Reflections on the first half

History Lesson

A while ago I was corresponding with Deirdre in the USA and after griping about my lack of an impact on the world she commented; “Sounds like you are having a mid-life crisis!” to which I replied – “What? You mean I’m going to be 100! I don’t want that!” Well, anyway, here goes on the first 50.


Me about age 4 – even kittens are cute!

I spent an idyllic childhood on a forest estate north of Mutare in the Eastern Highlands of Rhodesia (as it was then). My father was the general manager there for some 20 years and not long after the family moved into the manager’s house I was born. It was not an auspicious start; my mother had B negative blood and my father O positive which was a major problem to me the third child. Born by C section a month premature I endured some 3 blood transfusions and it was a while before I was allowed home. My aunt told me last year that there was a fourth child who did not survive and I remember when I was about 5 I was not allowed into the parents’ bedroom for some time as my mother recovered from an unspecified condition. Later they were called “women’s problems” which meant I was not allowed to ask!

I didn’t of course know that I was having an idyllic childhood at the time but I appreciate it now so I guess that’s OK. There were horses to ride and a New Zealand white rabbit called Rasey (for his raspberry drop coloured eyes – I’d never seen raspberry drops so had to take my mother’s word for it) who was my best friend and ate just about everything I was given for tea; cake, biscuits, sweets, you name it I shared it with him. He lived to a grand old age for a rabbit and I was always a bit guilty that I lost interest in him as I grew into my early teens. Did he feel neglected and nostalgic for the days when he was the centre of my very small universe? Maybe I should credit him with awaking my long time love affair of animals (rats excepted) – I salute you here old friend!

Of course we had dogs too. A long line of Labradors mostly and I think I can name most. There was even old Pfumo, a mix of Lab and mastiff, named for the John Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal which for some reason my parents would not explain. What a character dog he was; immensely powerful he was equally soft and would bring distinguished guests and friends up from the front steps by the hand held with a steel-like grip in his mouth. Much to my parents mortification he drew blood on a Lord Somebody (come out to the “colonies” to check on his investments – the forest estate was part of a large multi-national company). It was about the same time that my father served the dogs’ stew to a group of similar distinguished folk. My mother asked him to get the stew off the stove and he chose the wrong pot. It seems the guests didn’t notice the difference either as they were all very complimentary.

My mother taught me for the first 3 years of school by correspondence course. My brother and sister were only taught for 2 years so were rather put out. Maybe my mother didn’t want me to leave being the youngest? I didn’t mind. Boarding school was quite a shock and I remember my first night at Chancellor Junior School; after lights out all the new borders were crying not very surreptitiously under the blankets. I copied them because it seemed the right thing to do though I was actually quite excited!

I made new friends soon enough though I have since lost touch with most of them. I did bump into Bronwyn recently. I sat next to her in my first year and reminded her that I used to punch her. She said “Yes, and I used to make you cry!”  I’m not surprised I used to punch her! My last year of junior school was 1971 and I rose to the illustrious position of head boy. It did not mean much except that I had to give a speech at the final prize giving. I had something of a crush on the head girl, Kathy Miller who was blond and gorgeous. She seemed to spend her time giving me the cold shoulder. Thus was the stage set on my abysmal love life.


Early teens – I think

Senior school (from age 12) was in the same town and of course I was still a boarder. I don’t think boarding school did me any damage except for a complete lack of social skills; we did not mix much with the girls’ school which was some 5 km away. In the final two years we did meet the girls who were going on to “A” levels as they came up to our school to share facilities. I don’t recall mixing much and some years later one commented to a friend that I was no longer the shy boy that she’d known. She was wrong; I’ve just learnt to hide it better. Maybe it was me but I did not find them a very friendly bunch. I do today admire the attitude of my friends’ children who seem to be very much more at ease with the opposite sex.

When my father was murdered in my first year of the army my mother could not understand why I was not more emotional about our loss. My brother made some excuse for me but I never had the heart to tell her I could not easily mourn someone I didn’t really know – I never got to know him as another man as whenever I was at home on holiday he was at work. We got on OK but were never close. I vowed that I’d never send my children to boarding school for that reason – but I don’t have any.

Senior school was not a particularly enjoyable period of my life. I made some good friends (whom I rarely see any more) but I was bullied almost continuously throughout my first 5 years. Tip; bullies are cowards, they only bully those whom they know will not retaliate. The best treatment for them is to hit them very hard without warning. A friend of mine taught me this when he punched the same bully and never had any more problems and I’ve come across it elsewhere too. Some years back I ran into the bully at a pub. In those days I was very fit and the strongest I’d ever been. He by contrast was fat (he’d always been almost pathologically stupid) but he did not give me the excuse I was hoping for – I think he sensed I was hoping to thump him.

I left senior school in 1977 with mediocre “A” levels. I had lost interest in school and learnt the value of good teachers. I fought almost continuously with my maths teacher whose favourite refrain was “you must learn your formulae!” The previous year I’d done really well with a teacher whom I worshiped but as a result I ended up in the “advanced” class with a teacher whom I detested. Almost out of spite I got 4% for my mock exams in the June of that year though I did eventually pass. My biology teacher was arrogant and idle; more interested in riding his motorbike to inspect the cricket pitches than in teaching. In my first year of botany and university I discovered that for the most part he’d been using HIS university notes (we went to the same university) to teach us – even some of the phrases were identical.


Army days – wearing the RLI beret

On January 4th 1978 I was inducted into the Rhodesian Army. Immediately singled out for wearing glasses I was sent to a notoriously badly trained unit that was assigned to guard “Protected Villages”. I rebelled and immediately volunteered for SAS training. Looking back I don’t think the basic training was particularly good though friends who did make it through to the unit tell me that the real training started later. C’est la vie. I ended up volunteering for the RLI where I spent the rest of my army days. They were a mixed lot and not altogether bright (Rhodesia’s Lowest Intelligence was another take on Rhodesian Light Infantry) but we trusted each other with our lives and that builds a curious bond. Yes, we grew up REALLY quickly. Yes, we were callous and it was curiously easy to kill with a rifle – disconnected almost. I think killing at close quarters would have been altogether different. I was not a particularly good soldier – maybe I thought too much about what I was doing. To be a good soldier one must be prepared to kill on a reflex and anyway, I did mention that our training was not that great and although pointless to blame now it did cost me dearly. With hindsight I think the SAS only taught us the absolute minimum required knowing that most would not pass the selection and then the real training would start. Those who went through the RLI training got a much more thorough training as the battalion trainers knew that the vast majority would pass their selection process and there would be no time for further training thereafter. When I was told I was going to carry a machine gun I’d never actually fired one. I did on several occasions badger the troop corporal to let me go to the range and get used to firing it but it was always put off. When the crisis happened and I was shot it was likely due to the lack of training on the weapon. Contacts, as we called them, were inevitably very close quarters in dense bush, were over in a few seconds, and the one in which I was injured was no exception. I missed with the first 4 rounds which should never have happened. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have been hit by the simultaneous return fire but the training would have been effective.

Until I joined the army I had never seen a dead body. That of course would change and I was curious to know how I would react. In the end I did not react. After the first contact I was in we had to drag some bodies to a clearing where a chopper would take them away so that Special Branch could glean any intelligence off them. There was a stream to drag them across and I quickly learnt that the skin came off unless they were dragged by clothing. One had been shot through the head and his brains leaked into the stream. When I came back to get the next body a crab was nibbling at the brains.

One day in March 1979 it all went very bad. I was 19 years old and second in line to jump out of the McDonnell Douglas DC3 “Dak” transport aeroplane (an ancient but incredibly reliable aircraft, we even jumped out of one that had been at Arnhem in WW2!) buckling under the weight of the machine gun, ammunition and the parachute harness that had to be uncomfortable to work properly. Parachuting into a contact zone was always high adrenaline stuff – if you jumped you WERE going to get shot at (quite a lot of the early call outs were “lemons” and if the heli sticks did not make a contact the paratroops were not dropped) but after getting buffeted around for the last hour it was almost a relief to get out. I never saw the green light come on just the dispatchers shouting GO! GO! GO! and the corporal in front of me was gone. I tried to catch up, stumbled, my next step hit air and I went out the door head first.

Shit, normally it’s fun to get a bit of a ride in the slipstream but this is not. Look up and do checks. Shit again – I’ve got rigging twists almost to the canopy. I kick out of them and the machine gun swings out of reach behind my back. I just have time to assume a good parachute position and I’m hard into a maize field on my back. Damn that hurt. I get up and take the “cock sock” (masking tape and a coin on the barrel of the gun to keep the dirt out) off the gun, check the belt is in, and pull the bolt back and push it forward. I move the safety catch off. We set off up the hill where the enemy is stupidly trapped with only one covered route down and we are sweeping up. There is a lot of noise as a Lynx ground strike aircraft puts in rockets and machine gun fire and the K-car thumps 20mm cannon fire into the hill. We are now half way up and haven’t seen anything yet though we are in quite thick cover. “Watch out, there’s one running down to the left” someone shouts. Out of the corner of my left eye a silhouette appears and we both fire at the same time. A burst of rounds slams into some rocks to my right and sprays rock and metal fragments into my right shoulder. My first short burst of 4 rounds is low and just to his right. I correct, squeeze the trigger and there is a “kerchunk” as the mechanism slams forward and nothing happens. I look down at my ammunition belt. The slack has been taken up over my wrist and now the belt is too bent to feed. It seems to take an eternity as I look up seemingly at the pace of a snail. There is no noise. The silhouette is now being hit by other fire. His AK still on automatic I watch the white muzzle flashes go in apparent slow motion from my right to left as he makes a final futile sweep with the weapon and I am doubling over backwards under a massive impact. Total and utter disbelief. This is bad, very bad; I just know it and I have still not hit the ground. It was not supposed to happen. Why me?

I am lying on my back watching the blood run over the rocks. My blood. It really is running. Lots of it. Someone has turned the sound back on and I swear I can hear the blood trickle. I am vaguely fascinated. So this is what it’s like to die. It’s not so bad, there is no pain.

Reality sweeps back – panic. Help! They come running through the bush “Here he is!”  They pull out the field dressings and cut away my combat clothes. They cut off my pack and roll me off it. Someone else’s legs flop below my waist. “You’ll be fine!” Spencer tells me. FUCK OFF – I am NOT fine, I am PARALYSED (why do they tell the medics to say that?). They try and get a drip line into my right arm but my veins have collapsed. There is no stretcher in the chopper so they use my sleeping bag and crush the morphine ampule rolling me onto the bag. I am bundled down the hill to a clearing and the chopper arrives in whirlwind of clattering blades, dust, leaves and sticks. I am shoved onto the floor and lie looking up at the tech. My legs are now on fire and I cannot believe that pain like this exists. In the past I have always tried to console myself by thinking “don’t complain, you will come across worse pain” but now I come to the conclusion that now it’s OK to complain. I am frightened, no, terrified of dying. I reach up and take the technician’s thumb (that’s all he offers – he has to be able to reach his machine gun quickly). He looks as frightened as I feel – he must be thinking I am going to die on him. Is it that bad? It’s only a 10 minute flight to the hospital in Salisbury (Harare) and we mush onto the landing pad. Someone grabs my legs to move me onto the stretcher and I scream. A group of medical students in white coats have come to watch the action but I am well beyond caring. I am rushed to the emergency rooms and lifted onto a table. They cut the remains of my clothes off me and I am naked, bloody and dirty and I don’t care. A nurse who looks not a day younger than 60 takes my left arm, finds a vein and pushes a drip needle straight in and sets the drip running. The neurosurgeon appears – he is utterly detached and professional. He gets the staff to roll me over so that he can see the exit wound, says something to one of the sisters and departs. They prop my head up so that I can sign a form, then I lie back and ask for a blanket. I am shivering and ask for another and then another. They are red, blood-red. A nurse says “Shame” and covers me. I don’t even see the anaesthetist arrive – the room fades.

Lights overhead come and go. There’s blood in the urine bag and lots of bubbles in the blood drain. Corridors and lights overhead. X-ray machine. Talking. Faces come and go. I can’t make sense of it all. Where are my contact lenses, I can’t find my contact lenses. You weren’t wearing contact lenses. Yes I was. Nothing again.

I came back to my senses 12 days later. I asked one of the nurses how long I’d been in hospital “I got in yesterday, right?” and she just laughed and said “No, 12 days ago”. I had vague impressions of the Officer Comanding coming to see me after surgery and my sergeant’s wife (with a massive cleavage) bending over my bed otherwise it was blank – a gap in time. I’d had a massive infection – it must have been a very dirty bullet.

(2020) My sister took time off from university to come and sit with me. I was completely unaware of her presence. She told me recently, as I was sitting with her as she came to the end of her life, that she’d had to leave the room when the dressings on my back and side were changed as they stank more than she could bear. I wonder now if she was aware of my presence when I was sitting with her. Watching loved ones leave their life is humbling.

I spent a month in the Andrew Fleming hospital. I was paralysed from the waist down and my legs still felt like they’d been burnt in a fire. There was a cage so the sheets didn’t touch my legs and every two hours I had to be turned to prevent pressure sores developing. It was a training hospital and the nurses didn’t always get to me on time. Once the pain was so bad I was in tears by the time the nurses came to turn me over. For the most part though the nursing was good and the nurses kind. I did dread the injections though. My muscles had wasted away and my backside was pathetically thin with little muscle in which to push a needle. Twice a day the duty nurse would come around with a tray of syringes and an artificially cheery “Hello Mr Roberts – injection time!”. She would then try to get the viscous antibiotic into my skinny rear. It was not unusual for the needles to blow off the syringe and then she’d start again. Once she had to give up in embarrassment.

The hospital food was vile. In all respect they must have had hundreds of patients to feed but well, I couldn’t eat it. My mother would bring me food which was far more palatable but I had little appetite and it was many months before I could eat normally.

I shared a six bed ward with other men, some who’d been injured in the war. One fellow was a paragplegic who would get the most violent and painful spasms in his legs. It would take the strength of several nurses to break the spasms and get his legs straight. One day and elderly lady on a volunteer visit gave a stack of Playboy magazines that her son no longer wanted. Sex was as far from my mind as it was possible to be so I gave them to the other men in the ward. They were delighted.

After a month in the hospital on my back I was moved to St Giles Rehabilitation Centre where the long process of getting back onto my feet started. There were ups and downs (once they even sent a child psychologist to see me – I was terribly rude to her – forgive me if you read this!) but it was actually a lot of fun. I made friends and became aware of that there were many around me far worse off. The physiotherapists were quite easily the greatest bunch of girls I have ever come across who were compassionate, gentle and great fun. I loved them all. Here’s to you Trish, Jane, Heather, Sheila, Carrie, Marianne, Sandy, Jill and Judy. Judy ,who worked with the occupational therapy department, had no qualifications except an utterly unstoppable optimism and limitless good humour. She once brought me a carnation in a broken test tube with some putty on the bottom to seal it. I still see her occasionally and she’s as dynamic as ever. Dear sweet Carrie is still around and I see her occasionally – time has been kind to her and after 30 years she is as lovely as ever. Sandy is still based in Chinhoyi but the others are who knows where. Thank you all wherever you are, you picked me up literally and figuratively, I hope life has been good to you.

I’d been hassling Trish to let me walk unsupervised on crutches for some time and she very reluctantly agreed that if I could walk the length of the gym I could walk alone. I got within 5m of the end and went down in a heap, hit a bed and burst into tears. As Trish said I was not hurt, just frustrated. I still fall but use bad language instead of tears to express the frustration.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would be attracted to the girls and developed affection with Sandy. It never developed into anything more than a single kiss (that I was not expecting) and a few years later I took the photos at her wedding. Janet, another young patient, was just 15 when she contracted polio and was left paralysed from the waist down. She was an extraordinary cheerful person (and drop dead gorgeous to boot) and I had no difficulty to be persuaded to bring her back Beechies chewing gum from South Africa (apricot flavour please) when I went to university. Sue was a gentle soul who’d only been married a couple of years before developing a particularly aggressive form of spinal cancer. She was paralysed from the waist down and did not live long after I left St Giles.


Need to brush the hair!

In 1980 I went off to the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. I had little idea of what I really wanted to do but agricultural engineering sounded interesting. I battled both physically and mentally – my brain being pretty much unused for 2 years. So I took a gap year and went off to the Tsanga Lodge military rehabilitation centre in the Eastern Highlands of the newly independent Zimbabwe. It was run by the irrepressible Capt. Dick Paget and a staff of equally motivated medics, and anyone else with the right attitude. Nearly all the staff had been patients at some time and once again I was humbled by the attitude of those with injuries far worse than mine. Poor Reg had a brain injury and his sole pleasure in life was eating. He cared little for manners or dignity but could still follow conversations in the pub and after a bit of practice it was possible to understand his garbled speech. He eventually died from a lung infection caused by food going the wrong route. I still occasionally drive past Tsanga Lodge and little has apparently changed; the FN rifle on the logo was changed to an AK47 some years ago!

I still have intermittent contact with Anne Paget, Dick’s wife, and I gather that he is now battling demons of his own with senile dementia. Life can be terribly cruel sometimes.

Back at university in 1982 I switched to an agriculture BSc and was far better prepared. It was a great time! Surrounded by like minded people of a similar age I made good friends and enjoyed life. Alas I was still hopelessly unprepared to tackle the issue of women. At school I’d been shy but now I’d just learnt to hide it a bit better. One day I met Kate up by the Main Science Lecture Theatre. I’d been friendly with her brother at school and though I did not know her very well she was nice enough and very pretty. She was wearing a light coloured dress which showed everything of the very little she had on underneath (blue butterflies on her panties – I still remember that!) and she said I must go and visit her at the girls’ school where she was a border mistress. I could hardly concentrate and surely she could not mean it? Me, when there were loads of far better catches to be had? In retrospect she was probably just lonely and of course nothing may have transpired but I have to wonder. It was the first of many opportunities that I missed and I continue to hide my shyness behind bullshit and nonsense. Curiously I get on very well with women, especially if they are attached and the relationship is platonic. I still have no idea how to cope with a situation in which I am physically attracted to the girl. My best friends have always been male but my closest friends female.

My undergraduate results were good enough that I was offered an MSc project in the Horticulture Department. I loved it; this was what I really wanted to do and despite the slog of writing up a 220 page thesis it was very satisfying to see it all come together at the end. I also met Kathy in my last post-graduate year. A slim nurse just finishing off her midwifery course at the local training hospital we got on very well. I was besotted. She was off to go and travel the world and it did not take much to persuade me to follow her.

me20sI’d been offered a PhD project but I was tired of the university life not to mention the academic inbreeding that it would have implied (although the PhD was in another discipline) and bought myself a ticket to London, Perth, and back to Harare. When I got to the UK I decided to go and visit my sister in the USA. A visa was required and a very brief visit to the US Embassy in London just got me “you should have applied in Zimbabwe”. The Iranian couple in front of me didn’t have a problem. Thoroughly cheesed off I went to stay with Jenny, a friend of my sister, in Whitechapel where she was residing whilst furthering her qualifications. I don’t remember how the idea was born but I decided to go cycling on the continent from France to Switzerland and Germany where my mother had friends. In less than a week I’d bought an old bicycle, borrowed panniers off Jenny’s brother, bought a tent and was getting off the ferry in Calais. I spoke no French except what Jenny (who’d done a French degree) had written out for me phonetically – it was to have hilarious results! I cycled up the wrong side of the street and got a puncture in the bitter, misty conditions and had to use my gas stove to warm the tyre so that the patch would stick. That night I listened to the drip of the rain on the tent which I’d surreptitiously erected in a farmer’s field. I didn’t sleep much – I’d heard that illicit campers occasionally got shot.

10 days later I arrived in Zurich having subsisted on baguettes, camembert and jam and slunk out of campsites to avoid paying. I slept in more fields and forests without incident. On the way I passed through northern France with its numerous battlefields and cemeteries but by far the most moving one was the American one near Verdun. It was very beautiful, very peaceful and terribly sad. There was probably well in excess of 10,000 white crosses (there were around 1 million casualties in the battle for Verdun) stretching off in every direction, all perfectly lined up on the immaculate green lawn under the beautiful trees.

I had stayed one night in the nearby campsite after a long, hot ride of 143km. I got chatting to a Dutch guy whose hobby was going over the old battlefields with a metal detector.

“Do you have to be careful what you dig up?”

“Oh yes” he replied and produced a clip of .303 ammunition. “It still works. Farmers still occasionally set off unexploded shells with their ploughs”.

He was especially interested in finding one of the copper double eagles the German soldiers had on their helmets. He showed me one that looked perfectly good but was looking for one in perfect condition. The next morning as I struggled to get my tent pegs out of the damp soil I realized just how terrible fighting in the mud must have been.

At the border checkpoint in Basel I was stopped by two Swiss customs/immigration agents. They paged slowly through my passport. “So you have been to South Africa?”. “Yes”. “Are you carrying drugs?”. (Of course I am you arsehole) “No”.  Further down the road in a campsite by the Rhine the locals were much more friendly and a woman and husband brought me tea and biscuits on little table complete with embroidered tablecloth (I was told later that this was very unusual). In Zurich the people with whom I stayed kindly organized for me to rebuild the back wheel of my bicycle at a local bike shop; I’d cycled across France with a broken hub! I had discovered it whilst eating lunch in the Rhine valley but there was nothing I could do about it and it had got me some 800km so I just finished my baguette and liquid cheese and carried on. I liked Switzerland for its organization but found it bit sterile and after I while I had a desperate urge to throw down some rubbish; somewhere! It was time to move on.

In Germany I stayed with an old friend of my mother in the Black Forest area who was serious about her organic produce. So serious that the potatoes had succumbed to late blight and looked nothing like potatoes. The pig sty and dairy were under the house and not the most hygienic; there was even cow shit on the ceiling. I retiled the floor of the pig sty for her, fortunately without the pigs.

Back in France I headed north to Strasbourg with the intent of cycling out through Holland until I took a closer look at the map and noticed all the motorways. So it was back south of Paris and through the trendy town of Fontainebleau where I was roundly scolded for parking a disreputable bike against a very chic art shop. I did have a towel drying on the front of the bike and probably smelt a bit too so I did understand. I arrived back in London a month after I left with 16 pounds in my pocket – I’d left with 120. I’d cycled 1800km over 18 days. I loved France and still do. Cycling is their national sport so I always got a cheery hoot from drivers of trucks coming the other way and a farmer stopped to chat when I was having lunch one day but I could not converse. Now I can speak a lot more French!

I forfeited my original air ticket and decided to get a round-the-world one but first I needed to earn some money. I tried a variety of jobs and eventually got a bedsit in Reading on the Basingstoke road. It was not a happy time; some weekends were so cold that I had to get into my sleeping bag with all my clothes on as I’d run out of 50p pieces to feed the gas meter. The girl upstairs liked to have noisy sex with her boyfriend on the weekends. I could cope with that but not at 2 a.m. Kathy and her friend Hilary passed through on their way to cycle through Pakistan to China. I was still besotted but she was not and never had been and we began to drift apart although I was too obsessed to notice. Years later she told me that she’d only slept with me because she liked me. It left me gutted but luckily I had a friend who picked me up.

The three and half months in South East Asia were the best of my life. Everything was so utterly different from what I was used to. I loved the food, the people were kind and despite or because of my disability I was never ripped off. As a single male in Thailand I was continually hassled by the pimps “You want velly sexy lady, 14-15 200 bhat all night?”. No I didn’t but a lot of the other male backpackers did take advantage of the sex on tap. A prostitute once climbed into the back of a taxi with me in one of the more remote northern Thai towns and had to be dragged out by bystanders who thought it a huge joke. The prostitutes were easy to spot; they all wore shorts. The other Thai women really were gorgeous and extraordinarily elegant. They just seemed to glide everywhere.

I did have the courage to try the opium though. The “treks” in the hill country around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai were de rigeur for the backpacking crowd and I went on a short one that included an elephant ride, staying with a hill tribe in their village and as much dope as you could smoke. I wasn’t much taken with the latter as I tried it in the army and though sort of interesting it wasn’t so interesting that I needed to partake again. I did want to try the opium though. The penultimate night of the trek there was opium available and everyone gave it a go. After smoking 5 pipes and getting absolutely no effect at all I decided to reserve my money for more fruitful pastimes. Maybe I’d been desensitized by all the opiate based analgesics I’d had in hospital.

Eventually I had to leave the Mama Charn’s Hotel on Kho Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand or I’d still be there. It was a very casual, relaxed place with no resemblance to a hotel but the simply thatched huts with just a bed and mattress inside were perfectly adequate. I had sole use of a dugout canoe (it was outside the usual tourist season) to paddle around the small islands offshore where the bird’s nest soup raw material was collected. So I made off to the west coast of Thailand where the European girls went topless on the beaches despite signs, in English, asking them not to and then onto Pulau Penang off the Malaysian coast. It has the best value food I have ever tasted and the biggest rats I have ever seen. There must be a connection. The rats had attitude; they positively sauntered down the gutters. The food was amazing too; Thai, Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian. You just went along to an area where the food was served from carts, chose what you wanted and the food was brought to your table. All genuine and not tailored to western tastes.

Sumatra was fantastic. Excellent food and pleasant people. I started off in Medan in the north and made my way south to Bukit Tingi and then out to Singapore. In Bukit Lawang there was an orangutan rehabilitation centre where confiscated orangutans were re-introduced to the jungle. I was amazed to watch a huge male arrive nearly silently onto the feeding platform in the jungle and sit down and eat a banana and drink a mug of milk just like a human! On the way back past the camp, an Australian girl with whom I was walking, waved to a young orangutan in a cage. It waved back.

The food, oh my I did love the Indonesian food. I had a meal in the Bukit Lawang village called nasi padang.  Nasi is the Indonesian word for rice and it was free; eat as much as you liked. The padang side of the meal was a large selection of small dishes of food identifiable and otherwise. All was extremely spicy. I left the restaurant an hour or so later with my mouth anaesthetized by the chili. I couldn’t eat another bite and together with two good Bintang  beers (made under licence to Heineken) which all cost less than $3!

Lake Toba is in the centre of Sumatra and is a vast crater lake. I stayed for 3 days enjoying the crystal clear water 10m from the room I’d rented for $1 a night and being demolished at the speed chess that all the locals played in the coffee houses. Then it was on to Bukit Tingi for more amazing food and pleasant people. Visiting a renowned silver smith near the town we listened to a learner muezzin making an appalling mess of the call to prayer and both of us burst out laughing. The locals were at pains to tell me that although they were Muslim “we are not extremists like you find in the Middle East”. Indeed the women wore skirts, no head covers and were  charming. One even, with encouragement from her friend, said I was beautiful! It was my blue eyes which are very rare in that part of the world. I have not been called that since.

The ferry trip out to Singapore along the Sugai Siak river was an adventure in itself. I lay on the deck of the small boat one evening and watched thousands of fruit bats winging overhead on their way to raid fruit orchards. We changed boats onto a much bigger ferry with multiple decks all of a metre high full of people and their goods. A Dutch chef and his gorgeous Danish girlfriend (Lena, with baby-blue eyes and a turned up mouth) invited me up onto the roof and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the trip. A terrifying high speed motor boat trip completed the crossing in choppy seas to Singapore. There were two big outboard motors on the stern and a few centimeters of freeboard. We didn’t ask about life jackets.

Singapore was a bit of a disappointment – just an overly large shopping centre to my mind so I couldn’t wait to get on the go again up the east coast of Malaysia. By the time I reached the Thai border the monsoons were in full flow and we were all wading through thigh deep water in the local town. The taxis became boats and I had a meal in a restaurant with water flowing straight through beneath my feet. I teamed up with some other backpackers who needed to get to Bangkok in a rush and I got there with a day to spare; fording flooded rivers and threatening taxi drivers to take us the last km!

Traveling alone had its benefits; I didn’t have to consult anyone so I could do as I felt on the day though I do admit it would have been nice to share some of the experiences. On a couple of occasions I did travel with other backpackers but it was never for long.

The Christmas of 1988 I was with friends who lived in Canberra Australia. Before I could travel Australia I had to find some work and was lucky enough to make a contact in Sydney where I worked for 2 months. Staying in Kings Cross (the red light district) had its entertainment too. On three separate occasions I was propositioned by the same prostitute and no, I was not tempted. Cheap meals were to be had at the Hare Krishna kitchen for down-and-outs and they didn’t mind if backpackers came along (30c if you used their utensils, free if you supplied your own). There were used syringes and needles in the gutter and needle tracks up the junkies’ arms. Sydney was just another big city to me and a means to an end. On evening I got on the wrong train and ended up where I’d started. It was time to get out.

I spent 6 months in Australia and saw all except the west coast. I loved the people who were disarmingly direct and kind. It has to be one of the easiest places to hitch hike. On average I waited 20 minutes and even got a lift from a taxi driver in Cairns who’d been and Australian Navy diver in the Vietnam War. Another lift got me across the southern coast and I stayed with a young couple near Adelaide for a couple of nights. Jeff worked as a milkman in the early morning then on their smallholding in the rest of the day where they raised horses. Holly had her jaw wired up from a horse that had sat on her whilst being loaded into a trailer. The country did not appeal to me though – lots of desert and gum trees though the Great Barrier Reef was great.

I had no idea what to expect from Fiji as there had just been a bloodless coup. I stayed 2 weeks but could have stayed much longer. What a laid back place. They had coral to match the Great Barrier Reef; one just had to be a competent swimmer (which I am) to swim 400m or so out to it. I dived down to investigate a moray eel. It swam up to meet me so I let it be.

I had misgivings about Hawaii but it was a compulsory stop on my ticket. Waikiki Beach was disappointing (not many of the hot babes in Hawaii 5-0 but plenty of sunburnt Japanese) and was so crowded on the weekend that I had to walk in the surf line to go along it. I packed up and spent the rest of my time in a campsite on the north of Oahu. I was the only person there and fulfilled an ambition to swim naked in the sea at midnight under a full moon.

Arriving in Vancouver I was thrilled to see snow still on Grouse Mountain across the harbour. So the next day, in mid summer, I was thigh deep in snow and unprepared for the frozen feet. I headed across the border to Pullman, borrowed my sister’s pickup to travel around Washington and Oregon and then we both headed up to Montana, Alberta and across into British Columbia. Then it was back to the UK and a variety of menial jobs including the obligatory bar tending before heading back to Zimbabwe.

It took me a while to get work once back in Zimbabwe but I eventually ended up just outside Chinhoyi on the Kariba road managing a flower project. I hated it. The bush was great though and I spent many happy hours exploring with my first two dogs; Cassie a Labrador and Kim a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I also made good friends with Gary and Jo Hensman who I still see on an occasional basis. Gary was a Rhodesian Ridgeback breeder and I got three magnificent bitches from him.


Thirty something – I think

In 1990 my mother was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on her leg. She had it removed but it had been there too long (it was a re-occurrence and initially misdiagnosed) and by Christmas of 1992 the first headaches had started. I took leave without pay to go and help my sister look after her in the final stages and was there with her at the end. It was the Thursday before Good Friday, 1992. She was an extraordinary woman and I say that as a proud son and with the consensus of all who knew her. Not once in the final stages of her illness did I hear her complain. We ended as close friends. Perhaps one mistake I made was not asking her what she thought about her impending death. I was thinking that “if she wants to tell me she will” and she was probably thinking “if wants to know he’ll ask”. In the few times of my life that I’ve been ill or seriously hurt I have known somewhere deep down that I was going to get better. The only release she could look forward to was death. That humbled me.

She was a gifted Grade 1 teacher and I remember one Christmas she proudly showed me a tea set she’d been given by a grateful Indian family. She’d taught their daughter to read when all other schools and remedial institutions they’d taken her to had given up.

Although the Chinhoyi work experience ended up on a sour note I concluded that bad experiences were often more instructive than good ones. So I headed back to the Penhalonga house in the east of Zimbabwe and set myself up as a freelance computer programmer specializing in agricultural projects. I subsisted for 2 years before concluding it was a career mistake. I did enjoy working for myself and along the way my good friend Gary Goss introduced me to paragliding which has been a passion ever since.


Forty something

I joined Hortico Produce in the Enterprise valley in February 1995 and worked there for 4 years. The company exported fresh produce to the UK supermarkets and I was employed as a crop technologist. I learnt a lot but came to the conclusion that I was going nowhere and left to buy a seedling business just outside Harare.

That was 10 years ago. It has been a mixed success. We battled through the first 2 years and then made reasonably good money for another 4. Then the great Zimbabwe currency debacle started. That we survived at all is, I suppose, something of which I can be reasonably proud but the future is not bright.

My parents bought me a camera back from Mauritius when I was about 14. It was a cheap Halina. All plastic, it took surprisingly good photos and was totally manual with a match-needle meter system and a focusing system where one had to guess the distance to the subject. It lasted me to university where I bought my first SLR, a Nikon FM which I still have. I now have a Nikon D90 which I love and it has done me well since I bought it in March this year. My best work is at and on this Facebook page.

Paragliding has been my passion since September 1992 when I did a course locally. It took some time but eventually I


A more recent photo – looking eerily like my mother!

started flying in competitions in South Africa. I never placed but they were huge fun and a great learning experience with lots of people who shared the passion. In 2002 I ventured abroad to the US Nationals in the Owens Valley in California. It was amazing flying. We had to carry oxygen as the altitude gains were substantial and although the days started off rough, by 3 p.m. the thermals were smooth and massive and I enjoyed the huge climbs. It couldn’t last. On the third day we were all milling around at high altitude waiting for the start gate to open. There were only a few minutes to go and I found some lift that would obviously get me a height advantage.

I turn right into the lift and my vario starts a satisfying trill. Suddenly there is a sickening lurch, the lines all go slack and I look up to see my wing is just a bundle of “washing”. Reflexively my hands come down on the brakes as I fall. The glider cracks open and I look up. Uh oh, I’ve got a lot of riser twists but the wing looks fine, I will just untwist the risers and we’ll be on our way. The glider starts to turn to the left. In one turn it’s starting to bank, in two I’m into a big spiral and by three turns we are locked in. I’m thinking there must be a way out of this but the brake (control) lines are locked by the riser twists. This is SERIOUS! I have to get the reserve ‘chute out. I try to get my right hand to the yellow handle by my thigh but the G forces are too high and I am being forced into the harness and we are flying straight at the ground (my vario recorded a descent rate of 19.3 m/s). If I don’t get the reserve out I will die. The next thing the reserve is streaking away behind me – I don’t recall pulling the handle. My arms are thrown back by the G forces, the reserve comes out in front of my right arm and whips it up behind my head. There’s excruciating pain but at least things have slowed down. I must get the main wing in and commit to the reserve. My right arm is mostly useless but I can pull a brake line with my left, lock it with my right hand and pull again. Soon the wing is useless and I can assess my landing options. I’ve landed under a reserve before so am not too concerned but this is not looking good. I am drifting away from the spur below me and over a deep canyon. I drift down. The canyon is closer and things are starting to look ugly. There are huge spines of rocks running down into the canyon. This could hurt. The ground rush starts, there is a rock spine below me, oh shit, it slides underneath and I land on a scree slope with a crunch. It’s a bit of an anticlimax.

I was not badly hurt (the pectoral muscles were ruptured off my right shoulder) but I was helpless as my right arm is my walking stick arm. It was not long before another pilot landed and walked down to me and a rescue was organized. We got down to the floor of the canyon (a mistake as we found out) and some other pilots walked in to help. A “backpack” was fashioned out of a glider bag to carry me and the trek out started. It took us 4 hours to go a mile. We stopped late that night and met up with another group of pilots bringing in food, water and a stretcher. The next day it was decided that it was too dangerous to continue and a helicopter was called. The US Navy responded having been called off another S&R in the area and came to the rescue, in the form of a iconic Bell Huey, and flew up and down the canyon. Our radios would not work. It went off to refuel and came back to drop off a crew member and we ascertained that someone had transposed the frequency numbers. “Isn’t that a fire?” someone asked. The chopper, a Bell Huey, had dropped a “hot” World War II surplus smoke canister to assess wind direction and now the sage brush was alight. This was getting interesting. The chopper came back and winched us up one by one (the pilot was good, holding a chopper still in gusty conditions is tricky). The fire burnt on the mountain for four days.


If you look like your passport photo then you need the holiday!

I have also flown in the Alps in Annecy in France, probably the mecca of paragliding, but purely for pleasure. Paragliding is in trouble in Zimbabwe, largely due to the very small number of pilots still around. Once upon a time we had an annual championship which was well attended by South African pilots and was voted the most social competition in southern Africa. I’ll take the credit for convening the first 7. We are no longer members of the FAI (international flying association) so there are unlikely to be any more soon; just another casualty of the tragedy that is Zimbabwe.

I suppose this little story would not be complete without recounting the most recent incident which occurred some 3 years ago. I was out excising Jenni, my Rhodesian Ridgeback, on my mountain bike on the farm where I live. It was getting dark and I needed to get back across some wet ground and over some irrigation pipes.

I get up some speed but the ground is slippery and I am not going fast enough to attempt the jump over the irrigation pipe which I have done numerous times before. Still, if I stop now I’ll have to get off and have a long muddy walk. Let’s give it a go! I pull hard on the handle bars but there is still not enough speed and the bike stops dead. I am aware of a flash in my head and I am down in the mud, panting unnaturally. I can feel nothing below my shoulders. Now look what you’ve done – who is going to look after you? I shout for help several times as I am close to the main road but my head is facing the wrong way and I cannot seem to get much air into my lungs. Will I survive the night? Will anyone look for me? There is pain now in my right leg. So I cannot be paralysed. I can now feel my hands under my chest where I got them in a reflex. They won’t move. I shout again to no avail. I manage to ease some pressure off my left hand and get it out from under my chest. Where’s my cell phone? Shit. It was in my shirt pocket (this was the first time I’d carried it on a cycle) but it is not there now. I am still in trouble. I straighten my left arm and amazingly there my cell phone is! I pick it up and bring it up to my face where I can see it. I try to unlock it but my fingers are not working properly. I keep going and succeed. I can see one bar of signal and one bar of battery. This is not good. I get through to the ambulance service but they cannot hear me. I try again and pray the battery will not give out. The god of cell phones answers and now they can here me but don’t know where to find me. I call a friend and she says she’ll meet the ambulance at the end of the road. I get through to other friends. Vehicles start to arrive. The ambulance goes down to its axles in the mud and a tractor has to be found to pull it out.

I spent the weekend in a private clinic on a drip that was an anti inflammatory and a diuretic from hell. The nursing standard was not inspiring. I still bear the effects and my right hand is making lots of mistakes on the keyboard as I type. I need to get an MRI done but it’s pricey and I don’t know if I can afford the surgery (if that will fix the problem).

Unlike some of my friends I have managed to stay out of “political” trouble. Piet and Bridget Weller were beaten and terrorized off their farm near Mvurwi and Gary and June Goss were driven off their farm in Penhalonga under ugly circumstances and their eldest son, Stewart, had a torrid time in the Wedza area. I don’t own property so I was never likely to find myself in that situation but in 2003 I found myself on thin ice. It was the year of a general election and for some reason optimism was high in the opposition camp. Although never a member of a political party I was contacted to help the MDC opposition and in a fit of optimism I lent them my old pickup so election monitors could watch the polling stations. Hell, I’d even given up my British citizenship on the official form – it was all going to come right wasn’t it? Of course it did not and my pickup did not come back when I expected it to. My heart sank when I heard it had gone to the Muzarabani area north of Centenary in the Zambezi valley, a known hotbed of ZANU-PF (ruling party) activism. Apparently my presence was required at the Bindura police station. I was directed to Jonathan Samkange, a lawyer with connections. His office wall was plastered with grateful letters of thanks from parents whose children he’d extricated from trouble. Oh don’t worry, he assured me, I know them at Bindura, just bring along your passport next Tuesday and we’ll go out. This sounded like a REALLY bad idea to me. I called him on the appointed day only to find that he couldn’t go but another date was made and I didn’t need to bring my passport but Z$200,000 would help. I phoned around and found someone else, also white, in a similar situation. Oh don’t worry he said. I went out there and they weren’t really interested as soon as they found out it was just my vehicle out there and not me. Just tell them the truth.

The next week I went out with my driver having instructed a few friends where I’d gone and I told my driver if I was locked up he had to bring my other truck back and tell the aforementioned friends. Sure enough they were not interested. But they still wasted four hours of my time and it’s official that I don’t support ZANU-PF. Reason given; I don’t like their policies. I got the pickup back the next week with a broken windscreen and two flat tyres and even the unlicensed radio base station that had really irked the police. I kept the radio and had it reprogrammed to the paragliding frequencies we use.

Some years ago I did get a beating but it had nothing to do with “political” reasons. Political is placed in quotes because it was a favourite excuse for the police to do nothing as in “oh it’s political, there’s nothing we can do”. So far as I know none of the “political” murders of white farmers have ever been seriously investigated – never mind the opposition supporters who were hacked, shot and bludgeoned to death.

I was having labour problems, not surprising in the hyper inflationary economics of the time. We were off in the pickup to take the grievience to the NEC (National Employment Council) who are the refereeing body in such cases before it goes to arbitration. Having forgotten a crucial file I turned the truck around and was driving back to work near the Wingate golf course when I was stopped by a squad of soldiers running down the road. A common enough occurrence they didn’t mind too much if one drove carefully past them on the verge. The squad leader waved me past. The NCO taking up the rear took offense. Running in front of the truck he forced me to stop and then absolutely livid with rage (and incoherent) he attacked me with his swagger stick (a piece of 2cm square plank) through the open window. It did not last long but I was totally unprepared for the savagery of the attack and suffered a cracked rib. The caddies waiting for customers outside the gate of the golf course all gave me MDC salutes (open hand palm outward) as I drove slowly past them. I reported the incident to the barracks just down the road from where the soldiers had come but nothing happened and a lawyer brother of a friend advised me to drop it in case the accused decided to follow up on me!

Having written this I have realized it’s been quite an eventful first 50. Materially I have achieved little but I guess it has been a full life so far. Maybe I can keep up the momentum! The sensible decision would have been to leave Zimbabwe some years back; I even had a visa to go to New Zealand but for various reasons did not take it up. I guess I am a white African and am too closely bound to the country I love and the friends I’ve made. So I’ll drink a toast to friends past, friends lost, friends present and friends future. Thanks guys – you’ve made it all worthwhile! (Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends. W B Yeats)reflect

It is a reflection – I am right handed. Age 49.96


I am always vaguely embarrassed and occasionally irritated by people’s perception of me; “But you are so amazing! You have done SO well!” They are of course referring to my disability. I don’t see that I could have tackled life any differently than I have done; shut up and get on with it, and I know I speak for the various other disabled persons I came across over the years. One day early in my time at St Giles I went into the hydrotherapy room to chat to one of the physios. There was a group of children in there from the children’s section (the centre was originally set up for children). I didn’t hear it but one of them commented: “Look that poor man cannot walk properly”. She was a quadriplegic. I guess that it is just a question of perspective. Yes of course I get frustrated with my own clumsiness; in school I was a bit above average at sport – always hovering on the edge of the first team but never quite making it. I can still remember what it is like to be able to run and catch a ball or hike all day in the Chimanimani Mountains and even in my dreams I still occasionally run and am vaguely puzzled as to why I cannot do it in “real life”. But there is little that I can do about it.  Has having a disability made me a more compassionate person? Yes.  Sometimes one has to really carefully for the silver lining.

I have no regrets that I am aware of. Let me just make it clear how I define a regret; “I should have done it differently”. “Should have” along with “could have” and “if only” are the 3 most worthless phrases in the English language. My mother once made a passing reference to the “terrible ifs” in the final phase of her terminal illness – she was of course referring to the melanoma that had been misdiagnosed on her leg. She was saying that it was pointless to wonder on what fate had dealt her and I understood then and concur now. I do not ponder what would have happened if on that fateful day I’d not been shot. I am very much aware that I am extremely lucky to be here; had the enemy raised the barrel of his AK about a mm or two I might well have had my brains blown out and would be dead or worse. If the bullet had not gone between my ribs it may well have tumbled inside me and done massive damage – it just punched straight through. Would I have done things differently if I could? Of course I would have but I cannot so I see no point in dwelling on it (notice the “would” and “could”?). I suppose to put it coarsely my motto is – “Shit happens, learn and move on”. It is not always easy and there is only so much “character building” I can put up with and then I have a tantrum though I do try and make them private!

Gillian once asked me if I missed not having children. I replied that I didn’t know – how could I make a comment on something that I’d never experienced? I am not so sure now. My mother would have had a very lonely death if she did not have us around her at the end and I believe that is one thing that we all fear the most; a lonely death. She had her religious faith to help her along and sincerely believed that she and my father would be reunited after death. I don’t have any religion and although I don’t fear death (hey, it’s just the ultimate general anaesthetic and I’ve never had a bad one of those) I am certainly not looking forward to the process (assuming I see it coming). Now that I am approaching the half way mark (or a bit past it) I am very much aware that I don’t have a family of my own. It probably is too late to start one now anyway. I do of course have my brother and sister but we are continents apart and don’t see that much of each other. My brother and I used to fight as brothers do when we were teenagers though now we get on well; when we see each other!

Why did I never get married? Because it did not happen is the short answer. Of course that is simplistic. As I mentioned earlier I was painfully shy with girls at school. I wore thick glasses and had a pretty low self esteem. There were the socializing occasions at senior school when dances were organized but often we were inviting blind or on a “recommendation” and most of the time I was turned down so it became easier just to avoid the whole exercise and old habits are hard to shake off. As a result I never learnt the social skills (thanks for reminding me Suzanne!) and even at university where there was an equal proportion of girls I always felt silly saying the right thing just to make a good impression. I have always been brutally honest and I guess there is a time for that and a time not! Getting a major disability did not of course help the self esteem issue one tiny bit and in my blacker moods I tend to think “Christ you are unattractive” and at other times it is never far from my mind. Maybe I should see a psychologist or somebody like that (we could have lots of good arguments but why should I pay?). Sometimes it can be quite fun when small children stare and say things like “Look mummy, why is that man walking so funny?” and the mortified mother tries to shut the child up. I glare at the mother with my best expression of hurt mixed with disgust – just to make her feel really bad! It can be fun being a bastard!

Perhaps the biggest mistake of my life was my choice of career. I had no burning desire to do anything in particular and though I did enjoy my post-graduate years I had no idea there were so many interesting things to study outside of agriculture. Those who knew me at university find it curious that I really like working with people now. I take a certain pride that I can communicate and find common ground with just about anyone who comes into my business regardless of age, race, gender or background.  Some time back I had a particularly obnoxious ZANU-PF character come and wind me up for half an hour. I was called “mabhuno chapera” which is the Shona equivalent of “kaffir” and equally derogatory. I didn’t let it rattle me, in fact I took it as a challenge and at the end of it the person in question said “I like you, you must come and work for me when I take this place over”. Touché! Whilst working at Reading University in the UK I volunteered for a Phase 3 drug trial in the psychopharmacology department. I didn’t even know such a discipline existed – it sounded fascinating. I was turned down on the basis that I was asthmatic – a pity as I could have used the 500 pounds. Dick Paget who ran Tsanga Lodge once made the comment: “I think you should go into medicine as you have considerable compassion”. He was extraordinarily perceptive. Maybe I should look into a suggestion of doing a PhD through the Open University in the UK. It would have to be agriculture based but it would certainly be a challenge to my rather under-employed brain.

The future? This is Zimbabwe and to say the future is uncertain is an understatement. I worry about my future; as a single disabled male I am not looking forward to old age. I have no one to look after me and I may well have to fall back on my ancestral citizenship and go to the UK where hopefully I will be cared for. That is however some time off and in the meantime I will try and have a bit of fun!

Andrew (Andy) Roberts

63 responses

4 11 2009
La Canadienne

Oh my goodness, that was a great read. The ‘you’ we know and love comes through really strong…and the pics of you are great. I like the Robert Redford look with mustache.

We’ll organize on Nov 17th and try to Skype and if not successful, raise a toast to friends absent,…

To the Commune in France. !!! Where the second half will be at least as good.

7 11 2009
Cheri Lenox

Would love to hear from you Andy- I think your brilliant!

8 11 2009
La Canadienne

Reflections on Reflections;

I think the reflections are excellent; The interesting thing is I don’t think of you as disabled; funny, smart, handsome (yes!!! esp that picture when you were 4!) irritating, but not disabled. Yes, you do walk funny, but so what. Read Charlotte’s Web, the last line, and you’ll see what I mean.

As I age, and I am even older than you, I think that one of the many ways we 60s children were wrong, is that we thought that our work was/should be and define our lives. I’d do it differently for sure; be a doctor if it makes you happy, but why not make a living growing seedlings, and then enjoy your amazing ability in photography, your wonderful way with words in writing, and your great talent in finding good books to read, to enjoy life.

My reflections are, that life gives us plenty of opportunities, we just need to open our eyes to see them, and it is that opening that makes our lives more interesting. Just think, if you hadn’t responded to that brash Canadian at the gyn, where would you be now.

And you do have an extended family, us, with whom we’re going to set up the Aging Hippies Commune somewhere, and we can include a doctor in the mix…and a maid, or we’ll live somewhere with good electricity & dishwashers &, we’ll be fine.

Happy next 50.

10 11 2009
Stephen Clarke

In the words of Alexandra Fuller (Scribbling the Cat), “because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans”.

Andy you astonish me.

Without even intending to flatter you because you are of a breed impervious to flattery, in the 6 or 7 years our paths crossed you left an indelible impression on me – and I’m sure stories of the sky-god murungu who appeared as if by magic and lurched across the landscape with a walking stick and great burdensome pack on his back, will pass into legend in kraals from the top to the bottom of the Honde Valley. “Be good my little picanini or the sky-god will get you…” I will never forget, on pick up duty, the sight of you in some mielie field in the middle of nowhere against that magnificent backdrop.

Andy – the best of men, the story of your solitary courage and nobility and the way it is interwoven with the tragedy of our country makes me weep. You have a very great gift and you can be sure that your story is far from over.

God keep you Andrew – and may your loins bring forth many children. There’s still time.

14 11 2009

The ironic bit is that Alexandra Fuller lives in Colorado or somewhere like that.

Oops, never said I wanted children! Just mused that it’s a bit late now. Whatever.

20 11 2009

lovely to read your story-it is very late at night so i will read it again tomorrow-i left chancellor in 1978 and my father was also up in the eastern highlands-you have certainly written a beautiful story.i live in india at the moment so am too far away to meet mother is still in zimbabwe-in devuli,south of mutare.i lived in umtali and of course know the streets and alleys too well,as well as the school.god bless you eileen

23 11 2009

I didn’t know there was anyone left in Divuli! I recall the Bridges boys at UBHS – I think the family owned Divuli Ranch in those days.

13 12 2009
Peter Mills

Hi Andy, Great read. Collette loved it. Even Courtney read it. Amazing how our paths have crossed some unknown, Penhalonga (lived there at the same time as you), Chancellor (also went there), PMB, Hortico. You have a great ability with words – write a novel!

3 01 2010

Thanks for the compliment but I am rather daunted by the idea. I once tried writing a short story about a pebble I picked up in New Zealand (seriously!) but was shocked by how much research I would have had to have done. I am vaguely considering writing the above as a memoir but not sure that anyone would actually want to buy it.

12 03 2010

Write the damn book. I will buy it!

14 02 2010

Just wanted to say thanks for the blog, and maybe you should write some memoirs or a semi-fictional set of short stories/flash fiction from your moments =) I love the updates from home and it’s good to read the incongrous incidents which make life so interesting, sometimes it seems like we forget what it’s like being alive over in the uk. Am hoping to return home someday so it is good to hear that it’s still possible to live out there.

5 02 2013
Ken Mufuka

Andy- I enjoyed your story. I sat up till I finsihed it. I am patron of a Research Council in Masvingo and I am very interested in collected “African Stroies.” Yours shows us a European’s view of Zimbabwe. You may have read some of my articles in FINGAZ as Letter from America. Please I want your permission to use your story in a collection of works. Greetings. I live in the US but visit Zimbawe every year. I am a freind of Mr. Adams (Inns of Zimbabwe guy). ken Thanks.

21 10 2022
Andy Roberts

Oh dear, I can’t believe I never replied to this. It’s now nearly 10 years later and my humble apologies. Of course you may use whatever material you like (probably way too late)

15 02 2010

Yes, it’s certainly possible but not that easy. I get the impression of a general drift back here but most people are too nervous to do any serious investment.

Thanks for the suggestions – I have considered the memoir option but rather feel I lack the skills to make them sellable (though that need not be the primary purpose of it).

30 05 2010

It’s a brilliant read. Seriously, you have a fantastic style of writing and such an incredible and fascinating story to tell with it, so please do write the memoirs!

May your amazing personality and determination carry you through the rest of life in an equally awe-inspiring manner =)

14 07 2010

Hi Andy, this is very interesting and very well written. It could form the basis of a book on its own if you included a bit more detail and dialog.

Your travels alone could fill half the book.

2 01 2011
2010 in review « Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] and viewpoints from the world’s worst economy BlogAbout meReflections on the first half (abridged)HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) 2010 – a gallery « […]

19 02 2011
Peter Baxter

I like this post very much. I am part of the Research Team into the Rhodesia Association History of the Rhodesia Regiment and I would like to use an excerpt of your experience at St Giles in the book. Would you permit this?

6 08 2012

No problem – it’s a bit brief though!

1 12 2011
Mike McDonald

Hi Andrew
I was also a patient at St Giles and remember you well. I was also RLI and had half my left hand shot off. I wondered what ever happened to and am glad you turned out OK. Cheers Mike

11 04 2012

I stumbled on your blog, not knowing much about the life of white Africans in Zimbabwe. Your autobiography is riveting, wonderful stuff and your future–as another said–is to write. Good luck.

6 08 2012

Thanks for the compliment Barry.

15 01 2013
Angela Walker

Brilliant bio, tears in my eyes – thank you for writing it. You are an inspiration. like so many ex-Rhodesians. Time to write that book.

18 02 2013
John R

Great Piece!

16 03 2013
Phillip Sifolongwane

you write very well Andy. on a more scientific path, who does greenhouse material supplies in Zimbabwe at the moment? i have tried the HPC guys, what a useless bunch, does EFGAZ still exist? Phil

17 03 2013

Hello Phil,
Try Pedstock on the corner of Alpes Rd and Harare Drive. For plastic, Greencon in Msasa is probably the best – can’t remember the name of the road but if you turn right of the Mutare Rd opposite Redan they are on the right opposite Power Pipes.

23 01 2014
Ricky P

From my experience Greencon are the best suppliers of greenhouses and plastics in Zimbabwe. They are located at 69 Steven Drive if my memory serves me correctly.

13 06 2013
Tereza Carter

Hi Andy,
I stumbled on your blog when I was looking for the DTZ website.
I so enjoyed to read it. The year you were drafted to the Army was the year Anthony & I finished our 3 years stint in the BSAP & SWAT. We are great admirers of St. Giles. My brother Joe was there in the years 76 & 77.
You write very well Andy. I so enjoyed working with you at DTZ and I miss your sense of humor…Hope to see you next time I am in Harare.

14 09 2013
Tim Addison

Hi Andy
Well written. I had several friends in RLI (1Cdo) and a few of them also went through Tsanga Lodge.
I also knew Jane Cary-Smith and went out with her for a time during 1979 when she worked at St Giles. If you are still in contact please send her my regards. It would be good to catch up with her again.

22 09 2013

Hi Tim,
I haven’t been in touch with Jane for many years. Last I heard she was living in Canada. Apparently she still has a brother here. They were a great bunch of girls at St Giles!


31 10 2013
Eugene Pomeroy

Jumbo, is that you? Bicycle Eyes? Intake 160? I didn’t recognize you till I saw the photo of you in your RLI beret. Great site. Glad to see that you have retained a sense of proportion about things.

6 11 2013

Wow Eugene, it’s been a long time! What are you up to?

14 11 2013
Eugene Pomeroy

Lots. Drop me an email if you can. It’s been a 30-year roller coaster. I am filled with a certain admiration every time I see someone who has hung on in Zimbabwe after all it has been put through by Our Friend and His Friends.  

12 12 2013
Herbert N. Nigg

Rhonda Schumann forwarded your missive to me. I am grateful to get it.

I was a paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division and the 509 PIR in Germany. No combat. 28jumps , most with equipment.

I agree with you on the intelligence part. The average test score for the US Army was 100. The average in the Airborne was 85. Mine was 147. Max was 160 and the unit in Germany(509) has some 160s. Regardless we were suicide troops and the officers let us know it. We had taken an oath when we graduated from jump school that mentioned suicide missions, but no one believed it until I got to Germany.

Seems your experience was the same.

Your story should be an inspiration to anyone.

I have a website:

We post fraud stuff, but I would be happy to post your story and I would be happy to post any stories on what goes on in Zimbabwe or anything else about Africa, fraud, hypocrisy, etc.

Your call. Otherwise I would be happy to discuss any subject.

Rhonda says you are quite amazing. I believe it.

26 12 2013

Hi Herbert,
I think amongst the rank and file a high intelligence is probably not very desirable. The RLI “troopies” were not the brightest but there were lots of good soldiers amongst them – the combat soldier needs to respond to command instantly and without too much rationalizing!

You are welcome to use whatever material you like off my blog. I would be grateful if you’d use links back to the original material.

I haven’t been in touch with the Schumanns for quite a few years – amazing how people managed to find you on the intenet!


7 01 2014
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8 04 2014
Hannah Schreckenbach

Hallo dear Andy, I am just writing about my visiting the Eastern Highlands in your country in the Eighties for inclusion in my website. I am most impressed by your reflections and would really appeal to you to offer them to a publisher so that they can be published as a book. Greetings from an old German woman (81 years) who has beautiful memories about your country and hopes for a better future for all Zimbabweans. Kindest regards from Hannah.

24 08 2014
colin campbell-morrison

You are a gifted cynic, was it Oscar Wild who said “cynicism is the wit of dandyism” obviously you are not a ‘dandy’, is that part of your armour ? Peter Mills my son in law whom I’m staying with at this time put me on to your web site

21 03 2017

Although I’ve been to some places in Europe and Africa I really wish that I’d traveled the world before having a child! I certainly felt like I was with you in your experiences! As a black African I sometomes have a bias against white Zimbabweans (I suppose white Africans) I came across your blog by mistake while researching MRI scans in Harare lol but I thoroughly enjoyed this! You certainly should write a book.

21 03 2017

I did start writing but it’s a lot more difficult than I’d thought. I’m very much a amateur journalist/writer; I can only write well when inspired and I can never tell when that’s going to happen which doesn’t work well for book writing.

Lots of people travel with their children, don’t be put off by that. It’s amazing education for them too.

26 04 2018
Those were the days | Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] Reflections on the first half […]

1 03 2019
Cruise control and other stories | Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] Reflections on the first half […]

7 04 2019

An amazing read. You are a really fine writer.

7 04 2019
Eugene Pomeroy

He is not only a good writer, but a very nice guy as well.

15 12 2019
60 and the bottle of wine | Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] Reflections on the first half […]

16 03 2020
A state of health | Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] Reflections on the first half […]

14 04 2020
Luis Pereira

I enjoyed reading your story, I too was born in Rhodesia, Hwange, 1965. I miss the bush, the wildlife, I left in 1983, I now live in Chile, have a fast casual restaurant with Peri Peri chicken. I worked 30 years in casino consulting all over Latin America, I started my casino career in the late 80’s in Sun City, South Africa. I also do some wild life painting, l recently read about the introduction of the Zimbabwe dólar last June, and it seems that it is not such a good idea as inflation is starting as a result, when the us$ was in use you actually had deflation. Now it’s tough with the coronavirus, we are under curfew from 10:00pm until 4:00 am, and have to stay home. But life goes on, so I read a lot.keep well and all the very best. Cheers

21 05 2020
Dion King

I often wondered what happened to you Andy, so this has been your journey since leaving school. I was in the Chinomora TTL area when you were shot. I was based at the Enterprise Club. You have had a fantastic time it sounds like but have been with my wife for over thirty years and got two boys don’t think I could do with out them. I too had an incident when in the the army parachuting, broken back and ended up in Andrew Fleming B2, also though that I might end up paralyzed but didn’t but that’s another story. Good to know you are enjoying life. Take care my old school friend. Denver King.

25 05 2020

Wow, it’s been a very long time. Where are you now Dion? Since I wrote this post I’ve got married but the only children we share are four footed. That’s ok with both of us. Look after your back. My past is catching up with my back and surgery is likely. Not looking forward to it but the alternative is ever deteriorating mobility.

22 05 2020
Eugene Pomeroy

I had forgotten that you were out there, scribbling away and keeping us Ratfangers (ek se) and Rhodies up to date on what the Crocodile is doing to make sure he and his mukkers are surviving in the style befitting their long, hard years of dedication to the welfare and betterment of the Povo. Yeah, right…

I went to a clinic in England when I was there in November (“See you in November…”) for the Remembrance Sunday observances/piss up with some of the ouns, and the GP who saw me was an African GP from Harare. I asked her what she thought of the Flat Dog in Charge. She said he was worse than the guy he replaced. “They are all the same.” Remember those heady (and depressing) days in April ’80 when that bright, new future beckoned?

30 05 2020

Yup, still here in the shithole country. Making ends meet and wondering why I didn’t take up my New Zealand residence when I had the opportunity. Actually at the time it wasn’t that attractive but there you go.

Where are you based these days? Was Italy ever a permanent base?

30 05 2020
Eugene Pomeroy


Yes, I’m still here. When life gets me down, which it does from time to time, I find myself looking across the Val di Chiana in the direction of Siena, which is just over the hills and it lifts my spirits. On a bright morning when the sun is just right you can see Montepulciano, which the 6 (South African) Armoured Division liberated in the summer of 1944. They, and two British divisions, fought for control of the valley in June and July ’44, with 6 (SA) AD facing the Herman Goering Panzer Division on the far left of the line as it is the only part of the valley that is anything like tank country. When I visit Commonwealth War Cemeteries in this part of the world, I make a point of looking not only for South African war dead, but also for Rhodesians, who have ‘SR’ in front of their Army number. A couple of years ago another Rattie and I visited the South African cemetery at Castigione dei Pepoli, which is between Florence and Bologna and smack in the center of the Apennines. Very rugged and the site of the Gothic Line, the last German defensive line before the Po Valley, which is flat as a pancake. Anyway, the South African cemetery is full of familiar names that could have been a roll call of mutual friends and comrades. As ever, lots of ‘SR’ names. A fitting and very beautiful site. Sit Nominae Digna, my friend…

7 06 2020

Please send me a GPS reference, I’d like to see what it’s like on Google Earth. Photos welcome too.

In 1987 I cycled across France to Switzerland and Germany and back to the UK. The surgeons hadn’t effed up my neck at that stage. I camped at a pretty little campsite near Verdun and the next day stopped in at the nearby American cemetery. Very beautiful and very sad. I took some nice photos but they got lost some years back.

There’s lots of info on WW2 on YouTube. Some amazing stories, make our little brushfire war look insignificant. My father was in the Royal Navy. Could never really get him to talk about it. Another ex-navy guy lived up the road from my mother. He commanded MGBs out of the Greek islands on hit and run raids on German shipping – must have been a forerunner of the SBS. Again, he didn’t talk about it. Now he’s dead and those stories are lost.

11 07 2020
Eugene Pomeroy

Check out the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site (, which has a lot more information than I can stuff into this post. I’ve been to a number of CWGC cemeteries around here, Foiano, Bolsena and now Castiglione de Pepoli. Another thing that makes for sad reading are the short comments on the headstones from these young men’s families. Some are in Afrikaans, some are Bible quotes and some patriotic. The saddest ones are personal and are a snapshot of a family 75 years ago that suffered this loss. Then you look in the books where you can leave a comment and the sheets that give a brief biography of the soldier and you see that Trooper so-and-so came from Bulawayo or Salisbury and is survived by his parents or siblings. These young men gave their lives in a foreign country for a country that no longer exists and a family that died years ago and whose descendents have long since gone into exile. Shadows.

14 06 2020
Stephen Glen Japp

Andrew, thanks for this. Cathartic reading in so many ways. I think we have met, probably through Dick Pagit. Anyhow, a lifeline – intake 147, osbies, cpl, Umtali, sweep line 15 Feb 76 South East, through and through, L3, St.Giles, Carrie J, Rhodes BA, UCT-MBA, P.hD, USA travel, burning shocking pain, calipers & crutches, failed at formal employment, farmed winegrapes, broken bones, single, relationships unsteady, operations, prefer own company + rottenweiler, 4 wheel motorbike + dogs + Bush, retired Port Alfred, no religion, 63, bones hurt now, 1 older brother 1 younger sister, rotator cuff difficulties, eyelid carcinoma, op on 20 June, past has passed, maybe 8 good years left, no regrets, fantastic mistakes made, apprehensive about next 8 yrs, then I read your article. Now, just try to be happier today than yesterday.

14 06 2020

Hello Steve, the name rings a bell. Fairly sure we crossed paths at St Giles. I still see Carrie (Lapham) now and again. Yup, old age is a bugger when you have injuries to deal with. I’ve had a lot of issues with an old neck injury sustained before active service which was very poorly treated. Now there are also lower back problems to be dealt with once the Covid thing has done its bit. Well there we go… Do you remember Terry Dawson from St Giles? He farms up at Nyanga and we are still in touch.

11 07 2020

What an incredible life you have lead. I hope you are still doing well. If things ever get too bad in Zim, come live in America. We could use a man like you!

4 07 2021
Unknown or Deleted User

Dear Andy,
i am glad you are fine in all this “unglaublichen” times. I want to say THANK YOU for this amazing story. Please write your book.
Thanks for the good times in Zim. By no reason or lets say by accident i find myself now on your blog page.
Several times i remembered African – and especially Zim`s – sound, earth, sky, smell …Since i met you and your dogs I started my love and passion for the rhodesian rhidgebacks… Jenni running crazy through your house (outside of Harare) with little bumps all over her body as a result of an allergic reaction of bees (?) you explained me… I wondered how such a big dog can fit on a single sofa like a cat. Or our first meeting in Chimanimani, me as a tourist traveling from Malawi and looking for a lift to Harare backpacker. During the ride i get more and more sick and you took me to your doctor. Thanks for caring – i still never told my parents that i was serious sick.
And so on.
I went to Uganda to live and work there for a little while and since a few years Iam back in Germany and live and work close to Bonn. Iam now 45 years old, had a funny midlife crisis and iam single mother of two wonderful and loud children.
And i apologize from the bottom of my heart about my ghosty disappear in life and time and for my german english. Hahahaa.
All the best for you and your country.
Stef Daedelow

4 07 2021

Hi Stef, great to hear from you again!
I have often wondered what you were doing. Jenni died far too young as a result of gastric torsion and since her there have been other Ridgebacks – Kharma and Zak. You can read about Zak’s life here
My wife, who is half German, also has a Ridgeback called Roxy and we have a hairy allsorts type of dog called Tia who was found living wild near my work so we adopted her. We are looking at getting another male Ridgeback in from South Africa as the genetics of Ridgebacks here is too small. I am involved in the local club at it’s our 100th anniversary next year so had a meeting yesterday to plan what to do about it. We are what they call the parent club – the one where the breed originated.
Please keep in touch – my email is and I’d love to see some photos of you and your children.

11 02 2022

Andy, I was spellbound reading this piece. I couldn’t put it down once I began reading.
Your transparency and ability to express both your memoirs and thoughts is captivating.

No wonder you’ve had requests from others to publish your blog articles.

So happy I decided to follow the FB link to this blog and learn more about our friend Andy Roberts.

12 02 2022

Thanks Sheri. I have made a few false starts on a book. It’s much more difficult than I thought.

21 10 2022
The Wonky Pig | Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] be heard a long way out. Ironically I did get a casevac ride in a US Navy Huey in 2002 (see the Reflections on the first half post). They did have an Aerospatiale Alouette II which is the predecessor of the III. I spent many […]

18 11 2022
Old dogs are special | Zimbabwe Absurdity

[…] as a consequence of the bullet that tore through that region in April 1979 (detailed description in Reflections on the first half). The operation was successful and the surgeon said the spine was not as messy as he was expecting […]

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