Earlier this week I shared some photos on Instagram from my childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, before our family moved to Australia in 2001, when I was 12. Since then I’ve received a few questions about what it was like living in Africa and thought I’d use this week’s blog post to answer them all.
Q: Was English your native language or do/did you speak other languages?
A: English is the official language in Zim but a large majority of the population speak Shona and this was (and I imagine still is) taught in many schools. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of the Shona that I learned back then but many of the kids who grew up on farms were just as fluent in Shona as English.
Q: Have you ever been back to Zimbabwe?
A: Yes, twice; the first time with my husband in late 2012 (over 11 years since leaving), and the second with my mum and sister in 2015 for a family wedding.
The first trip back was eye-opening and heartbreaking; only pitiful remnants remained of the Africa I remembered, and I realised how fortunate we were to have left when we did. We crammed as much as we could into those 5 or 6 weeks we were there; visiting family, going back to the town we previously called home, as well as doing some of the more ‘touristy’ things like driving out to Hwange National Park and Vic Falls, and spending Christmas on a houseboat on Lake Kariba. Both my husband and I ended the trip on a bitter note, picking up the most awful parasite that wreaked havoc on our digestive systems. It took months to fully recover from it once we were back in Aus. By far, the best part of that holiday was the time with family and the few nights we spent out in the bush at Hwange – being on safari in Africa is an incredible experience.
Q: What was school like in Africa?
A: More normal than most people might expect – certainly no huts out in the middle of the bush with wildlife freely roaming! I went to two different schools in my primary years; one public and one private. The private school was far more relaxed than the public one – this probably had a lot to do with the Headmaster at the public school being quite terrifying (old-fashioned ‘canings’ in his office were common for the boys). The school day started at 8am, finished at 5pm and was split in half between academic work in the morning and sports in the afternoon. This was the same across both schools. The public one was much larger and had boarding halls on site as most of the kids from the surrounding farms were long-term boarders (I was fortunate to live in town and as a dayscholar I went home every night at 5pm). The whole schooling system was very ‘old-fashioned British’, despite Zimbabwe gaining independence in 1980.
Uniforms were formal, especially at the public school; as girls we wore a skirt, button down shirt, tie and blazer jacket, knee-high socks and garters and always a hat when outdoors (or else detention if caught without one). Our skirt lengths were regularly checked as was our hair and nails. Makeup wasn’t allowed either, although I could swear some of the older girls managed to get away with light eyeshadow and mascara.
It wasn’t enough to be academically strong, we were also encouraged to excel at sports; athletics, swimming, hockey, cross-country running, squash and tennis, netball. Rugby and cricket were huge too, but for boys only. We frequently went on bus tours around the country to compete against other schools and reported back on our results at our weekly school assemblies (once being publicly humiliated by the afore-mentioned terrifying Headmaster after reading my report to the entire school, has left me with a huge fear of public speaking).
Overall, school was, in my opinion, taken far too seriously. Half the time it felt like we were in military training; and were almost always ruled with a rod of fear. The private school was a breath of fresh air in comparison; the Headmaster a much kinder man with a great sense of humour.
Q: Had you been to other countries before leaving Zimbabwe?
A: Yes, thankfully our move to Australia wasn’t the first time I had been outside the country but it was the first time I had ever been outside the continent. Because my dad owned his own business, we kind of had to escape somewhere relatively far away to have a proper holiday – with Zimbabwe being landlocked, the beach was always where we wanted to go; usually Ballito in South Africa, but we also visited Rio Savane in Mozambique for our last holiday before moving to Aus (I loved the beaches there as the water was so warm!)
Q: Is there anything you don’t miss about life in Zimbabwe?
A: Absolutely, that’s why I didn’t fly back as soon as I turned 18!
Part of why it was so hard moving to Australia was knowing that Zim was going downhill so fast that the country we were leaving, wouldn’t be the same country we would see on future visits.
The incredible inflation rate, corrupt and violent government, rapidly deteriorating infrastructure – all things that have made life incredibly difficult for the people still living there. We have close family calling Zimbabwe home and as much as I miss them everyday, I’m grateful to live in a country that’s safe, beautiful and full of opportunities. I think life is much fairer here to a wide range of people; we’re not as limited by social standing or money or skin colour or gender as in Zimbabwe, mostly due to a government that’s secure and a society that believes in everyone having a ‘fair go’.
Thanks for your questions and your interest in the sneak peek I shared on my childhood! There’s a great book called When A Crocodile Eats the Sun that gives further insight into what happened in Zimbabwe during the tumultuous land takeovers, if you’re interested in learning more. I’m reading it myself at the moment and learning a lot about the turbulent history of the country that I once was fortunate to call home.