Category Archives: Zimbabwe

Harare, Oct 2017

This is a repost of poem by a Zimbabwean friend of mine who wrote this a year ago. It is no less valid or less meaningful than it was then. It not just a poem but a fable. When you read it you’ll understand and hopefully pause for a moment to let it sink in.

Credit to Jess Drury of the Jessaster Chronicles. Originally posted here.

You are gorgeous -
Replete with blossom:
Purple, yellow, red.
Bougainvillea tangles in
Careless clusters
And jasmine perfume hangs in the air
as night falls.
Skies are hazy blue
And soporific sun lulls us
Into feeling
Everything is OK.

Sounds of the city rise:
Chatter and laughter and
Business as usual
And a red-gold light-snake
Weaves its way through
Jacaranda-ed streets.

Your beauty is a curse
Permitting men,
Believing that they own you,
To exploit and abandon and
Numb themselves to
The ragged child begging cents
Under the purple rain
And the thousand thousand
Stomachs sleeping hungry.

We patch our pockmarked roads
Like we patch our integrity
And our pockets
And our make-a-plan spirit:
Plastic surgery disguising
Ugly Truth.

 

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Forgiveness and Karma: My Quest for Reconciliation

I wrote an open letter to my former landlady about 5 years ago. It referenced the time I rented a room from her 10 years previously. Another 5 years have elapsed and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I want from life and how I choose to deal with past events. I have travelled far and wide between 3 continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – seen my youngest brother marry and become a father, indeed become a father myself… but beneath it all there is still a deep wound from the past. I am in absolutely no doubt that it relates to my connection with my late parents, particularly my father, and I want that to change. But in order to change I must be courageous and go back to the times when the connections were broken.

Firstly, I must give some perspective. I have forgiven my father for his misdemeanours. Entirely. But 20 years ago, in the eyes of my mother, and probably to many in the fairly conservative community in which I was raised he was a pariah, a man without scruples. He cheated on his wife and family with a woman he worked with and had children by her in secret. On paper it looks pretty damning but if you knew the man, the person that he was, you might well think differently.

He had a kindness and gentleness to him when it came to young children, he laughed easily and in these moments his eyes shone with mirth. That’s how I remember him as a boy when he was still married to my mother. And it’s also true that I remember his other side as well: working late and missing dinner with the family, bringing work files and the hated dictaphone home on weekends, and feeling as though my ambitions and studies were of little interest to him. The double life had begun to take its toll as my teenage years rolled on.

By the time I left for my first year of uni it seemed as though the marriage was on the rocks. Mum had confided in me that she might divorce you if things didn’t change. That upset me a lot. Not enough in itself to make me drop out perhaps, but it contributed to my struggles down at Rhodes Uni in Grahamstown, a long way from home. I ran away that first year or better put, cycled out of town, such was my shame at deserting. It was a crazy stunt but I somehow made it to Port Elizabeth the next afternoon after cycling through the night. I had cramped and as my blood sugar levels plunged I had become dangerously weak. Fortunately I had been able to purchase some sour goat milk from some local African villagers for R20 – a princely sum at the time – and that gave me the sustenance I needed.

From there I flew home on a return fare and after ten days or so mum put me on a bus straight back to Grahamstown. 6 or 8 months later she plucked up the courage – or was it premeditated? – to go and out my father one evening at the house of his mistress back in Harare. She did it with the help of her dad, my grandpa. They just parked nearby and watched my father playing affectionately with the two young boys. That was all the evidence she needed. The rest came out pretty quickly. 3 or 4 months later the divorce papers were on the countertop. I dropped out of Rhodes early on in my 3rd year and went home.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but the having the affair was my father’s choice many years before and one that probably satisfied some very basic need of his, to have children with this woman and share a part of himself with her and their boys, for reasons of his own. For my mum’s part it was all shame and public humiliation and the way she saw it, completely undeserved.

I spoke of my own feelings of rejection to her and she spoke of hers. She didn’t seem to hear me and that annoyed me. I started seeking out a life away from her heaviness – her Catholicism, her guilt, her sense of keeping up with the Joneses. It worked for a while. I got a job, a salary and a decent social life. But then she got a relapse of her cancer and it was all thrown back at me – why was I so selfish, so secretive? Why didn’t I ever do anything for her anymore? she wailed. I capitulated and it was back to university, this time the University of Zimbabwe.

Later I would look back and see that I she was simply forcing me along the same road she had taken years before after some personal traumas at the University of Natal brought her back to Harare (then Salisbury). She did a 4th year at the University of Rhodesia (now the UZ) majoring in Sociology. Soon after she went into government-sponsored social work and met my father, a fledgling lawyer, and married.

It was with some difficulty that I managed to register at the UZ in September 2000 and get accredited for the 2 years I’d spent at Rhodes. All the same I had to repeat some 2nd year courses before I could start my 3rd year in September 2001. My mum wasn’t so happy about that but there was nothing she could do.

At some point we had driven down to Rhodes – my mum, myself and my youngest brother Ivan – to get my stuff. We tied it in with a trip to see her brother near Pretoria and maybe some other friends in the vicinity. I remember on the drive back thinking how unfair life was and how much I wanted divine retribution. I knew my mum would die of her cancer – she knew it too – but it was my father I really wanted dead. I couldn’t believe in a god who condoned such behaviour without some sort of punishment.

Mum passed away in November 2001, not long after 9/11. Despite everything I loved my mother – we’d been close – and I cried genuine tears of grief at her bedside and her funeral. She had asked for a requiem mass at our family parish church: St Gerard’s. There were many people there from around town – perhaps as many as 200 – and it was obvious that she was well known in the community.

It was a bitter-sweet moment. I had loved her but I also felt that with her death things could be easier for my brothers and I. We wouldn’t have to shoulder any of her expectations, the one’s I just mentioned. I didn’t say that when I spoke in front of everyone there but I said it in my heart. My father was seated somewhere at the back of the church. He would have listened to my eulogy but I never noticed him and he slipped away early.

I chose not to speak to my father for another year. It hurt a lot but I wanted to punish him for his deceptions. It felt somehow justified. A friend of mine, Matt, who I cycled with and who was a close confidant, told me he could never do what I was doing. It would just be too painful, especially after losing his own mother to illness. The funny thing is that I knew what I was doing was not doing me any good. Even my mother before she died had implored me to forgive him. Just be happy, it’s a conscious choice. I told her I would be happy, just not right then. It would have to wait a bit

Meanwhile I continued with the degree, all the while feeling a growing loneliness there in Harare. There had been a large exodus of families and friends from the country after the government had started taking land from white farmers and in the process collapsing the formal economy and the currency. Not surprisingly I was the only white student in my department, not that it was a problem in itself, but I felt the weight of privilege. Most of the students were from working class families and would have seen my upbringing as just that, privileged. The academics were fleeing as well.

When I finished the degree at the UZ I picked up the transcript and left the place. I didn’t care to go the graduation especially since my father wasn’t much present. At the end of that year, ’02, he called me aside and with tears in eyes, implored me to talk with him again. We used to be friends he reminded me. We talked again a little while later and we both shed some tears I think as we remembered mum. He spoke of his guilt and pain through the tears (she never forgave me!) for the first time and I recalled the pain of being so far from home before and after they separated in an equally emotional way.

I look back now and think that could have been a watershed moment. If we had both been strong enough to make peace with her memory and not feel so beholden to it. The guilt had been killing him and I felt like I was living some pre-scripted existence. I didn’t know how to get out of it except to keep going in the same direction.

A few months later I was back in the bakkie, the one my mum had gotten from my father in the divorce settlement and which later came down to me, and driving back down south to Pretoria University where I would enroll in an Honours degree in Geology just as mum had wanted. Once I had my honours I was free to do as I wished. Just get your degree she had said, and as an aside, to get a 4-year degree was much better than 3 for future prospects.

For a week or two I stayed on the East Rand before I was able to find lodgings in the city. I was almost driven to despair trying to find a place that fitted my needs – close enough to cycle in to uni, not too noisy (certainly not a house share) and where I had a good deal of privacy. Basically somewhere just like home. What transpired over the next 8 or 9 months was uncanny. My life there unfolded almost as a mirror-image of my former life in Zimbabwe. If you believe in the laws of attraction, in a metaphysical sense, then I was attracting both positive and negative entities. I soon realised that I wasn’t really interested in being ordained a geologist. I just wanted to get through it and try and find a special someone on the way to help me make sense of it all.

My father called through a couple of times but I was still pretty angry and wrote him a letter to tell him as much. I kept his response closed for at least a week before I opened it. I was hoping for an I’m sorry sort of a reply but instead I perceived excuses and explanations. I kept my distance from other men especially the alphas – and there were a fair share of them around – and became very reclusive.

I guess somehow the life-energy that was so vital in him started to ebb and around late August/early September he phoned through to say that he had a been diagnosed with something in his brain – cancer? – and that he was coming down to be examined and get a prognosis. He came and borrowed the bakkie for a couple of weeks and drove it up and down the motorway to a place in Jo’burg where he was staying with Cheryl while being treated. I wasn’t happy with the inconvenience but what could I do. It was pretty obvious that I still owed him something on account of him paying my tuition, even if I didn’t look up to him anymore…

The prognosis wasn’t good – he had something called a Grade IV Astrocytoma. Apparently it could only be treated surgically in a limited way without causing serious damage to the surrounding brain tissue. The most serious symptom he suffered was an inability to speak but steroid medication reduced the brain swelling and it quickly returned. I returned home after quickly writing my finals in a dreadful depression and spent the next few years helping my father from time to time cope with his illness.

The corticosteroids he was medicated with caused him more suffering than the tumour itself but they did give him back his faculty of speech for long stretches of time. But for the last weeks speech deserted him and he could only listen to those around him. I didn’t know what to say except that I was so sorry for holding a grudge against him for so long. His grey eyes glistened for some moments and I knew he had heard me. He died shortly afterwards in early 2006.

Probably my biggest trauma from back then – a sense of abandonment – was mirrored in the sudden departure of the Els family from Sussex Rd during the time I was visiting my brother Dan in Cape Town for his end of year graduation.

They had been looking to sell the place but it came as a shock nonetheless to arrive back and find the house sold with my things still inside and builders already making modifications to the exterior. My housemate appeared shortly after, enraged that all her stuff was covered in plastering dust. It was a shock after everything that had happened in recent months.

It is important for me to write this because it is my truth.  There are many images and memories that I can call upon. In one I can picture my landlady’s hubbie walking slowly around the perimeter of the house, lighting a cigarette and contemplating life. What exactly I’ll never know. I felt your aloneness intuitively. I hope you figured it out whatever it was that you needed back then.

Do you remember the evening I found the big old white cat outside my window playing with a baby sparrow? I knocked on your door intending to give it over to your stepson but he was asleep. You took the bird from my grasp quite suddenly and tossed the bird in the air. Lo and behold it flew across to the top of the roof and to safety. It was a metaphorical moment. I’ve thought back on it often.

Maybe we’ll cross paths again someday, maybe we won’t. If we did I’d love to fill you in on my life after Sussex Rd. If not I hope you get to read these words. Maybe you’ll also see something in them that went unsaid…

Reminder of ‘That Other Place’

If perchance you read my last post, a poetic effort, you would have understood that I was writing on the reality of being in place far removed from that where I grew up: that ‘other place’ of both heart and of ancestral importance, principally because it is where my parents both lived and died. All the same it is a contemplation on the present as much as a reflection on the past.

There was a period of my life in ‘that other place’ that was particularly hard to bear and I am aware that it still permeates my current existence. Living meaningfully in the present necessitates that we put past events and experiences into some sort of philosophical framework that allows us to cope with what was difficult and draw upon those things which gave us happiness and meaning, the foundations upon which our life here and now has been constructed.

In my case a large part of my life, my entire childhood and early adult life in fact, was lived in ‘that other place’ on the African continent. Home was the town of Harare, known as Salisbury to my parents and grandparents generations, and the geographic territory was Zimbabwe. Many seaside holidays were spent in South Africa, our southerly neighbour, and later academic studies were also conducted there. I have spent much time reading other people’s accounts of my homeland, writing about my own experiences, and trying to construct my own meaningful philosophical framework. I self-published a book earlier last year on the topic of being a ‘Jet-Setting Vagrant’ which was met with very little comment from anyone really. This was probably a result of the fact that it was a very open-ended memoir – more of a diary really, interspersed with anecdotes, philosophising and periods of retrospection.

What I’ve hardly mentioned to anyone but a select few is that there was actually an earlier effort at self-publication which I never fulfilled. This was a memoir of my life in Africa. As you’d expect it is a real mix of nostalgia and childhood memories, both happy and bitter-sweet, the conflicts and challenges of adolescence etc, all set within the context of the society and family I grew up in. I think the truth is that some of it is a bit too raw for public the public domain which is why I drew back from publication. However, it’s a shame that it has all been archived on my computer for several years now. There were a number of positive experiences to share and having talked to many others who lived in that society at one point or another, some contemporaries, others not, there is a desire amongst many of them to share those experiences with the world at large. So in a number of subsequent posts (exact number unknown) I am going to try and see what I can dig up.

By the way the heading to this post and a stark reminder of the importance of celebrating one’s life and heritage, from wherever it’s drawn, came to me a few days back. I was buying some fruit and veg from an Asian grocer’s not far from me in Charminster, a particularly multi-ethnic stretch of shops, cafes and restaurants, when I was approached by a curious little man who had evidently fallen on hard times. He was asking for 50p in change which I initially refused on the basis that I thought he was simply gathering enough for a pint at the pub directly across the road. I said as much. Anyway, his accent was curious enough for me to ask where he hailed from. “Rhodesia” was his reply i.e. the former name for Zimbabwe. Once we realised we were from the same neck of the woods we were able to have a more balanced conversation. What came across to me was how bitter he still was towards England and the English, despite having fled what was then wartime Rhodesia in 1976. “They don’t understand me” he said. How sad.

“Why did he leave?” I asked him, assuming he had served in the army at some point and was fleeing the horrors of that particular conflict. No, it turned out he had pre-empted his call-up and fled first to South Africa and then to the UK. He talked variously of how Ian Smith and the Rhodesian cause had been petrayed by Vorster (the South African president of the time) and his determination not to live under a country ruled by the ‘terrorist’ Robert Mugabe. I know that many of his generation share those sentiments. I remained quiet on the issue although I have an uncertain stance somewhere in the grey reaches of the middle-ground.

He spoke of the harsh conditions of conscripts to the Rhodesian forces as related to him through others like his mother, a hospital matron. I know this first hand through my Uncle Paul who served in the Rhodesian army at that time and who now lives a secluded life in Plymouth, Devon. So maybe he was right to get out when he did? I can’t say. He would have had to wrestle with own conscience over many years I suppose. It was just a little sad to see a man still caught up in the past the way he was. A little glimmer of some self-esteem though: relating how he was bullied by an Afrikaaner senior at Guineafowl (a private school of some standing in Rhodesia) he proclaimed “I had the last laugh! I stood up to him”. (Something about not doing a punishment prescribed him.) “I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.” He could build on that I suppose.

This was only ten minutes worth of conversation and only at the end of it did we introduce ourselves. His name was William. Before we parted I asked him again if he wouldn’t mind telling me why he needed the money. “Horses” he said with a wry smile, avoiding my eye. Chance meeting or something more significant I can’t say except that I don’t want my story and that of my people to be lost in the sands of time. After all it’s my belief that we really only tell the tales and glories of our particular tribe in order to try and reach out to a common identity. It’s one that’s in a constant state of evolution and that’s why we need to keep the conversation going.

A memoir of 3 years in the UK

So I’ve written a memoir and not, I hasten to add, an autobiography! As a friend of mine remarked, “isn’t it a bit early for that sort of thing?” Well quite. All the same it has been quite an interesting couple of years, primarily in England, but punctuated by two trips back to Africa. This is the main narrative time-frame, although I talk of events further back where they tie into present experience.

What inspired me to write this memoir? Several different strands of thought really. Firstly, I am predisposed towards writing anecdotes and commentary, but that hardly makes me stand out now does it?! Still, it wasn’t a huge extrapolation to start joining the blogs, commentary and photographic record into a coherent whole. I would like to call myself a travel writer. Perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the title, but all the same someone who qualifies by virtue of having traveled beyond their sphere of familiarity. But the essence of it is that I have had a great desire to seek an understanding of the world at large, more for my peace of mind than any other reason.

Like many first time writers I imagine, I suffered from a premature dose of enthusiasm and imagined that to get published was just a matter of finding the right publisher and selling my story to them. With any luck they would take charge of the nitty-gritty bits: proof-reading and editorial stuff, typesetting, marketing etc. I ran the usual gamut of publishers recommended by the Artists and Writers Yearbook, emailing sample chapters, synopses and cover-letters in the main but also printing off a few copies and physically mailing them to literary agents of a more traditional inclination. As the weeks and months dragged out I was to come to realise two things. Firstly, traditional publishing pf the sort I have just outlined is difficult. Secondly, memoirs are not half as enticing to the majority of publishers as other forms of literature, fiction being the biggest seller and crime fiction in particular. Actually, a perusal of the shelves of one of the established bookstores – Waterstones or WH Smith – will suggest that life-stories do sell. The only prerequisite is that one has to be famous in some regard: a man or woman of considerable sporting prowess or a pop-star being two obvious ones. I am neither. Thus I did not find myself a publisher but I did discover the world of self-publishing.

The accessibility of the platforms for self-publishing online through the likes of  Lulu.com and Amazon’s KDP have transformed the market by making publishing accessible to everyone. Although this might result in a lowering of editorial standards at least it gives people like me a channel to print and distribute our tales. The print-on-demand facility offered by online publishers like Lulu is a boon, but digital publishing is probably the biggest innovation. Still, one can’t do everything from writing to publishing completely independently and without outside review. I was lucky to have had the editorial input of Judy Brown, a competent proof-reader, who accepted my ridiculously low project tender through the site Freelancer.co.uk. I wasn’t in a position to offer any more than I offered but she did a thorough job all the same. To any aspiring author out there I say this: make it your first and foremost objective to find a good and honest proof-reader to assess your manuscript once you have finished writing it. He or she will do it the world of good not just through correcting grammar and punctuation, but by suggesting where you could say things more concisely, explore a particular idea further or simply to suggest what might be a bias on your part that needs to be reappraised.

That said I will return to the matter of the memoir itself. Once complete, or nearly so, there was the need to decide on a title. After some consideration I decided on one – A Fairly Honest Account of a White African’s Life Abroad. When I first published in July 2012 this was the title of my book. In part I was inspired by the fairly recent TV documentary on the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer and his family, Mugabe and the White African. Something about the stoic struggles of the White African appealed to my vanity. All the same I was dogged by a sense of doubt. Did something really mark me out as a White African? Did I have a particular identity by virtue of having been brought up in Africa of ethnically European parents? I was after all born in the UK and actually of mixed Western and Mediterranean European ethnicity. I decided that the term was too divisive and ambiguous, with echoes of the past, and I therefore decided to change it several months later. The revised title I decided upon was Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant. I won’t elaborate any further without pasting in my synopsis, as I wrote it for my book in the Amazon bookstore. As follows:

This is a personal, insightful and sometimes entertaining recollection of the author’s adventures and nomadic life in the UK as well as two periods in that other world of his upbringing, Southern Africa. 

Born in Britain to Rhodesian parents at the end of that country’s tumultuous civil war he was raised in a fairly peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. The narrative journey encompasses not only the present but the past. He does his best to make an objective assessment of modern Britain whilst elaborating on just what Zimbabwe (and South Africa) means to him, and the conflicting senses of identity and purpose in the homeland of his heart of which he is no longer a citizen.

In his quest for answers on his travels through the UK he surveys the cultural and political landscape of England today, revisits his birthplace in Ealing, and traverses the southwest of England in search of work. Circumstance draws him to his estranged uncle’s abode in the coastal city of Plymouth where the past and present collide unexpectedly.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fairly-Honest-Account-Africans-ebook/dp/B008NAU7VG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1353331975&sr=1-1

I will endeavour to publish my introduction and a sample chapter or two on this blog to give the potential reader a taste of the book. I hasten to add that the book is most likely to appeal to those of a similar background to me: raised in Zimbabwe, although not necessarily white, and living or having lived in the UK and/or South Africa for a period of time. Furthermore, if I have to be honest I would say that the overall tone of the book is reflective rather than jocular or entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend you reading it if you don’t have an interest in history or delving into the human predicament. If this sounds too deep and introspective, fear not. Most of the book is about anecdotal experience and there is some humour too… I think!

A paperback version is also available though Lulu self-publishing (I am currently reviewing  a hard copy in order to approve it for affiliate distribution i.e. Apple bookstore, B&N) and another ebook (in EPUB format). See my author spotlight for links to the book: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/leopassi

Here is preview of the revised cover, as designed by Kamil Pawlik, an independent Polish designer I crowd-sourced:

Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant
Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant