The drive way was exactly as I remembered – albeit a little overgrown. There was a hut by the gate and a woman emerged, rubbing her eyes. It was the holidays but the now dilapidated buildings gave the impression the school had been closed for many years. The driver spoke to her in Shona, gesturing at me – she went to school here, she wants to take a look. She eyed me suspiciously, and then the gate was opened.
It felt like a dream. Seventeen years since I had left and so much had changed. My parents had moved here so their children would grow up free from the shadows of troubles, and they were inspired by the newly independent Zimbabwe. My mother (the daughter of anti-apartheid activists) was seduced partly by its proximity to South Africa, but mainly by the political hope the new country offered.
My boyfriend had planned this, he wanted to leave me back he joked. And here we were now – driving slowly through the school. So much I hadn’t realised had been tucked away in my mind, snippets of conversations, faces l thought forgotten, coming to the fore with force, almost winding me. That was the swimming pool I told him – the once white painted walls had sparkled in the sun, but not anymore.
There was the hockey field. I had been the captain, not due to skill (I never scored a goal in my life) but it was an elected role and I was chosen after I bought everyone on the team sweets. Destined for politics my mum would smile. Every single afternoon we would do sport, everyone hated athletics “A little bit of pain never killed anyone” our safari-suit wearing headmaster would bellow, as he chased us down the red dirt cross-country roads on his motorbike. Pain may not kill you, but we would learn other things could.
“Netsai’s mum died” my friend had said one afternoon, when we were sitting on the side of the hockey field. Bonded by our mothers’ willingness to write notes to get us out of sport.
“How?” I asked
Evil spirits that I didn’t really believe in – but wouldn’t say said out loud just in case they were listening. So I nodded.
I can’t remember when the new word “war veterans” entered our vocabulary, but it was round about the time N’s dad started carrying a gun. There were squatters on their farm and she was scared. And not long after that Mr Stevens, whose kids went to the school, was shot dead by a gang of men. They were retaliating after his workers had chased them off his farm.
We drove past the old sanatorium which now had weeds growing from the window. The san was the place you went for muti, to be made better. I remembered how when it rained the matrons made us do cross-country in our swimming costumes so our sports kit wouldn’t get mouldy. I would often come down with something very serious on days like that, and would escape to the san with a book hidden in my jumper. I discovered the true happiness of being tucked up with a book and a cup of cocoa in a high hospital bed, listening to the rain thunder down upon a metal roof – knowing your classmates were running. Outside. In their swimming costumes.
Opposite the san, the swings had gone but the old tree which had claimed countless bones stood strong – the only thing which had.
I wanted to show him the old school hall.
The doors were all closed but here the latch had worn and a sharp tug set it free. The red velvet curtains on the stage were stained and frayed, a hole in the ceiling directed a shaft of light on the floor – once gleaming and polished, it was now covered in dust. The very same portrait of President Robert Mugabe hung at the back of the room and I remembered how we sang the national anthem every morning in this hall.
I had lost the school spelling bee to Cara Stockil on that stage, because I couldn’t spell bicycle.
We used to have Christian Union every Tuesday night here. When I started boarding in Grade 7, I told the matron I couldn’t go to Christian Union because my family didn’t believe in God. So she called for the teacher in charge, who called for the deputy headmistress, who called for the headmaster. It was agreed I either go to bed at 7pm when everyone went to Christian Union, or I go with them. I boycotted it for one week. But the next morning heard my boyfriend (who I had never actually spoken to) had asked where I was. So I caved. The next week I got to play the leper, who touches Jesus’ robes and gets cured, and everyone applauded – from then on every Tuesday at 7pm I was a committed Christian.
Some evenings we would sneak out of prep to play tennis before the sun set. In Zimbabwe – where corporal punishment was very much still a thing – rules were not made to be broken; but mitching homework for sport was never frowned upon. The headmaster’s house overlooked the courts, and Mr Botha who was sitting on his veranda drinking a beer called out “How’s your mum Kate?” – he knew it was just the two of us now. “Good sir” I said, “she’s coming to visit tomorrow afternoon if she gets fuel” – “Don’t hold your breath” was his response. There had been shortages for months. On hearing reports of petrol Lorries arriving in Marondera, my mother drove to town on the last of her tank. She waited for two hours in a queue and when she got to the front was told there was none left. Returning home she learned there was a power cut, so in a dark empty house she reached for the phone – just to hear the voice of another human being – and she found the line was dead. Getting into bed with a bottle of gin she decided it was time for us to go.
“They’re waiting for us” He said to me and I came back into the moment. How strange, I thought, to be here in my old world, with him. And now it was time to go.
I had been excited to go – to see my new life. To have family. But as the years passed I would occasionally catch the sweet scent of the Jacaranda trees in bloom, or feel burning gravel under my feet. I would remember nights in the dormitory when we whispered about boys from under our counterpanes and snuck out into the courtyard to gaze at the stars. I would remember the morning haze of the Chimanimani Mountains, canoeing down the Zambezi. I would remember the other nights when our whispers turned to worry – fears of the future. The rumours and tension that had slowly eased their way into our integrated world unnoticed – and with their arrival taken the last moments of our childhood. Some days the sadness of the home I had lost would overcome me. And I would feel broken.
Riverdale House was a misleading name for the grey tower block located on the Seymour hill estate. I had imagined a cottage and fields with sheep. When we arrived I looked at my mum and she tried to smile reassuringly. But we both knew what the other was thinking. This wasn’t home. The red, white and blue painted curb stones were not in fact representative of a large French community living in Dunmurry. A boy with acne who got the school bus asked me if I wanted to go into the forest with him and his friends, I did not. I watched every Doris Day film that showed on channel 4 that summer, too afraid to venture beyond the balcony of the 12th floor. No adventures wanted here. When the 90 year old arsonist from the building opposite set fire to Riverdale for the second time my mum decided, once again, enough was enough. We moved to Sunnyside Street where a Georgian piano player lived next door and when she practiced we imagined ourselves through time and place, sitting on the veranda as dusk settled, listening to my sister play.
I had escaped to London with no intention of returning to Belfast. But each time I came back to visit my mum I felt relieved. It turns out that I missed her, that I wasn’t as cosmopolitan as I hoped and really, I just wasn’t very good with change. So I moved back, unsure of who I really was or where I really belonged. In that emptiness came the space I needed to make sense of my life, to find direction. I learnt to be grateful for my weird, magical, African childhood. I began to see that the trauma of leaving, was nothing like that of classmates – who didn’t have the socio-economic privilege I had – who were denied that opportunity; who had to stay. I had witnessed the brutality of inequality, as my grandparents had; I had seen the devastation that is borne from the ashes of democracy. I knew that no good comes from division in any part of the world and I wanted to do something that mattered. And so I went and found it, and along the way I also found a Fermanagh boy with blue eyes who made me laugh and feel safe. And I thought maybe change is not so bad after all.
That evening as we sat on a kopje, sun setting over the land where I was born I acknowledged the profound effect leaving here had had on my life, it had taken almost two decades, but piece by piece I had come back. So when he asked me… I said yes. And in that moment I knew, I was home.