The Dombodena road heads north-west out of Plumtree, shadowing the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana. It stretches straight and wide as only a road with no mountains, no rivers or valleys or villages to negotiate can. There are acacia trees on either side and, behind them, the broader-leafed mopane trees that elephants love to eat. The sky is an unmottled blue and the sun, early on an April afternoon, is high and hot. Apart from the noise of our Land Rover engine, and the occasional coo of a hoopoe, all is quiet. For the last hour, the only vehicles we have seen are wooden donkey carts, pulled by teams of four.
The road is made of red sand, corrugated from the grader, and to get the smoothest trip, we soon discover, you have to drive between 60 and 80kph. Any slower and the car starts juddering so that it sounds and feels as if you are inside a jackhammer; any faster and you risk skidding on a patch of deep soft sand. When we took charge of our Land Rover 12 days earlier we were warned about the dangers of rolling overladen vehicles on sand roads. Since then we have driven over 2,000km, and we’re still upright.
But the Land Rover is jammed as never before. As well as our family of four, two tents, a table, chairs, mini-fridge, and the requisite bedding, pots, spoons, water and food we need for camping out in the bush, we have just taken on an extra 50kg of supplies bought in Plumtree as gifts. Squeezed between washing-up bowl and firewood are large sacks of maize meal, sugar and flour, boxes of tea and biscuits, notepads and lollipops.
I hope they will be well received, as generosity rather than patronage, but in truth I have no idea. Our trip so far—from Maun in Botswana, through Chobe game reserve, east to the Zimbabwean border, south through Hwange National Park and Bulawayo and then west to Plumtree—has been leading to this day. We have come to try to find a small homestead somewhere off this road that is not shown on the map and is not recognised by our Sat Nav, to meet the family of an old friend, to pay our respects and to try to make some kind of amends.
"Now Dickson is a real gentleman." I can’t count the number of times my grandmother said that. It was usually in response to some hot-headed lecture I was giving her about her attitude towards the black majority that had not yet then taken charge of her country. My grandmother thought of herself as a liberal, and in the world in which she lived, she was. But she was also South African. Born in the small town of Barkly West, on the banks of the Vaal River, she moved as a girl to Johannesburg where, through beauty, grit, marriage and the colour of her skin, she became châtelaine of a lovely house. Highveld had an orchard, a tennis court, a walk-in cold-room—and staff.
When I was young, these kind and hard-working people were ruled over by Charlie, the cook. He was with my grandparents for 30 years and was the son of a Zulu chief. He made the lightest of orange chiffon cakes. When Charlie retired and went back to Zululand, my grandmother was distraught. She loved and respected him, as we all did—and relied on him totally.
"I was driving back from Rosebank on the day after Charlie left and I saw a man sitting on the corner of the road," she told me. "There was something about him that made me stop. I asked whether he was looking for a job, and he said 'yes' and I took him straight home with me. I’ve been blessed that, for nearly 60 years, I’ve only had two manservants and they’ve both been real gentlemen."
I was nine when Dickson came into our lives. On our yearly trip to South Africa, he would treat me and my two younger sisters like family with a hint of royalty. He was always immaculate, in pressed khaki shirt and trousers held up by a belt, which was half hidden beneath his belly. He would put on a white jacket to serve dinner, and if my grandparents were having a party, he would augment this with a blue sash. It was a habit he continued even after my grandfather became unwell and they moved into a flat.
As a child, I accepted South Africa as I found it and loved Dickson and the various other smiling people who came and went from the house and garden. My family didn’t believe in apartheid and, by the standards of the day, they treated their staff very well. It was only after I went to work in Johannesburg, as a journalist on a left-leaning paper, that I really started to rail against what was happening and to feel the shame and anger that is the necessary companion to the luxury.
I grew embarrassed at what Dickson did for us: the tidying and clearing and cooking, those early-morning cups of tea in bed, and the late-night locking of doors and windows. I winced when he called my grandmother "Madam" and my grandfather "Master". Sometimes I would go out of the back door and sit and talk while Dickson and the others were having their lunch (after ours was cleared away). They always ate the same thing: meat, gravy and mieliepap, the maize-meal stodge that looked like our mashed potato. And so I got to learn about his family.
Dickson was from Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe at some point during his time with my grandparents. "You know Plumtree?" he would ask me, and I would shake my head. Although I went to Zimbabwe several times when I was living out there, it was always to safari lodges or fishing camps, or on canoeing or walking trips. I imagined Plumtree in their image: neat villas and jacaranda-lined streets.
He talked to me about his country. He was an Ndebele, from Matabeleland, and his leader, Joshua Nkomo, had lost out to Robert Mugabe after the British choice of independence leader, Bishop Muzorewa, had proved unpopular. Mugabe, from the Shona tribe, set in train a massacre of Ndebele that was brutal and effective. After the vicious, 15-year battle for independence from white rule, bloodletting had become part of the Zimbabwean reality. Perhaps it always was: Bulawayo, the second city of Zimbabwe, means "the place of killing".
Dickson had a wife back there and a growing family. Each year, when he went home for his break—travelling by bush taxi over the border at Beitbridge—he would buy another cow and often make another baby. One daughter was called Lilian, after my grandmother. Just before I left Johannesburg, in 1991, he came to the small flat above my grandparents’, where I was living, and with a broad smile on his face, told me that he’d had another daughter: "She’s called Samantha."
Each year, when I visited, I would ask Dickson about Samantha. He would put his hand against his leg, palm up, to show how tall she was, and I would buy some clothes from Edgars for him to send home for her. Over the years, I found out that she was doing well at school, and loved writing. One day, I promised, I would come to Plumtree to meet Samantha. "You can stay in our house," he said, and showed me a picture of Samantha wearing a red Edgars dress, standing in front of a simple breezeblock building with a tin roof.
Once, perhaps 20 years ago, I met his wife, who had come to Johannesburg to visit: a tall, thin woman wearing a printed-cloth turban. After that, Dickson would bring back intricately woven baskets that she had made for us. One year, he returned from his leave with his son, Andrew or Sasinas (most Zimbabweans of that era had two names), who found a job in an Italian restaurant nearby. On Sundays, Dickson would bring him to help out, particularly after my grandfather died, and my grandmother built a new house, made of glass, near Rosebank. Andrew was thin, like his mother, with a shy smile. He had been the first in the family to go to secondary school; Dickson could take a message, but he would ask for help with the shopping list.
In 2000, Dickson announced his retirement. He had 20 cattle and he wanted to go back home to look after them and to be with his family for more than three weeks a year. But not a year afterwards he was back. The rains had failed, my grandmother explained, and he needed the money. And then, in 2003, I received a phone call from Johannesburg. My grandmother, her voice welled up with sadness, explained that Dickson had kidney failure. The doctors in the clinic she had taken him to said they could do nothing, and so she had packed him into a taxi, and sent him back over the border at Beitbridge, to die at home, as he wished.
Zimbabwe, to us in the West, has become a place where bad things happen. We have grown used to reading of land grabs, of food shortages, of one opposition leader after another being killed in mysterious accidents involving large lorries. We know Mugabe is no friend of Britain’s—and we are no friend of his.
So it was with a measure of trepidation that I started planning this odyssey. As the years had slipped past, I had not forgotten Dickson, and from time to time I would think of Samantha – pricked with a sense that I should have kept in touch, at least, with my namesake. In 2011, after an uneasy last few years in London, away from the world she knew so well and the people who knew how to look after her, my grandmother died. She was 95. Some years earlier, she had asked me to be her executor. Her will was simple, but it left me with an urgent desire to track down Dickson’s family and take them their due.
Eighteen months later, we were barrelling down dirt roads in a Land Rover named Kingsley (after Mary, the African explorer and writer). On day four, we crossed from Botswana, where the camps were clean and the game reserves teeming, into Zimbabwe.
The tar road from the border at Kazungula was a relief after five hours of pot-holes and dust. As we approached Victoria Falls, the verges turned from a wispy golden to a lush green, edged in by neatly painted curbs. Driving down the main street, all seemed immaculate, much as it had been when I last visited 20 years before, except emptier. In Botswana, there had been tourists around most corners, khaki-clad, clinging to the open back seats of Land Cruisers, the odd Japanese group wearing white masks over their mouths; in Zimbabwe there were fewer. Before we left, a friend had told me about his last visit, five years ago, when galloping hyperinflation had emptied the shops: he was presented with a menu at the Victoria Falls Hotel, only to be told that they didn’t have the first eight things he tried to order. ("So why have a menu?" he asked. "Just in case you ask for the one thing we do have.")
In 2009, after Mugabe was shocked by the previous year’s election results into sharing power with Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, all attempts to hang on to the Zimbabwean dollar were abandoned and the US dollar became the local currency. Goods trickled back into the country, followed, at a wary distance, by the first visitors. Our hotel was like a snapshot from an earlier time: polished wood, crisp linens, serried ranks of flowers in the garden, and everything one could possibly want to eat. As we sat on the terrace before dinner, a group of elephants wandered across the bridge and into the hotel’s garden, to gorge on the fruit of the marula tree.
The next four days, in Hwange National Park, were similarly rich in game and short on tourists. At Main Camp one night, ours was the only tent, and the little cottages, which I remembered from a previous trip, were mostly empty and a little tired. But when we arrived back late, after stumbling upon a lion pride stalking a large kudu male, it was to find that a fire had been lit under the water tank of the ablution block close to where we had pitched camp. The shower water was piping hot and we lay in our tents that night listening to the competing roars of two male lions.
At the lodges we stayed in, our fellow guests were almost exclusively white Zimbabweans. I had been reading "Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight", Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of a Rhodesian childhood at the time of the civil war, in which she described how whites had to go into town accompanied by armed escorts and how, once the Lancaster House Agreement had been signed, ending the rule of Ian Smith, the white families slunk away—over the borders to South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, even back to England. With that and Mugabe’s land grab, I was surprised to see them. "Agh, this is a beautiful country, we just get on with it," one lady, a nursery-school teacher in Harare told me. "Look, things aren’t so bad now. Harare is like a first-world city. There are live lobsters in tanks for sale at some supermarkets."
They all had stories to tell: of impromptu tailgate parties during a three-day queue for petrol, of filling their fridges with food and beer the day they got paid as they knew their wages wouldn’t stretch to a loaf of bread by the following morning, of hope and fear about the future—though few talked explicitly about Mugabe. "We whites are lucky," the manager of a lodge in the Matobo Hills, south of Bulawayo told me. "It was tough for us, sure—sometimes we didn’t eat meat for months. But we all banded together, whatever our colour, and helped each other. When the dollar was brought back, most things started up again. It’s harder now for the majority of the black people, though. Some got very rich playing the currency during those times, but most lost everything. Then there was the drought in 2005. Life is very expensive now."
The Matobos, named after amatobos, the bald-headed ones, was our last stop before Plumtree. That evening, we went into the park and clambered up the head-shaped granite boulders to World’s View, to see the grave of Cecil Rhodes, who founded the diamond mining company, De Beers, and had two countries named after him (Northern and Southern Rhodesia). The stone was warm from the day’s heat, and as the sun slipped towards the distant horizon, we sat at the foot of the memorial to the 32 "brave men" led by Major Allan Wilson, who had crossed the Shangani River in 1893 in an attempt to capture King Lobengula, the last Ndebele king. A guide was telling his American clients what had happened. “After a bloody battle against a large army of Ndebele warriors, all 32 were killed, after themselves killing more than ten times their number." When he had finished, I had to ask how he felt about the memorial to the colonists in this beautiful spot, and Rhodes’s grave, preserved so pristinely. He shrugged: "They were in charge here when he died and we had no choice. Now we get income from it."
The rains this year have been bad in southern Zimbabwe, and as we drive along the Dombodema Road, we cross over beds of red sand. I have directions written in my diary: we are to head to Malope Store, 57km from Plumtree.
Once we knew we were coming, I had contacted Sasinas Ndlovu, Dickson’s son, in Johannesburg.
"Aee, Samantha, it is good to hear from you!" he said. I told him that my grandmother had died, and that we wanted to visit his home, and to meet Samantha.
"But Samantha, and Lilian too, they are working here in Johannesburg now." For the last 30 years, Zimbabweans like Dickson and his children have been crossing the border in search of work. For most rural families, the money they send back is their only income; an estimated one in ten Zimbabweans now live in South Africa, and probably more are there illegally.
A month later, I had to go to Johannesburg for a family wedding, and I arranged to meet them on Sunday morning. They were waiting on a wall close to my grandparents’ old house, and when I got out of the car, we all hugged like a reunited family. Lilian was tall and thin, like her mother, and Samantha, now 21 and working as a waitress, was beautiful. We spent the day together at the Rhino and Lion Park and I told them what a wonderful man their father had been and when I said goodbye, I promised to keep in touch.
And now, on the pre-appointed date, we are heading to their home. Sasinas had told me someone would be waiting for us at the store. As we eat up the kilometres I feel a mixture of excitement and nerves. What if they’re not there? What if we can’t communicate? What if we do something wrong? What if…?
As the milometer clicks to 57, we see a short row of stores on the right. We pull in and as I open the driver’s door a woman rushes over. She is tall and elegant and wears a printed dress with matching turban. She grabs me and hugs me tight. We embrace for long minutes. She is full of life, like a rushing river. Next to her is Sasinas’s wife, Ntombela. My husband and the children come to meet them and we are all enfolded into more hugs. The children smile, but are a little wary. I get out the photographs I have brought – of Samantha, Lilian and Sasinas at the Rhino Park, and of Dickson in my grandmother’s garden. They are shown to all the people who are gathered around these four small stores in the middle of this empty place.
Everyone climbs into and onto the Land Rover and Dickson’s wife, Tiyapo Sibanda, with Ntombela acting as interpreter, directs us to their home, off the road, along a track which has not seen car tyres for a long while, scratching past acacia trees and over ditches. There is whooping and laughter inside the car. Ntombela points out her home—a single-room breeze-block house, half-painted, waiting for Sasinas to return from Johannesburg with money and paint.
We see children before we see Dickson’s house, maybe a dozen of them, running up the track. They are shy at first, hiding behind each other as we wave hello. Each is introduced to us: "This is the grandson of Dickson, the son of his first-born; this is the granddaughter of Dickson…" The house is inside a small compound, surrounded by a rickety wire fence. There are two thatched rondavels, one for cooking, another used for storing sacks and things, and a small outhouse by the fence with an opening on either side, and signs: Obaba for the men and Omama for the women. There is no plumbing, no electricity.
Tiyapo shows us into the house—a sofa and two chairs in the main room, a red-painted floor, and in the corner, a hi-fi, clearly serving an ornamental purpose. The walls are bare, except for a framed photograph of Dickson and Sasinas, standing outside my grandmother’s house. There are three doors leading off: to a storeroom at the back, with clothes of all sizes jammed into one cupboard, and a sack of flour, some watermelons and a sticky-looking cake that we discover is made from the dried fruit of the umkwakwa tree; to the bedroom that she shares with the children she cares for; and to the spare room, where we are to sleep. There is a bed in the corner, standing on bricks, as Dickson’s bed always was, to guard against the Tokoloshe, a malevolent but fortunately short sprite.
Someone brings in a watermelon and we sit on the chairs and the floor to eat it, small chunks being passed around to the children, who seem to multiply in number. My face aches from smiling, greeting each new person who comes in to meet us. There is an old woman, the wife of Dickson’s brother, who has a smile as broad as the plains, but when I ask how she is, replies: "I am not well. I have a bad leg and a bad head and a bad stomach," and then bursts into laughter. An old man, Tiyapo’s brother, arrives, dressed in a smart suit and hat, with polished brogues. He sits in the only armchair and gets out a large container full of sorghum wine, which he pours into a saucepan and drinks, determinedly, throughout the evening.
We troop outside and climb over the fence into a field, planted with some maize and watermelons and beans, which look as if they are struggling in the parched earth. In the middle, we find three graves: Dickson’s, which is made of concrete, and beside him a mound covered in stones for his daughter, who is referred to as "the one who has passed away", and a smaller, grandchild-sized mound beside that. As we stand there, I find tears snaking down my face. Dickson spent most of his life away from his country and family; I wish so much he was here with us now.
The afternoon is spent looking around. We are taken to see the five remaining cows—the rest died in the drought—the trickle of the river, which provides the water they use to drink, bathe and cook with, but which is not enough this year to use on the crops. We admire the donkeys and have to fight to spare the life of the goat that Tiyapo announces she is going to kill for our supper. Later, after we have seen everything and met everyone, we sit inside and, by the light of a single candle, eat the maize meal that they call sadza here, with some meat we have brought, and gravy. The grandchildren, braver now, are transfixed by our head torches and beg to have their pictures taken with our children: "Shoot me, shoot me!" they cry. Afterwards, the lollipops from Plumtree are handed round and everyone sits solemnly sucking them as night falls.
The cock crows early the next morning. Getting up, I find the uncle asleep in his chair and Tiyapo polishing the floor. A mobile phone, propped up in the only corner of the room with reception, keeps ringing. It is first Sasinas, then Lilian, then Samantha, all itching to know how our visit is going. We are offered porridge—sadza, this time mixed with sour milk—but manage to decline. Dickson’s eldest granddaughter, Snothi, pulls me into the room at the back to ask whether I can help her to get a passport as she wants to go to Johannesburg to find work. It costs $200. Then she says Samantha wants to go back to school. Dickson’s wife asks me if I can buy them a new fence.
I can see what this is costing their dignity, and I want to do something. Last night, I couldn’t help but notice how big my children looked compared with those of the same age, and how well fed. I empty my suitcase and give away everything I won’t need for the rest of the trip. Tiyapo dances around in my beaded sandals and printed sarong. Ntombela puts on my Intelligent Life T-shirt. There is no work here, and no money, except what the children send back from Johannesburg. When Dickson was alive, his small income from my grandparents was sent home to buy maize meal and cooking oil and tea and sugar and, when he had saved enough, another cow. I remember how I would leave new clothes strewn around my flat, and sigh when we had roast chicken for lunch every Sunday.
As we are about to leave, I take Tiyapo into the back room and give her the $1,000 I have carried from England to Botswana, and down through Zimbabwe. She asks how much a dollar is worth in South African rand, and when I tell her, she grabs me and there are tears in her eyes. It is a gift, I say, from my grandmother to Dickson’s family. She makes us promise that we will come back to eat the goat.
We climb back into the Land Rover, emptier now, and with Ntombela and her son, Andile, getting a lift as far as Plumtree Hospital, wave goodbye and head back onto the Dombodema Road. "Your grandmother was a good woman," Ntombela says as we pick up speed until we are no longer being rattled by the corrugations. She was, in her time and in her place. But she didn’t leave any money to Dickson’s family.