In 2018 the Julia Darling Travel Fellowship was awarded to Caroline Hawkridge from Cheshire. Inspired by Julia’s First Aid Kit for the Mind and her love of travel, Caroline used the Fellowship to return to Zimbabwe for the first time since her family left 50 years ago. 

August 24, 2018

I have been a reluctant traveller since emigrating, aged 9, but when Zimbabwe’s post-­colonial leader President Mugabe resigned unexpectedly after 37 years in power, I felt compelled by the chance to fly home for the first time. The United Nations backed the free-­and-­fair elections promised for July.

I was giddy all summer – until the army killed six unarmed civilians in the capital Harare (my birthplace) during protests against alleged vote-­rigging. I’ve checked UK government travel advice daily ever since.

August 25 – Mosi-­oa-­Tunya (Victoria Falls)

Our view of mopane woodland below the wing jump-­cuts to runway. Inside the airport, an immigration officer glances several times at ‘Salisbury, Rhodesia’ in my British passport, then raises her face: ‘Ah, you were born here! Welcome home, welcome home!’

‘Yes, I was born here’ – startled words I haven’t uttered for five decades or with a British accent. Tears stream down my white face.

Before my parents emigrated, they took us to Victoria Falls and Great Zimbabwe ruins because ‘you should see them before you leave your birthplace.’ But am I just a tourist in my homeland?

Yes, if I  mistake a striped mongoose in the hotel courtyard for a tabby cat. No, if I want to find an ant lion. Yes-­if, no-­if… I turn at the whine of a helicopter flight above falls twice the size of Niagara. There were no bungee jumpers or people taking selfies in Devil’s Pool in 1966. Though far more unnerving for me is the hotel doorman dressed in khakis and a pith helmet. ‘Africa’ is still sold as an exotic imperial adventure almost regardless of destination in its 54 countries.

August 27 – Trains

Pre-­paid tourists clamber aboard the restored colonial carriages of a now private train. We buy tickets for the public service: a yellow diesel engine clanking coal wagons and livestock vans tailed by wooden coaches.

‘Welcome, we need you to visit our country!’ chirps the conductor, popping his head into our cabin as my cousin and I yank the top bunk into position. We’re ecstatic, reminiscing about the metal sink. The tap is dry, but we’re prepared for no water, dining car or the bedding of yesteryears. And we don’t need torches after all.

At dawn, arid bush scrolls past the decal still etched on the window: ‘RR’ for Rhodesia Railways. Telephone poles follow us south to Bulawayo, snarled with broken wires. Cattle sidings once used by colonial ranches lie in ruin. Only the neon-­lit colliery was busy when we trundled through the yard during the night. Busy for whose benefit, I wonder?

September 3 – Great Zimbabwe

‘Gold,’ our mini-­bus driver replies, when we mention the Matopos bush-­fire that hotel staff set off to fight, returning to cook and serve dinner. He blames uncontrolled burn-­offs by illegal itinerant prospectors. Their abandoned pits become death-­traps for cattle.

‘Chinese money.’ He nods at an asbestos mine. We’re heading east to Great Zimbabwe, the eleventh-­century hub of the gold trade with East Africa, India and China. I remember the cool drystone granite corridors and conical tower. During Rhodesia’s white-­minority rule, official guides to the Ruins wouldn’t acknowledge that the city was built by the Bantu/Shona ancestors of local people, and thrived for 300 years.

September 13 – Harare (Salisbury)

Instead of the hibiscus hedge of 50 years ago, we pull up at a heavy metal gate set within high concrete walls topped by electric fencing. I put aside my British feelings that our taxi driver’s persistent hooting is rude, only to promptly forget the African handshake when the gate unlocks. I garble my story.

‘You’re interrupting me at home,’ retorts the man. He looks too old to be known locally as a ‘born free’ (born after colonial rule and the civil war). I wonder how I would feel about a stranger turning up on my doorstep with the freight of colonial history? I apologise profusely, offer family photos of the house being built and request the chance to take a picture for my elderly father. Kindly, he steps back.

The white brick bungalow is recognisable, if not the two extensions. I stand below the now burly trunk of the avocado tree that I loved to climb. The citrus orchard has been replaced in the familiar red earth by a sea of cabbage-­like chomalia; a lucrative cash crop. Children’s clothes hang from the washing line. A tourist wouldn’t notice the kaya; housing for a colonial family’s domestic workers. The kaya looks well-­kept, but I don’t ask.

The Zimbabwe On Line (ZOL) advert outside my former white-­only primary school was unthinkable during my childhood because it shows black and white children linking hands.

‘You’re the first white student ever to return to say hello!’ celebrates the headmaster. We discuss Rhodesia. He nods kindly towards the window, acknowledging what emigrating must have meant for me when I was as young as some of the children at play.

‘The school was 50:50 during the 1990s,’ he adds. Sadly, the de-­segregated playground is no more the scene of free equitable state education than it was in 1966. Zimbabwe cannot afford it.

September 14-­15 – South Africa

I depart from the same single runway that I emigrated from, when I faced what many child migrants still face: the simultaneous loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins as well as homeland. Everyone on our flight is screened on arrival in Johannesburg because cholera has broken out in Harare.

I visit my Dutch-­ and British-­born grandparents’ graves near Cape Town for the first time and smile for the camera, only to recall that our Ndebele taxi driver in Zimbabwe was pleased that we understood that his people don’t take photos of cemeteries. I think of the widow we visited, who invited us into her circular thatched home on a tiny plot surrounded entirely by graves. Most of her family should have been alive.

September 19 – Heathrow

The transfer-­bus between terminals empties as I help a young woman.

‘Where’ve you flown in from?’ she asks, mentioning Nairobi. When I say Zimbabwe, she exclaims, apologising as a black woman for African liberation governments that espouse democracy yet cannot concede power.

I exclaim in return that the white-­minority government in Rhodesia regarded itself as
democratic but wouldn’t concede power either. ‘That’s why my parents emigrated with four children.’

She nods. I lift her bag so that she can carry her baby.

January 16, 2019

Going home is an experience that I cannot imagine being without. For that, I am extremely grateful to the Julia Darling Travel Fellowship and the many Zimbabweans who welcomed me as a home-­comer. Sadly, one of the reasons my return was celebrated may be that Zimbabwe has a new diaspora. People often spoke of family doing stints overseas to send money back.

Before my Fellowship application, I was ‘writing home’ only to reach a seemingly staple-­ pinched centre, then silent pages. Now I am writing again, although conscious more than ever of the debate about white viewpoints merely recycling colonial perspectives for Western consumption within the empire of English-­language publishing.

A friend remarked before my trip that travelling is one thing but the added politics another. I can barely remember a time without politics. As I write, Westminster MPs have voted down Teresa May’s Brexit deal and tabled a vote of no confidence. Lost in the news frenzy is the Zimbabwean government shutdown of social media and the deaths of 12 civilians in demonstrations against the sudden doubling of fuel prices. What will happen?

Caroline Hawkridge is a writer and poet as well as an agent and project manager for innovative literary projects via The Hawkridge Agency. After co-founding the national charity The Endometriosis Society, Caroline began her writing career with two groundbreaking women’s health books, Understanding Endometriosis (Optima, Little Brown) and The Menopause, HRT and You (Penguin), which enabled women to bear witness and be heard. She has since completed an MA in Creative Writing in Manchester Metropolitan University and decided to turn her writing interests from the silence of patients to the silence she has experienced as a child immigrant.