Monday, November 3, 2014

In Search of an Author: On the Track of Agatha Christie


In a hot, airless little room in Bulawayo, an elderly man rummages through disintegrating brown envelopes and rusty files.  Faint labels carry captions such as: ‘Railway Staff 1932-33’ and ‘Wages March 1952’.  There are dusty black and white photographs on the wall of men in dark suits and hats.  Unsmiling, they all look alarmingly similar with their handle-bar moustaches and their arms crossed resolutely across their chests.
                ‘No.  I thought I might have something, but no.’ He reluctantly admits defeat, so convinced was he that he might be able to help me in my search. I am in the archives of the Railway Museum in Bulawayo.  The buildings themselves are run down and we are surrounded by the great hulks of rusting train carcasses. The museum, now a separate entity from the National Railways of Zimbabwe, is run by a couple of train enthusiasts, who are extremely knowledgeable and very anxious to answer any questions, but lack of money has meant that the upkeep has become too much to keep up with.

I came here to look for the visitors’ book of the Victoria Falls Hotel for 1922.  It’s a tall order I admit and frankly I am not surprised that my search has once more yielded nothing.  ‘What about the Empire Exhibition?’ I ask.  ‘Do you have anything on that?’

‘The Empire Exhibition?  Yes, of course!’  He leaps up, and extracts a large piece of thin off-white card from a drawer in a filing cabinet with such ease it’s as though I had asked to see that day’s newspaper. The item in question is a participation certificate awarded to Beira and Mashonaland and Rhodesia Railways for taking part in the Empire Exhibition of 1924.  I study it for a couple of minutes and take a photograph.  At this moment in time it is the closest I have come to tracking one of my favourite authors, Agatha Christie.
 

There is a great delight to be felt in being able to replicate the journeys of a favourite or admired author.  It is interesting to see where they got their ideas from and to see how places have changed – and stayed the same – since those journeys were taken.  It is more than a simple ‘oh, I’ve been there!’ impulse; it is a something shared with the author which makes the book‘s appeal more of a personal one. As an ardent Agatha Christie fan living in Southern Africa, I was quite delighted to discover that one of her books was set in Rhodesia. 

Agatha Christie based her third novel, The Man in the Brown Suit on her travels to South Africa and Rhodesia in 1922.  She accompanied her husband, Archibald Christie, on the Empire Tour, the object of which was to get as many companies and businesses in the colonies as possible to exhibit at the Empire Exhibition of 1924.  They travelled to South Africa, Rhodesia, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Canada in all, the trip taking a year to complete. The man who organised the tour and who invited the Christies to accompany him was one Major Belcher.   He challenged Agatha to include him in a novel and said he wanted to be the murderer.  As he was a fairly cantankerous man and quite difficult to get on with, I can only think it wasn’t difficult to include him in the writing of the novel and it’s a wonder he didn’t find himself the victim, rather than the culprit!
The book is an ambitious one, beginning as it does in London and ending in Rhodesia with numerous sea voyages and train trips in between.  In her autobiography, Christie describes very briefly her trip to Rhodesia: the Matopos was ‘exciting’ and they ‘had a pleasant time in Salisbury’.  Agatha arrived in Bulawayo on the train from Johannesburg in March of 1922.  In a letter to her mother, she described the town as ‘not very attractive, flat and sandy and a dirty Hotel full of smells.’  The hotel in question is the Grand Hotel, but not the same one you will find if you go to Bulawayo today.  The original hotel had been open for twenty three years when Christie stayed there and was considered quite the height of luxury as some rooms had their own baths and the chefs employed there came from the Savoy and Carlton Hotels in London.  Why Christie found it so disappointing is not quite clear.  After her long, hot and dusty train trip one would have thought she would have found it a veritable oasis. 
It is of Victoria Falls that she writes the most: ‘Great trees, soft mists of rain, its rainbow colouring, wandering through the forest with Archie, and every now and then the rainbow mist parting to show you for one tantalising second the Falls in all their glory pouring down.  Yes, I put that as one of my seven wonders of the world.’  At that time the hotel and the railway station were the only two buildings at the Falls.  ‘No road, only paths, just the Hotel, and primeval woods for miles and miles stretching into blueness.’ Christie wrote of her surroundings.  It was an ideal setting for a thriller cum romance novel. At that point, in 1922, Africa was still relatively unknown and the idea of the colonies was a romantic one to the reader in Britain.  ‘The Man from the Colonies’ appears in a number of guises in Christie’s novels.  Rather like the Chinaman creation of earlier novelists, he represents mystery, adventure and, quite often, misadventure.  He was the man who had gone to the colonies either to get rich or to get away, or both.  Sometimes he is the ill-treated younger brother who went off to seek his fortune by himself; at other times he is the black sheep of the family who was sent away for some sort of misdemeanour and to save the family name.

Many of the events in The Man in the Brown Suit, are actually based on real life happenings as recorded by Christie in her diary.  So close are her thoughts on the trip to those of the narrator, Anne Beddingfield, that it is possible to draw great similarities between the two.  I think when one thinks of Agatha Christie, it is of a middle-aged or elderly woman and an established author.  One of the great things about The Man in the Brown Suit is that its events correlate so much with events in Christie’s own life that one gets a glimpse of a person – a young, excited woman on a trip of a life time and one who was very much in love with life.  Just four years later, Christie would hit the headlines for her mysterious disappearance when she apparently lost her memory of who she was and ended up in a hotel in Harrogate, registered under a different name.  Her marriage was in ruins, her mother had recently died and she is assumed to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown. The spunky, adventurous Anne Beddingfield had sadly disappeared.

The Victoria Falls Hotel today
The railway station at Victoria Falls, once the only building besides the hotel

Agatha Christie described the Victoria Falls Hotel as ‘delightful’ – ‘long and low and white, with beautifully clean rooms, and wired all over like a fine meat safe against malarial mosquitos.’ Today Victoria Falls is a thriving tourist centre, probably the only town in Zimbabwe which can be described as such.  There are numerous hotels from the luxurious to chalets and camping sites.  The Victoria Falls Hotel is now ranked as one of the best in the world and a stay there is pure luxury.  It has expanded considerably since Christie’s stay there nearly a hundred years ago, but it has maintained its colonial look and touch of class.

My investigation into Agatha’s trip to Rhodesia began here at the beginning of the year. I had been travelling through Victoria Falls on my way home to Zambia and had gone into the hotel to ask if they kept any old visitors’ books, but was told that anything like that would be kept at the hotel’s head office in Harare.  The hotel buildings are still owned by the Railways, although they are leased to Sun International and the Meikles Group. 

A couple of months later I was back in Zimbabwe attending a Caine Prize writing workshop.  On the last day, we were treated to lunch at The Meikles Hotel in Harare and it was here that I met the owner of the Meikles Group, John Moxon and his wife, Jeanne.  I explained to them my interest in researching Agatha Christie’s stay in Rhodesia and asked them what sort of archival material they had.  As it turns out, the Meikles Group have only leased the hotel since 1998 and the previous lessees had not kept very substantial records.  Finding anything like a visitors’ book from 1922 would be an extremely tall order.

   My research took me to the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, a rather cold, unfeeling place.  It was easy to get hold of copies of The Chronicle from March of 1922, but I was very disappointed to find nothing of Christie’s visit.  Although she wasn’t then the world famous writer she was later to become, I thought there may be some mention of her stay in Bulawayo.  I also looked for mention of the Empire Tour, but my search yielded nothing.  However, I was very excited to find mention of Archibald Christie in The Herald, the Salisbury based newspaper.

                The stories I discovered in the newspapers gave me an insight into the times in which Christie lived.  Every week, the newspaper published a piece about who was in town visiting and where they were staying.   ‘The Countess of Cathcart passed through Bulawayo yesterday on her way from Northern Rhodesia to the Cape. one such piece announces and another: ‘The Earl and Countess of Lonsdale
An extract from an article in The Herald
describing Colonel Christie's arrival in Salisbury
and the upcoming Empire Exhibition
and the Earl and Countess of Mar and Kellie return from Salisbury today, on their way to the Falls.  While in Bulawayo they are staying at The Grand Hotel.’  Another article declares that a coroner’s report recorded a verdict of accidental death in the case of a Lord Harcourt found dead by his valet with an unfinished novel on his bedside table and his reading lamp on.  It   made me wonder how easy it would be to come to Africa, feign position and wealth and run up a string of debts, but in reality be a nobody form nowhere? 
                The Man in the Brown Suit ends in characteristically happy way.  Anne marries the man she loves and ends up living on an island in the Zambezi with him.  How possible that would actually have been, even in 1922, is questionable, but it certainly wouldn’t be possible nowadays.  The world is a much smaller place since the Christies went on their journey.  Zimbabwe is barely recognisable as the place the Countess of Cathcart may have passed through.  The Grand Hotel was renovated and turned into an office block in 1994; The Victoria Falls Hotel has swelled far beyond ‘long and low’ and now offers five-star luxury to a mainly foreign clientele.  I think of the man at the Railway Museum who showed me crockery from the Royal Train of 1947.  ‘You see these,’ he said. ‘There are some on display, but the rest we keep in here.  I’ve seen them go for about $US800 each on e-bay.’  Each plate is worth three times his monthly pension allowance, but the whole lot would have to be sold twice over to save some of the other relics in the Railway Museum.
On the terrace at the Victoria Falls Hotel, I am surrounded by tourists in white linen and safari khaki taking high tea and enjoying their colonial experience.  It looks like fun, but I can’t help feeling a pang that it is hard today to find something genuinely itself and not a creation.  I think back to the Railway Museum and the Archives and of the past stored away in all those filing cabinets and drawers.  It is then that I am glad I never found the visitors’ book for I would have hated to have stopped there.  When I began my research I thought I was following Agatha Christie on part of her journey, but now I wonder if the journey hasn't become my own.

I am indebted to the following for all their assistance while writing this article: Jeanne Moxon and Karl Snater of the Meikles Group, Gordon Murray at the Railway Museum (Bulawayo) and the National Archives of Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls Hotel  www.victoriafallshotel.com
Railway Museum  http://www.geoffs-trains.com/Museum/BulawayoRlyMuseumHome.html



 

Friday, October 31, 2014

On Writing


I think one of the hardest things about writing a novel is convincing others you are up to the job.  For some reason, saying you want to be a writer is akin to saying you want to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon.  You get that look – you know the one adults use with children?  Oh, that’s nice! And really you know they’re inwardly shaking their heads or, worse, they’ve already dismissed the thought so that, the next time you mention it, you either get a blank stare or that look my mother used to give me when I insisted on doing something she didn’t like – Well, we’ll speak to your father about it, but I doubt he’ll like it either.

                Zimbabwe had descended into complete economic and political chaos while I was in the throes of writing This September Sun and suddenly everyone was writing their memoirs: the war years, the years on the farm, their years in Africa.  I remember clearly someone’s response to me telling them that I was writing a novel: they laughed.  Is everyone in this country writing a book?  I felt summarily dismissed.

                If I wasn’t writing my memoirs, what was I writing?  Fiction? Oh, that’s nice – but it probably won’t be much good!  One of things I have discovered since becoming a writer is that the ‘job’, for want of a better word, is shrouded in mystery, as is the person.  By this I mean that no one ever expects to actually know a writer. Well, not a good writer anyway. Writers are faraway people who sit in some distant land penning novels surrounded by the mists of secrecy.  A writer is not your next door neighbour, nor your colleague at work or your customer buying a litre of milk and a loaf of bread.  If you are a writer and you appear to be normal like anyone else, then you really can’t be very good.

A friend of mine who bought a copy of my book declared he was quite surprised to find himself engrossed in it.  To tell you the truth, he said, I didn’t actually think it would be much good.  And why?  Because you don’t expect people you know to write well!  A similar comment came from a colleague of mine who told me she was enjoying reading the book, and was quite surprised.  Don’t get me wrong, she said.  It’s just that, well, I know you.

Being taken seriously as a writer continues after you have had a book published, especially when you want to give up your job and dedicate yourself to it wholeheartedly.  There is still a sense it is a hobby and that you can easily dedicate a couple of hours to it a week; hours that usually come out of your weekend.  If you are really serious about it, then why not get up an hour earlier or, better still, write late at night, when you've already done a day's work, made a meal for a family of four, done homework with your children, made sure the washing up is done and prepared for the next day?  It’s forgotten that writing is actually a job.  Yes, it is the sort of job I enjoy doing, but it needs a lot of time dedicated to it and, not only that, but mental space, too.  Also, it’s very easy to get into the sort of routine where you hardly ever get a break because, when you aren’t at work, you are working at your novel.

Weekends are also for family time.  My fear is that my children will come to resent my writing, although I only get the chance to sit down and write when they are otherwise occupied.  Because writing is such a solitary occupation, it is impossible to get them to join in in any way.  Enid Blyton is the world’s most prolific children’s writer, writing over 700 books, yet her youngest daughter couldn’t stand her.  Blyton saw her two young daughters for an hour a day which is obviously why she managed such an output.  Rosalind Prichard, daughter of Agatha Christie, had incredible respect for her mother, but described her as ‘distant’.  She was looked after by a nanny and then went to boarding school.  As an only child, it must have often been a lonely life.

However, I have also come to agree with Christie who once wrote about writing: ‘All you need is a chair and a table and a typewriter and a bit of peace.’  Waiting for the ‘right’ moment is a waste of time.  Sometimes I write while waiting for the kettle to boil or supper to be ready.  The most important thing is to write, even if it is only a few lines.  I find that once I start writing, I start thinking, and writing every day, even if it is not a huge amount, gets the ideas going! 
 
My latest work is a crime novel.  It is a challenge because it is completely different to This September Sun in that I have had to start at the end and work backwards.  Still, I often come up against technical difficulties  - A can't be doing that then because A is supposed to be with B until two o'clock when C arrives - so I tend to walk round in a bit of a reverie, talking to myself under my breath and occasionally shaking my head - or pulling my hair out.  Then I'll suddenly get a burst of inspiration, usually while doing the washing up or brushing my teeth, shout ‘Yes!  Of course!  That's it! ’ and go and jot it down before the moment is lost.  The great thing about having a work in progress is that it comes everywhere with you and even the mundane can become a source of inspiration.  I was in an IT training session recently where the trainer had a habit of putting a box around keywords which he wrote on the board and I thought this would be an interesting habit for one of my characters to have.  On another occasion, a pair of shoes suggested a character and a tree the murder weapon.

Sometimes my dream of being a full time author seems to retreat before me, much like Gatsby’s green light, at other times, I just need to remind myself that I am already an author. If no one else will take me seriously, I must.  I've come now to introduce myself as an author, rather than a teacher and try not to be so apologetic about my success.  Writing, as I said, is a solitary job.  There is no one to drive you but yourself and there are few to cheer you along the way.  My hour, or more likely, my snatched minutes every day with my notepad or laptop, keep me balanced and, if not sane, at least a little less insane that I might be without it. 
 

Monday, June 2, 2014

My Love of Agatha Christie

Agatha and I go back a long way.  As a child, my grandmother was an avid reader of her novels and when I went to the library to change my gran's books for her, I was often asked to pick up an Agatha Christie or two.  So it was that I became familiar with many of her titles and the covers of the Fontana paperback editions of her books (there were the odd Crime Club editions as well).  We also went to watch film versions of Murder on the Orient Express, Evil Under the Sun and Endless Night.  I was absolutely scared stiff and remember having difficulty going to sleep afterwards!  We would watch television adaptations of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot as a family.  No one answered the phone and any visitors at the door were viewed with impatient disdain.  During the adverts, someone would rush out and make a cup of tea and then rush back, often asking frantically 'What did I miss?  Did I miss anything?'
The first Christie I read was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I was thirteen and it was one of the first 'grown up novels' I remember reading.  The twist at the end stayed with me for days and I thought over and over it.  It was both clever and sinister at the same time and it is still one of my favourite Christies.  At university I read a lot of 'good' literature and, being an English teacher, I have continued in this vein.  However, a couple of years ago, I had this sudden longing to read an Agatha Christie again.  Our modern lives have become so incredibly hectic as we try and balance work and home life that there is something so comforting about escaping into a world in which everything runs smoothly and on time and yet never seems rushed.  One can almost hear the gentle tick of the clock and the kettle boiling in the background!
I live in north western Zambia, in a small mining town called Solwezi.  Life could not be more different from a 1940s English country village.  It is dry and dusty for most of the year until we suffer torrential rain and the roads turn to thick mud.  The roads are full of potholes and broken down lorries and goats and rubbish.  Most of the shops are tiny shacks and the majority of people here live off their meagre daily earnings selling tomatoes and sweet potatoes; single cigarettes and sweets.
I have lived most of my life in Africa; mainly in Zimbabwe, where I was born.  My parents are British and I had a slightly old-fashioned upbringing.  We had tea at four religiously and always in teacups with saucers.  I believed in fairies and goblins and pixies and Christmas was always disappointingly hot.  Yet when I went to live in the UK as a student, it was a disappointment.  There were things that I did love, like a rail system that ran like clockwork and I cannot explain the thrill of having post come through the front door - sometimes twice a day!  However, life in the UK is very rushed and materialistic.  In many ways, my life in sleepy Bulawayo was more Christie like.
Christie is often associated with a certain age: generally the 20s to about the 50s.  Many people either don't know or forget that she wrote right up to her death in 1975.  One thing I find quite fascinating is watching how British society changes from one of servant filled mansions and lady's maids to the problems of finding the right 'daily' to come in for  a few hours.  Christie shows how people never change though fashions and fortunes fluctuate.  Her characters in Third Girl are no different at heart to those in Lord Edgeware Dies. 
Agatha Christie's England is still there, but it is becoming harder to find.  I am one of those people who love period dramas: Foyle's War, Downton Abbey and the like.  I often think I was born in the wrong age and would have loved to have lived in the inter war years in Britain.  I love collecting old furniture and books and I'd love to have tea at four every day with a proper tea set!  Funnily enough, many of Agatha Christie's novels lack period detail.  She did not spend a lot of time on description; one of the criticisms of her work often raised by those who do not appreciate her quite so vociferously as the likes of me, is that her characters lack depth and tend to reappear in different forms in different novels.
Agatha Christie was not alone in prizing plot over character; many of her contemporaries such as Ngaio Marsh were the same.  However, the great thing about this is that you are drawn to working out the puzzle.  You don't get lost in a character's thoughts and that can be quite a relief. 
There is a certain snobbery these days about what one is reading.  I often face blank looks when I say I've just read The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Man in the Brown Suit.  I recently attended a Caine Prize workshop and I could feel a number of judgemental eyes flicker over my copy of Towards Zero.  'Oh, I used to read those,' someone said rather dismissively, as though it were a child's book.  Yet Agatha Christie inspired my own writing in my novel, This September Sun.  In it, one of the main characters, Evelyn ruminates on the way in which Christie wrote her novels and their effect on her.
More than any other author, Agatha Christie seems to link times in my life: when I was a child listening to my grandmother's stories about all the exotic places, like India and Bahrain, where she had lived, to my early adult reading experiences and right through to where I am now as an author.
 I recently won a competition run by AgathaChristie.com which involved continuing a chapter in the style of Agatha Christie.  I was runner up in April and was determined to win in May.  I was so delighted to receive the news that I was the winner because I had worked so hard on the chapter, plotting the reasons behind the crime and offering a solution.  My five year old daughter, delighted that I had won something, asked me excitedly what the prize was.  'Dinner with Agatha Christie's grandson,' I replied, to which she turned up her nose and answered: 'That's not a prize!' 
But for me, it's a great achievement and it's the culmination of many years of love of a great writer.  It's a long journey from Solwezi to London - but I'm determined I will be there.


 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende reviews Zimbabwean novel This September Sun

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It's World Book Day today. We bring you Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende's review of Zimbabwean novel This September Sun.  


This September Sun is a searing account of family and “the ties that bind” as told from the perspective of a young woman trying to find her place within her family, her country and her world at large. The story is set in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and begins in dramatic fashion: “On the 18th of April 1980, my grandfather burnt the British flag. I remember because it was my sixth birthday and he ruined it.”

From this point on, Rheam reels the reader in to a heady tale of love, hate, deceit and betrayal, laughter and tears, anger and joy, destruction and renewal. Born into a family full of secrets, young Ellie quickly becomes aware of the coldness and the heavy, unarticulated emotions between her grandmother Evelyn and her grandfather Leonard. She is also aware of the tension between her mother Francie and her grandmother and is often bewildered, angered and terrified by the outburst of pure, inexplicable rage such as she witnessed from her grandmother towards her grandfather on the 18th of April, 1980. Traumatized by the divorce of her grandparents and threatened by her gran’s new love Miles, Ellie’s existence is one filled with insecurity, self doubt and unanswered questions, punctuated by occasional episodes of happiness.

Upon completing her ‘A’ levels, Ellie leaves for England, convinced that she will find herself, her place in the grand scheme of things and finally attain that state of serenity that has so far eluded her. However she soon discovers that: “It is not enough just to travel, if one wishes to change who one is. The greatest journey we go on is inward towards ourselves, rather than outwards and away. You cannot change who you are unless you know who you are and what you are capable of, and that is what I had never known and why, finally, I couldn’t move on.”

Ellie shuttles back and forth between Zimbabwe and England, a troubled young woman who is at once comforted and disturbed by how some things back home do not seem to change. Her restless spirit continues to battle with the business of finding her place and she completes a bachelor’s, a master’s and embarks on a PhD degree.

The news that her grandmother has been brutally bludgeoned to death in her home in Suburbs marks the beginning of another phase in her journey which ultimately leads her into a quagmire of secrets and revelations that help to answer some of the questions along her journey to finding herself. Her grandmother’s diaries hold the missing pieces to a very complex puzzle, one which her family had protected her from as an only child. She learns who her grandmother Evelyn really is, how she came to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1946 and how she ended up married to Leonard, her grandfather. She unravels the mystery around the death of her uncle Jeremy and how this singular event irrevocably changed the family dynamics from what it was to what she was born into.
Rheam’s brilliance lies in her ability to weave what seem like two completely different stories into a seamless work of art that is both evocative and entertaining. The story is told in beautiful prose, peppered with old world verse and philosophical musings. Her characters are sometimes funny, foolish, tragic, selfish and downright irritating. All are bound together masterfully in the messy business of living, and searching, adjusting and moving forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, this powerful story would have been lacklustre and tedious to read. However it is told by a true craftswoman, whose style, tempo and artistry in her use of language is outstanding and therefore the story simply shines.

This September Sun was published in Zimbabwe in 2009 by ’amaBooks. The novel won Best First Book at the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association awards in 2010 and has been selected as a set book for ZIMSEC ‘A’ level Literature in English until 2017.

The Caine Prize Workshop 2014

This blog was originally published on the Caine Prize blog in April 2014

The Bvumba is a special place for me: as a child, my family spent many holidays there and I have lots of special memories of long walks through the jungly terrain, sitting next to a huge open fire in the evenings and watching the mist rise as the sun came up in the morning.  In 1981, we lived for a year in Penhalonga, not far from Mutare along the Mozambican border.  I remember going to school in a very old bus, chugging up Christmas Pass and then that wonderful sense of almost freewheeling it down the other side into Mutare where I went to school.  It was a time of great transition in Zimbabwe: black children were allowed into what had predominantly been white government schools, and many white people were leaving for places such as South Africa and Australia.  The war in Mozambique was still in full force and, for all that we were so near, we may as well have been on a different planet.  The only interaction we had with the country was through the itinerant border jumpers who came across to sell the food aid they had received from West Germany: tins of fish which they couldn’t open.

                Years later and here I was in the Bvumba once again, attending a Caine Prize workshop.  Towards the end of our time there, we were divided into groups of four and sent off to different schools to give a talk about our writing. St. Werburgh is situated on the Burma Valley Road, on the other side of the mountain that dominates Leopard Rock.  It is an Anglican school, started in 1897, but it receives no funding from the church.  Originally situated on white commercial land, from whom it received some financial help, the school is now on its own, relying on US$25 a term school fees from its 900+ pupils. 

                The other groups of writers went to secondary schools to give talks whereas we were invited to speak to the primary school’s Young Writer’s Club, a group of 8-12 year olds.  That the school had such a group was of great interest to me as an English teacher.  From my own experience, such clubs are attended by few and usually run out of enthusiasm quite quickly.  However, the 40 or so children who all trouped into the classroom to meet us proved that this was a writing club with a difference.  Luckily, it is headed by teachers who are keen to teach and share their ideas with the children in their care.

                We were shown their writing books in which they had recorded details about their families  -many of them are being brought up entirely by their mothers – and about trips away to a nearby waterfall and the museum in Mutare.  They had also written an imaginative story; one about a rat who ate the back of a man’s coat sticks in my mind.  The man wore the coat, not knowing that the back was missing and everyone laughed at him as he walked down the road! 

                What really struck me as I read the children’s work was how good their English was.  I work at a private school in Zambia where school fees are between US$3000-5000 a term (depending on if they are primary/secondary and boarding/day-scholars) and yet the standard of English is incredibly poor.  The pupils I teach are not all first language English speakers, but they all speak English at school.  At the age of fifteen, they struggle to hand in an essay which is more than one side of an A4 page long and which has a clear beginning, middle and end.  Yet these children in a remote government school in Zimbabwe have already got to grips with the basic structure of a story. 

                Another thing which impressed me was the ease with which the children could stand up and recite poems to the audience.  Not many students I teach could do that from memory or they would mumble and look self-conscious and try to slink off without being noticed. 

                It is a generally accepted fact that if anyone wants to be a good writer, they have to be a good reader. I give talks to parents about the importance of reading to their children because more and more children are writing within a vacuum.  They have nothing to stimulate their imaginations because no one is reading to them, including teachers, who often don’t value reading as it’s not ‘part of the syllabus’.  At St. Werburgh the problem is a different one.  They don’t have any books to read to the children.  Unfortunately, the suggestion to download free books off the Internet, was not a particularly practical one in an area with no cell phone signal, never mind Internet access. 

                The children sang for us and we were also taken on a tour of the school before being offered mealies to eat.  On the tour, we saw the IT department and the special needs class.  There is also a class for children with autism and downs syndrome.  One of the girls is brain damaged after being hit by a car.  What I saw in the classrooms is some very progressive teaching practice.  There is a rota on the wall for cleaning the classroom; the children are taught skills such as knitting and the teacher plays music through her cell phone to provide stimulation.  She says that ideally they would like a CD player and I can feel that hint in her voice that hopes I might be the provider of such a machine.

I was impressed by the amount of pictures on the wall, some standard Ministry of Education posters about cholera and the importance of washing hands, but also handmade ones, some out of old corn flakes packets – vowel sounds and times tables.  It occured to me that the reason these children’s English is of such a good standard is because the basic teaching practice in Zimbabwean government schools still focuses on spelling rules and multiplication tables.  This is something that has been forgotten in many private schools and only recently has its significance re-emerged in the UK.

Abdul made a name for himself by learning part of a Shona song and also teaching a large group of school children who had gathered round him a Swahili song.  The area the school is situated in is a truly beautiful one and I couldn’t help envying the children for living in such an area.  However, it is also a place of incredible hardship.  Most of the parents who send their children to this school are subsistence farmers.  As they all tend to grow the same crop, maize, the price of a bucket of mealies is dirt cheap.  US$25 a term in school fees may not sound like a lot of money, but it certainly is for these people.  Some of the children faint during the school day as they have had nothing to eat all morning and the school cannot possibly feed them.

                It is hard sometimes, considering the history of Zimbabwe in the last fifteen years, to understand why education is still so valued in the country.  Many of the children wrote how they wanted to be pilots or lawyers because ‘that’s how you make lots of money’.  Yet the country wide pass rate for ZIMSEC O level is 16%.  Even if these pupils do go on and get their A Levels, what then?  According to one of the teachers, the best thing to do would be to teach the pupils a skill so that they can actually do something practical, besides farming, when they leave.

                Some of the children live as far as ten kilometres away, up the mountain and must not delay in their start to the long walk home.  They walk in groups as there is a danger that, especially girls, may be attacked and raped if they are on their own.  In the past, some children have disappeared, probably taken for body parts, although this hasn’t happened for a while. 

                We leave after an exchange of email addresses and phone numbers.  Can I get any of the teachers a job in Zambia?  An average teacher in Zimbabwe earns just short of US$500 a month, regardless of experience and qualifications.  A government school teacher in Zambia can earn around US$1000 a month and they are often given car and housing loans.

                As we drive away, I marvel at the resilience of these teachers, people who obviously pour so much of their time and effort into teaching these children and who receive very little monetary recompense for it.  The landscape is incredibly beautiful as the car bumps and bounces down the road.  I think again of our family holidays, how there was always this feeling of security, of knowing what was going to happen.  Today I feel that we spend too much time ticking off places we have gone to.  Holidays must always be somewhere different, somewhere exotic.  Yet there is something endearingly comforting about having a favourite place. 

It is a long time since we spent those holidays in the Bvumba and much has happened in both my family life and the life of Zimbabwe, and for me the country of my birth is a paradoxical mixture of love and incredible sadness.  I wish in many ways that the workshop had been held elsewhere, in a place with no emotional investment for me.  I think of my story that I have written over the course of the workshop.  It is sad, but it is also about letting go.  I suppose that’s what I want to do really, let go.  But in my heart of hearts, I can’t.  It’s under my skin, you see, and that’s why it’s me who can never really leave it.

Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Why not use your mentality - step up, wake up to reality?
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin.
Yes, I've got you under my skin.