Dad had just got back from work, and we were having late-afternoon tea and biscuits in the lounge.
So writes Robyn Scott on page 142 of Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood (Penguin, 2008), the book I finished over the weekend. For some reason, this excerpt made me shudder.
What’s so extraordinary about taking tea after work?
You see, Robyn’s dad Keith worked as a flying bush doctor. Every day he flew (or later drove) hundreds of kilometers to remote village clinics in Botswana. There he treated up to 100 patients a day and witnessed the beginning and very low point of the AIDS epidemic. So while drinking tea on the veranda after work might seem like a civilized pastime, for Dr. Scott it was the only semblance of order in his day.
Besides Keith, my other favorite character is his father Ivor. Eccentric, outspoken, and damaged by untold tragedies during his South African military days in WWII, Ivor was a distant and stubborn father. But to his grandchildren, he was jolly Grandpa Ivor. He also didn’t question Robyn’s mother Linda’s choice to home school the three children, much to the dismay of Linda’s conventional parents (who lived in a nearby mansion).
Although Robyn Scott’s memoir has been hailed as a humorous and honest account of her family’s years in Botswana, like other African memoirs, I found this one equally tragic.
Tragic for one of the most successful countries in post-colonial Africa, which saw a plummet in life expectancy once the AIDS crisis hit full swing. Tragic for the Scott family, who lost their magical days in Botswana once the kids grew up and left. Tragic for Grandpa Ivor, whose stubborn ways kept him from developing close relationships with his children.
At 445 pages, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is a quick, exciting, and pensive read.