FROG HOSPITAL -- Feb. 27, 2020
I Had a Farm in Africa
By Fred Owens
"I had a farm in Africa" is the famous opening line of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen's lyrical meditation of her life on a coffee plantation in Kenya in the old colonial days. "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." I don't need to read the book again or see the movie again. I can just say that opening line, close my eyes and dream it. I didn't have a farm in Africa, but I did have a garden with tomatoes and strawberries and African herbs. The garden was at our rented home at 21 Shottery Crescent in Bulawayo. We lived there for most of a year and spent many hot afternoons sitting in the shade of the pepper tree. So how did I get there.
I will start at the beginning. My mother died in 1996 at her home in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. That was where I grew up. I came home for the last time for her funeral and for the months-long project of clearing out the house and settling the estate. I was 50 years old, a single parent. I had just sent my younger child off to college, and I was free. I had moved out of my apartment after Eva left for school. I sold and gave away most of my furniture and put the rest in storage in the attic of Pam Fleetman's garage. And my mother died --- I know I already said that once, but it was an enormous change, not so much that I was sad, because I was not sad, but I was totally dumbfounded and dazed.
By the new year of 1997, I had emptied the old house and it was ready for sale. Mom left us some money, it was more than I expected, money I didn't earn and didn't especially deserve, but I guess it was a gift, a bonus that I could use to go someplace, almost any place, and not to travel there but to live there. I chose Africa, for the reason that was obvious to me because it was January in Chicago and it was freezing out there. I would go to Africa to be warm and to live there for a while, have a life with a house and friends and some work. Get to know the people and the climate, find a coffee shop or tavern or bookstore where I might pass the time. Study the plant life, especially the baobob tree. And learn the language and hear the music. So far away to Africa, over 8,000 miles from Chicago, and in the southern hemisphere to see stars I had never seen before.
I chose to live in Zimbabwe because Doris Lessing grew up there. I read her autobiography Under My Skin describing her life as a free-spirited young girl on a farm in the bush in old Rhodesia. As an adult writer with radical views she came into severe disfavor with the white Rhodesian government and was sent into exile, back to England.
Lessing returned in triumph after the 1980 victory of the revolution which brought home rule to the people of a country now called Zimbabwe. The new government gave her a farm. She was grateful for that but could not keep her words to herself. She wrote about the violence and corruption of the liberation government, finding it to be scarcely superior to the old white government. So she was sent into exile a second time, possibly the only writer to accomplish that feat.
I bought a ticket and got a visa. I booked a cab to O'Hare Airport. When the cab came early the next morning, I soldiered out of the home where we had lived for fifty years, resolutely determined not to turn my head and take one last look. For me, my mother and that house were one and the same thing, but it was good bye. I should have realized that I had just become homeless.
Capetown is like a southern California beach town. Africa Lite. Lots of white people living in nice homes with ocean views. I took the third floor garret room at the lodge in Kalk Bay managed by Mia and Fatima Lahrer, a charming Indian couple. We had many vigorous conversations over dinner. I could see the warm waters of the Indian Ocean from my garret window. I might go body surfing at the nearby beach and then stop at the Cafe Matisse for a glass of wine and a flirtation with Rose the beautiful Coloured waitress. I might have drinks in the evening with Michael Pam, the old poet of Kalk Bay. I might go hike on Table Mountain with the local botany club and see the flowers that grow there and nowhere else -- what they call endemic. I had friends and I had a life in Kalk Bay. It felt more like Europe than Africa.
Then I called Eva my daughter and reached her at her dorm room in Oberlin College in Ohio. I told her that I had found my place. and she said, without a pause, Dad, that's not Africa, you said you were going to Africa. You can't just lie on the beach. C'mon, Dad. .... She could be so commanding. I must follow my mandate and launch a serious expedition into the heart of it. Take the plunge. Go there. Be there. This was not a vacation, but a quest.
That evening at dinner with Mia and Fatima I told them I must continue my journey to Zimbabwe. And Fatima said, You must go to Nyanga. I said why Nyanga, what is there, what does it mean. And she said, You must go to there, you must go to Nyanga.
The End, but stay tuned for the next chapter.... Nyanga means Moon in the Shona language. Let us go there together.
And don't worry about the virus too much. Wash your hands more often, cough into your sleeve, stay home if you feel flu-ish ... but the mask hardly seems necessary unless you work in health care.
Hope it rains here in Santa Barbara and soon,
Hope you all get the best weather you can dream,
Closing in gratitude,