Homeward bound, his car boot crammed with bread, cooking oil, mealie-meal flour and cartons of tinned food, Astonishment watches Polokwane city with its proud new World Cup-ready football stadium receding to his left. Shifting his gaze to the spooling ribbon of road behind him, he wonders again why the dark blue Toyota Corolla hasn’t overtaken. It’s riding dangerously close.
The last ragged outskirts of Polokwane slide away and ahead is open veldt. Now there’s movement in the rear-view mirror. The Toyota looms closer, swings to the right and comes alongside, matching the speed of the Mazda. The passenger window slides open and an arm signals to Astonishment to stop. He senses danger and accelerates. The arm withdraws and a shotgun takes its place. With another glance to his right, Astonishment sees it nodding to tell him to stop. It then points directly at his head, the muzzle a metre from his ear.
He pulls over, taking care to leave the engine running. The Toyota swerves left and blocks him in. Two men get out. They fling open Astonishment’s door and haul him to the ground. He’s on his back on the tarmac, shielding his face against the blows and the kicks. It’s over very quickly. With three or four stamps on his head, the men flee – one to the Toyota, one to the Mazda. Through slit, swollen eyes, Astonishment sees the Mazda and its cargo and 2,500 US dollars donated by well-wishers disappearing down the straight, empty road towards Polokwane. He’s aware of grit in his mouth and a crushing pain in his ribs. He tries to stand, but sags onto the tarmac and lies still.
Scroll back forty years to an earlier roadside scene in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia. This same Astonishment is a child, aged two. Barefoot, dirt poor, dressed in ragged shorts, he’s walking the dusty verge with his Uncle Chengeta near the town of Chivhu – or Enkeldoorn as it was known in those distant colonial days. A 1962 Ford Anglia flashes by. Through the dust thrown up in its wake, Astonishment catches sight of a white boy in the passenger seat, his feet on the dashboard and his elbow on the sill of the open window. The car and its occupants are gone in a moment, but it’s like a glimpse of another world. Astonishment has never been in a car. He’s rarely seen a white person. To him, varungu are another species, insulated by wealth and privilege from the hardships of ordinary life.
While the car-jacking at Polokwane is real, this second scenario is imaginary. But it could have happened. As a white Rhodesian teenager, I saw many a roadside urchin blanketed in dust as the family car flew by. With a slight geographic adjustment (our home was in another part of the country), my first encounter with Astonishment could have been on an African dirt road in the late 1960s. We might even have exchanged looks across the cultural divide – car-cocooned white boy to roadside piccanin, as he would have been called.
Assuming it didn’t happen quite so, our paths crossed only after I’d returned to Zimbabwe nearly forty years after leaving it. Partly I wanted to show my family where I’d grown up. Partly I was looking for my own childhood, or whatever vestiges might still be there to be recaptured. I also wanted to see what had happened to the beautiful but flawed country I knew as Rhodesia and which was now the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe.
On that visit, it took another child on the streets of Victoria Falls Town to lead me, unexpectedly, to Astonishment. In meeting and getting to know this inspiring man, I started to see my own upbringing through new eyes. As he told me his story from childhood destitution to saving the lives of Zimbabwean orphans, it turned out to be not only his story but the story of Zimbabwe itself through the period of my long absence, from liberation war to new nationhood and the tragedy of its more recent past.
When Astonishment and I eventually stood with 300 mourners at Uncle Chengeta’s tribal funeral not far from Chivhu, I felt a chasm had been bridged.
A Sunlit Childhood, Far Away
I paused at the top of the gangway, eyes screwed against the African sun, and took in the scene.
Ahead of me, a low, white terminal building bore the message, Welcome to Victoria Falls. On a square of lawn between two palm trees, the Zimbabwean flag-of-many-colours lifted and fell in the breeze – green for farming, gold for mining, red for blood spilt in the war of liberation and black for the people. Superimposed on the Communist star, a yellow Zimbabwe Bird, the country’s emblem, seemed impervious to the new arrivals. The Comair flight was just in from Johannesburg and the passengers ahead of me were crossing the tarmac to the immigration hall.
My last views of Zimbabwe had been thirty-nine years earlier as I mounted the gangway of an Air Rhodesia flight at Bulawayo Airport, flew to the capital, Salisbury, and caught an onward flight to return to boarding school in England. A photograph taken by my father that same day from the rooftop viewing terrace in Bulawayo shows a gangly sixteen-year-old in a school blazer, duffel bag in hand, taking a last look back at his childhood home. Then as now, the Zimbabwe Bird had fluttered on the terminal flagpole – not on a Marxist red star, but flanked by two sable antelope on the green-and-white flag of Ian Smith’s rebel regime. In the photograph, the Bird appears again on the tailfin of the turbo-prop Air Rhodesia Viscount, stretched and stylised to make it look airborne. It might have been a trick of the light, but the name on the fuselage appears to have lost some of its letters and reads A R RHOD S A.
The memory of that long-ago departure filtered back as I watched my wife, Lynda, and our three sons making their way down the gangway at Victoria Falls. With it came a jumble of half-remembered sensations – the fine, white sandiness of dirt country roads; the abrupt grandeur of the granite outcrops in the Matopos Hills; luminous evenings filled with the scent of wood smoke and the crowing of cockerels; the drumming of African rain on corrugated iron roofs; the rude cry of the go-way bird and the black, shiny-backed chongololos – the monster-millipedes that crawled out after the rains and crunched as you rode over them on your bike. The memories flooding back were those of space and freedom and the sunlit, Californian lifestyle of white Rhodesia in the 1950s and 1960s.
Still on the gangway, I struggled to connect the country I was now entering as a British tourist to the place in which I’d grown up. Childhood always seems like another land, and so it did now. But when the country itself no longer exists, when even its name has been expunged, the gulf seems achingly unbridgeable. Mixed with the thrill of being back was a dash of sadness that this was not, and never could be, the same country.
Of course, it hadn’t all been idyllic. I recalled how the shadows had lengthened across that far-off, sunny childhood as I grew older and came to understand the injustices on which my carefree world was built. Colonial Rhodesia was one of history’s dead ends and its fall was inevitable, but it left me nostalgic for a place and a time I thought could never be recaptured.
In the air a few minutes earlier, I’d pressed my head to the window and watched with excitement as the African scrubland rose to meet us and the spray from Victoria Falls appeared like a wisp of cotton wool on the brown landscape. It had felt like coming home. Now, as I disembarked into Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, my thoughts turned to recent headlines. This was the terrible election year of 2008 when Mugabe, losing the first round to his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, had unleashed such a tide of violence that Tsvangirai had withdrawn to avoid more of his supporters being killed. Mugabe, defying the result, had been sworn in again as President just a few weeks earlier.
Coming home? I wondered if I was.
My parents hadn’t intended to wind up in Rhodesia. My father, a conscientious objector in the Second World War, had spent the duration driving a supplies lorry in China for Nationalist forces fighting the Japanese. Returning to England after the war, he got ordained as a Methodist minister and was sent back to Hong Kong by the Methodist Missionary Society in preparation for a China posting. The timing could not have been worse. When the Communists came to power that same year under Mao Zedong, Western missionaries were banned and those already in the country were forced to leave. Foiled, Dad had the task of welcoming expelled missionaries coming over from the mainland. One of these was my mother who’d been teaching in Canton. They married more or less on the spot, came back to England and asked where else the Missionary Society would like them to go. The Society weighed up their experience of the Far East and my mother’s knowledge of Cantonese and despatched them to Southern Africa.
Geoffrey and Margaret Jones travelled out by Union Castle steamer to Cape Town, took the slow train up through Bechuanaland – now Botswana – with a three-month-old baby (me) and moved into a rambling, colonial home in Bulawayo. There I spent my first five years (joined by my Rhodesian-born sister, Christine, after two years) in what seems now to have been a blissful succession of long, sunny days.
The house on Bulawayo’s Abercorn Street forms the backdrop to my memories – the red-polished stoep with its white, wooden balustrade draped in bougainvillea; the corrugated iron roof, originally blood-red but faded pink in the African sun; the brown, prickle-carpeted garden, dotted with frangipani and poinsettia where I rode my tricycle, played with my Dinky cars in the dirt and splashed about in a tin tub on hot days. I also, allegedly, had a habit of setting off down Abercorn Street in my pedal car and was regularly intercepted by neighbours who soon got to know where to return me.
Away from home, I played with little Ndebele children in the dug-out foundations of the schools and churches that Dad was in charge of building. Then there was what we called On Trek – family camping trips of a week or more to remote Methodist outposts in our mud-coloured 1940s Chevrolet Bakkie with the box rear end (a model popular on Rhodesian farms because the box made a handy container for transporting your workers). Ours had been inherited from Dad’s predecessor and came with a bullet hole in the roof where a passenger cradling a gun had fired off accidentally when it hit a bump.
My mother found a teaching job in Bulawayo, so much of the time Christine and I were in the care of our Ndebele maid, Elsie. I remember Elsie’s beret and blue dress, her African way of sitting straight-legged on the ground, ankles crossed, and her kindly, soft-spoken presence around the house. Devoted as she was to Mufundisi’s kids, she clearly wasn’t on duty the day a herd of cows ran amok on Abercorn Street. At the age of three, I was sitting on the sun-baked steps of the stoep when a long-horned cow crashed over the hedge from the street, galloped past me with heaving flanks and thudding hooves and disappeared through the gate. I don’t think I was frightened. I must have been trusting enough of the world and its ways to think that this kind of thing was normal, and I casually mentioned it to my mother when she got home from school. She didn’t believe me until I led her out and showed her the hoof prints a few inches from where I’d been sitting. She was even more contrite when the Bulawayo Chronicle the following day carried the story of stampede mayhem on Abercorn Street.
The tin tub in the garden features again in the memories when I decided to add some excitement to the daily splashing about by building a diving board. Rootling in the garage, I found a couple of oil drums and a plank with which I constructed a diving board long and high enough to give a good run and a satisfying plunge. Unsurprisingly, it collapsed on the first attempt. Instead of the cool splash I’d been expecting, all I felt was the sickening jolt of a broken wrist as I hit the ground.
My best friend, Micky, had broken his own wrist a few days earlier. I don’t remember how he did it, but I do recall being impressed by his gleaming plaster and massive, triangular sling. There was an injury to inspire respect. Now I, too, had a plaster, but was mortified when all I got was a pitiful length of ribbon – I think the torn edge of a sheet – to keep my wrist attached to my neck. I pleaded for a sling like Micky’s, but my mother refused to go back to the clinic to ask for an upgrade.
Micky was with me on my first day of school at Baines Kindergarten, named, as most schools were, after one of Rhodesia’s Victorian pioneers. I was hugely proud of my crisp, new uniform, as is clear from the beaming face in my first-day-of-school photograph. It consisted of khaki shorts and shirt, an elasticated belt with an S-shaped snake buckle, a striped school tie held in place with a very grown-up clip and, bizarrely for a five-year-old, a trilby hat. The effect was like a walking mushroom – or two walking mushrooms, as Micky and I set off for school together. (To my parents’ embarrassment, I insisted on wearing the hat when we came back to England the following year, and recall a Birmingham bus driver whipping it off my head, sticking it on at a jaunty angle and gurning at the other passengers. What’s so funny? I thought in my odd, colonial way. Haven’t you seen a school hat?)
The final item of uniform was the green school blazer. Micky had one, naturally, but my mother knew we’d be back in England on leave within the year and was reluctant to spend the money. This is where Elsie stepped in. Seeing my disappointment, she took up my case: ‘Please, madam, let him have a blazer like his friend.’ My mother compromised. Instead of the official blazer, she found something near enough (and cheap) in Hassamal’s emporium down at the Indian end of town and sewed on a Baines School badge. I don’t remember anyone objecting, so it must have been near enough.
Somewhere in all of this, there’s a memory of standing at the side of a road with other small children, all of us in crisp, Sunday best, knees and faces scrubbed, hair slicked down and hands clutching Union Flags on sticks. Then excited cheers and lots of waving as a large, black car rolled by with someone very important inside. I now know it was the Queen Mother on her visit to Bulawayo in July 1957. She must have liked Rhodesia as she’d been before in 1953, just after the Queen’s Coronation, to help mark the centenary of the birth of Cecil Rhodes. On that occasion she’d brought Princess Margaret with her, supposedly to distract her from her doomed romance with Group Captain Townsend. When they arrived in Bulawayo, my parents left their nine-month-old with Elsie and went to the garden party organised by the mayor in honour of the royal visitors. Earlier in the tour, Bulawayo’s black citizens had entertained them with tribal music and dancing. In the spirit of the times, the garden party was whites only.