I’ve just finished reading “Rainbow’s End” by Lauren St John. It’s a story about growing up in the war in Rhodesia and coming of age in newly independent Zimbabwe. I love books written in that era – 1970’s and 80’s Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi. It’s all so familiar to me. Same with “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight” by Alexandra Fuller. The trick of course is to make it appeal to a wider audience, which these two fabulous women do perfectly.
During the Independence struggles in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe I was a kid – I turned 4 when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 so I remember little about that time. The only thing I do remember about the war across the border in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe is hearing about daily raids on the farms (looking for spies I think) and seeing burnt out trucks on the side of the road and always being on the look-out for ambushes. I used to sleep with hands up by my ears in an “I surrender” pose, in case they came in the night when I was asleep and tried to shoot me. I figured I’d be safe!
The burned out truck on the side of the road (“get down kids, don’t look”) was actually the doing of a spy in our midst that we were not aware of. A white Zimbabwean, Rhodesian I suppose he was, came to Chibembe, our dry season camp saying he was the son of a lady who was killed by a lion years before and he was looking for answers. We knew of the lady who had been killed and I think my dad even took him to the spot where she’d disappeared. As is the way in the bush and in small communities, more so in that day than now, the guy hung around and we took him under our wing and he became part of the family. When it was time to move, with the first rains, to Mazabuka, a farming area near the Zim/Rhodesia border this guy came with us. Anyway, years later it turned out he was a spy – for the Selous Scouts I think – and was up to all sorts of naughty mischief, including blowing up trucks, leaving charred bodies scattered on the road and in the trees.
The rainy season – from November to April – made our usual home too wet and waterlogged to live in so we’d drive for two days in our old Landy down to Mazabuka. Our six monthly treks were always fraught with roadblocks and bullying soldiers who thought we were Rhodesian spies. They’d stop the car and strip it down, turn our bags upside down, squeeze out our tubes of toothpaste. And of course anything khaki in our bags was highly suspicious and was irrefutable proof that we were, indeed, spies, not people in the safari business. These stops often took hours and were always accompanied by crazy wild-eyed youth pointing leering guns in our faces.
Early one morning, at the farm, my grandfather was leaving to go into town. Any trip he did he’d always leave before dawn. Even if the drive was only two hours and he’d get there before the shops would open, he would leave at 4 in the morning; its just the way he was! Anyway, so 4 o’clock on a dewy Mazabuka morning my grandfather and parents were up early for a trip into town. My sister and I were asleep and warm, oblivious, in our beds. Gathering in the reeds by the dam was a group of young, doped up, power hungry soldiers getting ready to raid our farm. So of course when they saw my grandfather and parents leaving while it was still dark they assumed they were doing a runner. I don’t remember this, I was too young – I was also asleep! – but I’m told that the soldiers had my parents lying on the ground, each with a gun in their face. My mother said she looked up at the star speckled sky and saw a gorgeous full still moon and thought “what a lovely morning to die!” To my grandfather they shouted “run old man, run” hoping for an excuse to gun someone down. My grandfather, quick thinking, said “I can’t I’ve injured my ankle”. They raided the house and dug up the garden (looking for buried firearms). They found a bag of dope in my mother’s cupboard. “Is this yours?” My mother is not good with authority. Expelled from school, fearless of people with guns in her face (numerous occasions) she gets bolshy. She can’t help it. So instead of denying it, looking innocent “what me? What IS that?” she was like “Yeah, what if it is!” Anyway, it’s a very long story. The short version being that it got taken to court (I guess she was arrested? I’m not sure) and my grandfather went to wake up a lawyer, Mr Patel, and they managed to plead to the magistrate’s kind heart, “mother of two children….personal use….” Etc. And she got off.
That same night they’d done a raid on our neighbours and found a matchbox of dope. R, the owner of the dope, was feeling confident and blasé about the court case - my mother had gotten off and she had a whole bag full. So he was cocky and confident in front of the magistrate, who didn’t like that and locked him up. They appealed and for the next court hearing he was told to be more respectful to the magistrate. “He’s the magistrate, you need to call him Your Honour”. R, not wanting to get sent back to prison was extra nervous and when he was called said, “yes, yes your majesty!” My dad loves that story.
Those times I suppose were wrought with uncertainty and danger (for the grownups anyway. Us kids just ran around naked, shoving soya beans up our noses, eating the horses’ molasses and getting dirty). But I suppose they were also happy free times. Not completely in the war (like Lauren StJohn was in the book I’ve just read), on the edge, but everyday things still tinged with danger, enough to make you appreciate life so much more.