Twenty Chickens for a Saddle

“It was too exhausting to sustain this fear.”

I’m currently reading another “Africa” book one of my lovely readers let me borrow, and this line stood out for me. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott describes the author’s childhood in rural Botswana during the 1980s and 90s. This particular chapter was about the growing AIDS epidemic emerging in Botswana in those years, much like in other parts of Africa. Robyn, whose father was running flying doctor clinics throughout the countryside, noticed one day how he was putting plasters on every little cut and scrape on his body before going to work, and his explanation led to a whole new fear in her life. She went on to fret for several weeks, but then realized it was just too exhausting to keep it up, what with other more important events consuming her attention.

The reason I found this line memorable is that it can be applied to expat life in South Africaas much as a childhood in Botswana. Before moving here, we are often inundated with horror stories about assault and murder happening on a regular basis, and for a good while after moving here we often exhaust ourselves with an all-consuming fear, bordering on panic. But then the more mundane hassles take over your life, like getting a traffic register number and seeing the dentist, and perhaps you’re also discovering the beauty of this continent, so that bit by bit you give up indulging your worst fears.

You may not altogether forget them, and it’s probably a good thing to stay vigilant, but you just cannot spend your days holed up with a wall around you. The fact is, something bad could always happen to you, here or anywhere else, but beyond taking the most basic precautions you would waste your life being driven by the thought of it.
But Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is about much more than AIDS, of course. It is a charming story of an unconventional childhood, not just because of its setting but rather because of the quirks and eccentricities of this particular family. Robyn’s mother is a staunch believer in home schooling, because “a syllabus stifles creativity” and “children learn best in unstructured situations,” and she cheerily proceeds to impose a rather haphazard schooling regime, as much driven by daily events and the life around them in the bush as any adherence to a formal curriculum. This is how Robyn and her younger brother and sister spend their childhood learning how to dissect snakes, repairing motorcycles, and raising the chickens alluded to in the title in order to buy the long-coveted saddle.
Having just finished two books about Zimbabwe, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle has nothing of the drama and excitement of colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, no horrors, torture, genocide. But that in itself serves well in describing the character of Botswana, which is one of the biggest success stories in Africa. It managed to gain independence without bloodshed, without retributions, without much of the racial strife evident elsewhere, while slowly acquiring a prosperity much envied by the surrounding countries.

The trials and tribulations of this unconventional family (there is also an even more eccentric grandpa who is a Botswana legend in his own right, having emigrated from South Africa to become a bush pilot and later starting one ill-fated business venture after the other) will at turns have you laughing out loud and marvel at the parents’ courage in defying conventions, and then cringe with pity for the children who, as all children do, so much long for a more “normal” family. Above all, it is another great book with unforgettable insights about life in Africa.

If you read it you’ll see why so many who’ve had the privilege of living in Africa will always hold a very special place for it in our hearts.

Related