Some thoughts on lockdown
Julian and Ann Choyce have now returned to their home in Filkins after working abroad for several years. But that was by no means the first such overseas adventure. For Julian remembers VSO, long ago, in Zimbabwe, and meeting Ann for the first time.
Exciting, and happy, days... And also an intriguing backdrop to Julian's interesting musings about lockdown today, here in The Land of The Twelve Churches...
I met Ann in Zimbabwe in 1986.
During my training as a secondary school teacher, I had decided that once qualified I would volunteer to work abroad with V.S.O. If you haven’t heard of it before, V.S.O stands for Voluntary Service Overseas. It's a wonderful charity who post teachers, doctors, engineers, and all sorts of professions to different parts of the developing world, often to help in the training of local people but essentially to work alongside the community.
Back then, postings were for two years.
My posting was to Chinorumba Secondary School, near Zaka in Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe. I don’t think you’ll find it on google earth.
Incidentally, for anyone in their twenties or below who can be bothered to read this, the internet didn’t exist then!
A good days’ journey from the capital; Harare and far beyond any tarred roads, Chinorumba was a tiny township in the savannah, with a large baobab tree, a cluster of houses built from brick, straw and tin, a tiny junior school and the beginnings of a secondary school. Water came from a well with a hand pump. The township had no electricity connection and the toilets were pit latrines. Meanwhile, unknown to me, Ann was experiencing something similar at Rafamoyo Secondary School near Gutu.
Meanwhile, unknown to me, Ann was experiencing something similar at Rafamoyo Secondary School near Gutu.
And what, you say, has all this got to do with lockdown and 2021?
Adjusting to new norms?
My first realisation, living in Chinorumba, was that if I wanted to achieve anything it took time.
Fetching water, washing, brushing my teeth, cooking, making a fire, having a cup of tea all took time and effort. Teaching began early. By lunchtime it was extremely hot. What to eat? A bottle store in the township stocked some tinned foods but mostly the local people farmed.
They produced maize, onions, tomatoes, spinach; basic foods to be sold at market. Maize cobs would be taken to a local mill, sometimes by bicycle, where they would be ground into powder. Mixed with water, the maize forms a stodgy porridge called sadza. It’s eaten with your hands and dipped in a relish. It’s filling and it is often eaten three times a day. I discovered that I liked it!
I also discovered that my students could even find me a chicken to go with it, often delivered alive and clucking after lessons.
V.S.O required that we attend a language course in Harare. Learning a little Shona, the local language, was rapidly becoming a necessity! So now, Ann and I, equipped with our phrase books, were picking up the essentials. Chatting to the locals, particularly elders in the village, I discover, is quite a process. Not stopping to talk is an affront.
'Masikati. Good day.
'Marara here?'. Did you sleep ok?
'Ndarara kana marara wo'. I slept well if you slept also.
'Zvakanaka'. Things are ok.
'Zvakaipa'. Things are ghastly.
Meeting a complete stranger on a dusty pathway into town requires an established choreography of accompanying hand claps, taking time to listen. I had time.
If I want to chat to Ann, in English for a change, it’s also a bit of a faff. I can’t telephone. The nearest one’s about six hours away and mobiles haven’t been invented yet. Texting’s out of the question because the word doesn’t exist. I can write a letter though, but it’s a two hour walk to post it. It will go by local bus and arrive in Gutu in about a week. The post arrives at the local post office in Zaka but the head boy has to cycle there with a heavy post bag to bring it back.
No letter? Maybe next week. Patience.
If I want to visit Ann in Rafamoyo it will take a day on local buses. I ask the locals when the bus will arrive. They are hopeful that one will come.
A lady sits beneath a tree knitting.
Someone else is reading a book.
Chickens and goats are ready to go on board before me. We’ll see a cloud of dust far away.
The bus is coming!
The roads are sand and corrugated rock. Punctures are common; I remember five in one journey. Sleeping beside the bus to wait for a replacement happens once. At first, it’s immensely frustrating but I’m becoming accustomed to setbacks. It’s a part of daily life.
Sometimes the rains don’t arrive. The water table drops and the village bore hole fails.
This means buckets and a long walk. At other times the countryside is lush and green, and the borehole is the centre of village gossip with queues of people and plastic drums balanced on heads, babies on hips, children carrying bottles and pans. Queuing up patiently isn’t such a chore.
It’s life here.
When I get to Rafamoyo, where Ann is teaching, I discover that she has a tiny fridge that runs on paraffin. This means one thing; cold beer! There’s Lion or Castle or Chibuku.
Chibuku is served in a bucket and is a milky, sour yoghurt. It’s an acquired taste!
On another visit the bus doesn’t arrive so, for something to do, we decide to memorise the ingredients on sauce bottles and then have a quiz.
Garlic powder? Wrong!
It’s so hot that Ann has discovered how to bake a cake by burying a pot in the ground. I’ve learnt that sand can be used instead of Fairy liquid.
There is definitely a knack to living here. Growing up in the UK hasn’t prepared me for the way time works.
Teaching’s great but it can be frustrating. Where are the resources? Why aren’t there enough books? Why are the class sizes so big? Many students fail to attend or pay the meagre fees. Why are the children tired?
But I also remember watching a tiny child follow an ox ploughing a field in the dark before arriving at my lesson.
Ironically, adjusting to living and working back in the UK after teaching in Zimbabwe was more challenging than we had anticipated. Living overseas can disorientate you in profound ways. Local people often subsist at a very basic level in developing countries, but baffling inequalities also co-exist. Communities are very strong. Education is a precious commodity. Skills and resources are bartered and shared in unusual ways.
Money isn’t always the currency you need. Nature impacts life directly. A bicycle can improve your standard of living and simple, practical, local solutions to problems are often best.
Recently I was reading an article about a mother in Zimbabwe struggling with lockdown, not only lockdown but the ravages that flooding in Zimbabwe and also drought had brought, coupled with an unimaginable economic collapse. She feared the virus like us, but also the risk of starvation for her children if she was unable to sell from her stall in the capital.
Life felt precarious at times in Zimbabwe, even when it was relatively prosperous in the 80s. It feels as if lockdowns have tested my patience this year but how bad must ir be elsewhere?
Julian Choyce, 2021
Julian Choyce, 2021