It wasn't always broken


As the world watches Zimbabwe burning from a safe distance, one girl remembers what it was like being raised in a country that once held all of Africa's hope for a better future.

They don’t know how to cook meat in other countries. Mostly, and especially in the UK, it’s overcooked, or sometimes smothered in thick gravies. When we were little, my brother and I would happily devour entire rare steaks and use our teeth to strip every morsel from the bones we held in our hands, leaving nothing for the dogs to chew on. We must have looked as wild as the savage animals from the plains of the savannah to our parents’ polite guests who managed to use cutlery in every conceivable situation. However, this was forgiven for we were, after all, the children from Africa.

My father, an Italian architect, moved to Zimbabwe in the late 1980s to further the family business and was followed by my mother, a Singaporean Chinese. I was born in London and my brother was born in Singapore. Until I was 12, we continued to travel between Zimbabwe, South Africa, England, Italy and Singapore in an endless, undefined pattern.

Our home, however, was definite. Zimbabwe was the best place in the world for us to have grown up in. “Paradise” hardly begins to describe what Zimbabwe was to me. If you have spoken to anyone who has lived in Africa and watched the sunset as the sky turned into unbelievable colours, you would know that what I describe is no exaggeration. The magic and beauty of Africa, even in all its turmoil, is unchanging.

Certain images will never leave me. The places along the dusty roads where people sold statues carved out of soapstone, roasted mellies (ears of corn), and eggs that you could buy for a lower price if the shells were cracked. The endless blue skies that sometimes filled with heavy clouds that stormed and left with the scent of water rising off the roads as all the millipedes and flying ants emerged. Going off to Nyanga for weekends and building fairytale huts, or picking porcini mushrooms in the cool forests before the Kudu (a type of antelope) could get to them.

My brother and I were lucky. Living in Zimbabwe gave us an entirely different perspective of people. Often, I am asked what it was like to be a Eurasian in Africa. I don’t remember it being anything out of the ordinary. I don’t remember being aware of race until I was in primary school when we were hit by American television shows and a paranoid sense of political correctness. I remember the horror of my first day of high school after moving to South Africa; the minute the new students got into the playground, groups were formed according to ethnicity as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I was fortunate to gain an experience of incredible diversity in Zimbabwe that I only found again when I attended an international high school, and was lucky to find again in University in Edinburgh. In Zimbabwe it was never mentioned because it was not important to us. Now, diversity has become something to celebrate.

Idyllic as my life seemed, danger still existed for everyone. Our parents regularly exposed us to the poverty and misery that existed on our doorstep. As I grew, the cracks in the perfect picture that Zimbabwe seemed to grow with me. Queues to get petrol became longer; people started bringing the braai (BBQ) equipment along to make a day of it. Crime increased dramatically. There were fewer items in the supermarkets but prices kept rising. "War Veterans" started invading white and black-owned farms as part of the "land redistribution" policy. Most shocking were the pictures of the people that Mugabe’s army had savaged. Anyone deemed "the opposition" appeared with serious injuries, or simply dead.

Still, many refused to believe that Zimbabwe would ever change and kept insisting that it would all blow over. My family lived in a large pink house at the top of the hill in Harare. There was a lot of land so we were protected from the noise and confusion of the city but right alongside the property was a main road that was host to numerous horrific accidents. It seems a perfect metaphor for what was to come. An oasis of calm under the constant, unseen threat posed by people who could not handle their position of power, whether it was in their cars or in politics.

Leaving Zimbabwe was difficult; it was my home, my country. Now, when people talk about it, they talk as if it is some unreal place. You can’t expect someone to fully sympathise with a country so distant and foreign in custom. However, I will never forget what it was like. I carry the memories of Zimbabwe with me always.

I never thought of growing up in Zimbabwe as something "exotic", or any of those other adjectives that my friends from the First World use to describe it. What they never understood was that I found their lives just as interesting as they found mine. People always assume that adventure can only be found in far-away lands, but not in their own homes. They simply ignore it and pass it off as something ordinary – when really, it never is. If that is something that Zimbabwe taught me, more than anything, is that there is a story in everything and you just have to listen to hear it.



First Published: 
November 2008


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Shan Bertelli is a Singaporean Italian who grew up in Zimbabwe and is currently attending the University of Edinburgh where she is studying English Literature and History of Art. She began traveling the world when she was 16 days old and hasn't stopped loving it.