My flight touched down at Johannesburg International Airport where a driver was waiting to hand me the keys to Lynette’s 4x4. I was somewhat perplexed when the gregarious bearer of keys voiced his concerns for my safety. A little self-doubt crept in when he said something about him not knowing any men who would do what I was about to do.
“Good luck!” He smiled and smacked the hood as I pulled away. “You’ll need it!”
The following morning I left Johannesburg heading due east to the Mozambique border, some 950 miles away. My new home, for the next four months at least, was a further four-hour drive north of Maputo, the country’s capital.
The journey to the border was lengthy as the rains had taken its toll on the roads. Once past the border post, I soon realised the journey ahead was going to be agonizing. The road was filled with potholes so large I feared I would not emerge if I dropped into one. Some of them were filled in, which led me to mistakenly believe that the next set would have been filled as well.
Gradually I became aware of the abrupt change in scenery. The earlier large scale intensive agriculture of South Africa ceased and was replaced by an undulating barren landscape. The long dusty road was littered with burnt out armoured tanks, leaving me with an uneasy, almost eerie feeling, as I passed the first of many parched villages of circular mud huts, devoid of any signs of life, crops, cattle, or even bird life.
I was told by a border guard that there were numerous road blocks along the route I was taking. However, the first and only ‘road block’ I was to come upon was that of a group of locals who had filled in a large pot hole then placed a rock over the top. Clearly the idea was to force me to stop so they could remove the rock whilst I was digging for change in my purse. Not me – I was not stopping for anyone. The rocks were quite small so I drove over them and waved to the men as they hurled abuse at me. The potholes continued but fortunately I caught up with a truck weaving through them so I tailgated him for an hour.
A long, horrific civil war had scarred Mozambique and left a million land mines scattered around the countryside. The border post official had cautioned me not to leave my car, as there were still many unsigned minefields which would only be discovered when entered.
That evening I stopped off in a town called Manicha. I sat in the shaded bar area in stewing humidity and listened to the torturous chorus of mosquitoes. Through the trees I could see the town’s barber shop across the road, offering the unusual option of a ‘Bin Laden style’ haircut.
The following morning I left early before breakfast and bartered my blanket and several T-shirts in exchange for two avocado pears from a street child sitting next to my car. He went away content with his booty. Money was worthless here as there were few shops to buy food or clothing from as floods had devastated the region. That said, the desperate impoverishment and suffering of the people did not hinder their kindly souls; they smiled and waved as I drove past. The contrast to South Africa was incredible. Here it was calm and peaceful -- these folk were busy rebuilding their country.
After numerous detours, due to washed out roads, I eventually arrived at a ramshackle gate with a hand-carved wooden sign nailed to a tree, indicating this to be “Orion’s Peak”, Lynette’s farm and my new home, for a while anyway. I later discovered that the hoard of clapping and smiling people I passed at the open gate were, in fact, farm labourers waiting to welcome me.
I followed the winding road through a Macadamia plantation to the top of a hill. The scene before me left me breathless. On my left were a sprawling manicured garden and a thatched-roof farm-house with a wrap around veranda, shaded by two large Baobab trees. On my right was a view over the azure coloured ocean and a beach below. Now I remembered why I ached for this land.
A rugged, amiable fellow with pitch black skin, swathed in crisp white robes, stood at the bottom of the wide stairs leading to the front door of the house. He opened his arms in welcome. “Welcome, Madam Dale,” he said, bowing low, “I am Miss Lynette’s houseman, Madam. They call me Moses.”
“Hey Moses, how you doing?” I responded, receiving a soul shake, “… they call me Cindy and don’t you forget that.”
“Yes, Madam Cindy,” he beamed, showing a row of brilliant white teeth. “Let me get your bags, Madam.” He turned to the house and shouted a stern command to another yet unseen person.
Moses approached carrying a tray with a bottle of home-brewed apricot brandy, a tumbler, and packet of rum pipe tobacco. “Madam Cindy… I thought the Madam would enjoy this. It’s been a long day for the Madam.” He produced an ornately carved wooden tobacco pipe from his breast pocket and ceremoniously handed it to me. “My son, Philemon, he made this for the Madam when he heard the Madam she was a coming.”
“You read my mind Moses. Now go get yourself a glass and sit yourself down here.”
Following feeble protests Moses soon reappeared with another tumbler and a pipe of his own. We sat quietly, each alone with thoughts and pipe.
“The Madam Lynette, she wants to farm the land. She says to me that the Madam Cindy will fix the land to make it grow.”
“Correct, but Lynette only wants to produce enough food to be self-sufficient and maybe a little more to sell in the villages; perhaps some chickens and sheep too. But I’ll need your guidance, Moses. I'm only here to help start the process.”
We spoke of the revenue produced by the Macadamia plantation and other additional crops we should consider. Moses continued to explain how the civil war had affected the farming community. Landmines were prevalent and the only way he could see us succeeding was if we found all the buried mines before starting to plough the fields.
“Where do you think these mines are and how are we going to find them?”
“The mines they are somewhere there Madam”, he stated, waiving a hand vaguely at east Africa. “… and we will use the goats.”
“You're not serious, are you? The goats will find the mines by stepping on them?” I asked with difficulty.
Moses nodded gravely.
“No way, absolutely not!” I said without having to think. Moses looked at me solemnly. “Just forget it… and don’t look at me in that tone of voice!”
We spent the rest of the evening thrashing out various plans of ridding the farm of landmines, without having to kill anything. I soon realised that other than a truck load of soldiers with mine detectors, there seemed to be no option.
Moses saw my concern for the land and its people and assured me that so far, none of our flock had stepped on a mine. He was, he added, certain there were no mines on the farm. I felt somewhat assured by this but said I would rethink the issue in the morning with a clear head. That night I dreamt of the deadly threat of landmines and angel goats with wings ploughing the land in armoured personnel carriers.
When I rose the following morning Moses was waiting for me in the kitchen. He was ready to show me the boundaries of the farm and the areas that needed to be mine-swept. Knowing the perils that lay ahead we took the sensible precaution of anesthetising ourselves with several glasses of red wine before departing.
A dense green vastness lay before us. Moses pointed out that the area needing to be mine-swept lay directly ahead – some 80 acres. The photos which Lynette had shown me of Mozambique sprang to mind. They had left me with the false impression that my life would mostly take place on a veranda somewhere, whilst turbaned servants brought me coffee. Now things looked deadly serious.
“How long is this going to take, Moses?” I asked in a small controlled squeak. “You’ll need hundreds of goats,” I added.
“Moses does it well Madam. I have done this for another Master on a neighbouring farm. I herd the goats around the land until they have covered all the ground,” he responded, clearly fearless and evidently confident his goats were indestructible. He continued and assured me the area would be clear for farming within a month. We discussed it some more and it became evident, there was no alternative. We would use the goats.
A week later and back under the eaves of the veranda, Moses and I sat quietly, taking a well deserved break from the baking midday heat whilst constructing a paddock. We spoke of the hen houses and milking pens we planned to erect in the weeks to come. I decided to hold off on talks about Lynette’s decision to rebuild a farm school until after our customary Brandy and pipe later that evening.
Lunch was served and I became melancholy when I spoke of the dangers of Africa -- being shot or stabbed, stepping on a landmine, being eaten by wild beasts. Mosses nodded in agreement. I had this same conversation with my London neighbour less than a month earlier. She claimed to have read somewhere that for the most, people who had been attacked by wild animals manage a more or less complete recovery – given time and physiotherapy – many even walk again, she said optimistically.
“There are also the tropical diseases Madam,” Moses pointed out. “But my wife says there are injections for these.”
There was a distant explosion and a puff of smoke. “A goat,” I calmly stated. Moses nodded solemnly.
I regarded Moses whilst he looked to the horizon, puffing at his pipe. I drew distinct comfort from the fact that I was surrounded by people that were irrevocably committed to what was clearly their Africa.
Following a dinner of caracata and a sauce of greens and tomatoes, which I shared with Mavis, the cook, I enquired after the staple diet of the locals. “It is very hard, Madam. Meat, she is a luxury, but we survive. Every night we eat what me and the Madam eat. Nothing grows.” I contemplated this for a moment and decided some action was called for. I lent over the veranda’s banister, put two fingers to my lips and whistled for Moses who, moments later, came trotting around the corner.
One of the first things I wanted done was to have a plot of land tilled and have the soil prepared for planting. Mavis was to manage the task and involve the other women living on the farm. Moses and I would drive to Maputo for supplies. Within a week the task was complete and a fenced vegetable garden was established. Mavis and her team spent hours every day tending to the tomatoes, onions, carrots, and kale. When the vegetables were eventually harvested, they kept a portion and sold the rest to neighbouring farms. The vegetable garden grew and so did the labourers' income.
In the months that followed, using a donkey and rickety plough, Moses and I took turns in cautiously turning over the newly de-mined fields (minus several goats) and planted an assortment of cassava, sorghum, maize, beans as well as a few cashew trees. Mavis’s vegetable garden had, in the mean time, generated a huge turnover and eventually included berries, potatoes and sunflowers.
Early one morning I stumbled into the kitchen for an early morning caffeine fix and found a group of women gathered around the stable door. Through sleepy eyes I studied them over the rim of my coffee mug for a while and then asked Mavis what was happening. The crowd fell silent as Mavis approached. She sheepishly handed me a wad of cash, followed by a little curtsy.
“Madam, we ladies, we work very hard for the vegetables. We now have a little money for the school books – for the children, madam.” I realized then what she was asking. She wanted me to buy books when next I went into town. I looked up at the clock, poured some more coffee and considered them sternly for a while more. “Come on then ladies, don’t just hang about. Let’s go shopping!”
Mavis and Moses sat up front with me while Mavis’ team of eight ladies sat clucking with excitement in the back of the 4x4. A few hours later we returned with school supplies – even a blackboard. The ladies had struck a hard bargain with the owner of a grocery store – several crates of vegetables in exchange for his blackboard. Moses and I had watched the bargaining process from a distance and chuckled when we observed the businessman squirm under the torrent of protests and waving handbags when he tried to resist.
In our absence Philemon, had assembled a team to start clearing out and cleaning up the small school house. Part of the roof had blown off earlier in the year during a storm, but would be repaired with the timber and masonry we had purchased in town.
Within two days the restored and newly painted school house was ready to receive its pupils. I was asked to officially re-open it the following week, allowing sufficient time for festivities to be planned and get word out to the neighbouring farms that the children could now return to school.
Subsequent to the ceremonial ribbon cutting, which was in fact a strip of old sheet, there was a chorus of harmonious children's voices singing of old African kings. From the other side of the room I contemplated the children’s threadbare clothing and came to realize their voices reflected a deep sadness – a tenor that only Africans have been blessed with. Childhood innocence filled their eyes; some even had a glimmer of hope for the future. These faces, without exception, were beautiful miracles of life, in spite of pervasive misery and deprivation. I noticed some body sores and bruises, bare feet or torn shoes and was immediately grateful for the darkness of the room when I felt tears coursing down my cheeks. It was then that I realized how deeply my own roots had become entwined with these beautiful people.
All too soon it was time to return to England. I’d said many farewells in the past but felt particularly torn on this occasion. I had packed my few belongings into my rucksack and tossed it into the back of the 4x4 the night before and hoped to slip out before dawn. That night, my last on this African farm, I tossed and turned, taking the sheets with me every time I turned in the sticky humidity and eventually gave up and groped my way onto the veranda where I lit my pipe and enjoyed my last home brewed brandy. I fell asleep to the sounds of an African night and woke a few hours later to the sound of crashing surf and a brightening sky. The sun was peeking over the horizon as I slipped out the kitchen door and quietly coasted the pickup to the end of the decline, where I started the engine. When I reached the Macadamia tree line I stopped and looked back one last time, memorizing the landscape, the taste and the smells.
Rounding the corner at the bottom of the hill, heading towards the farm gates I saw Moses and all the farm labourers — mothers, fathers, wives, children, grand children — all of them, lining either side of the road.
Moses stepped out and beckoned me stop. He handed me a book which contained essays written by the children on how I had affected each one of their lives. A lump had inexplicably risen in my throat and I tried unsuccessfully to swallow it.
I winced at the taste of the brandy the Air Stewardess handed me. It was missing something – Moses' magic touch and apricots. I smiled inwardly. My train of thought was disturbed by the business suit occupying the seat next to me.
“I say, that’s an awfully nasty gash you have on the back of your hand there… what on heaven’s name happened?”
I considered my bronzed skin and long-ago manicured hands, one of which I caught on the business end of the plough. “Just a little gardening,” I said.