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The gift that Gwaai River Hotel gave to me

A friend today gave me images of the Gwaai River Hotel taken in recent years, and it hurled me back to my childhood. The hotel is a fixture of my very early youth, inextricably locked into my earliest memories of Zimbabwe. A year or so ago I was with my father when we drove past the turning off to the hotel, and I asked him to take me back so I could see it again: "There's nothing there anymore; I don't think you should see it". My father, who once introduced me to a friend of his as his 'bush baby', knows how much I loved the place.

I understood from the pictures I saw today why he didn't want me to see it. It is gone. Totally destroyed, and all this senseless destruction has taken place in the last ten years in the wake of Zanu PF's chaotic land reform programme. My memories, however, are not destroyed.

The hotel was a hub of the local community, attracting miners, safari operators, hunters, conservationists, farmers and passing tourists. My memories are those of a child: of the gloriously blue swimming pool, with a paddling pool as warm as wee at one end. A trampoline that was less boing-boing-boing and more ker-booyooing - ker-boyooing - ker-boyooing (if most trampolines aspired to be being a tightly-pulled drum, this one longed for retirement days as a deep feather-bed). It was wonderful though - especially when an adult hopped on: I remember my father bouncing me while I sat at his feet,  so high that he literally sent me flying off the trampoline, fortunately caught by someone standing near-by.

I remember the putt-putt course, crafted out of concrete in impossible humps and tunnels. And the tennis-courts near the trampoline, children shrieking and bouncing while adults - all wearing crisp whites - played tennis. I remember taking a turn at pulling the dining room's punkah wallah – I was hopelessly bad at it. And in later years when I was bit older, the horses: two in particular, a smallish brown horse and a larger grey that had an attitude and was my nemisis, both very efficient at flicking their ears at Gwaai flies.

People who were 'grown-ups' at the time will now fondly talk about the money collection - currencies from everywhere in the world - framed in the bar. And the huge parties, especially at New Year. My memories of those evenings are of hurtling around the gardens at night, in my pyjamas when I should have been in bed, with a whole group of other kids while our parents partied.

In many respects these memories are predictable, but there are always three thoughts that I have which precede these.

The first is of the short drive towards the hotel, the car hot and stuffy from a long journey turning onto a road that dipped down to a narrow concrete bridge with a stomach-pulling lurch as the car rose on the other side and then cocked to the right - the hotel facing us just before we turned.

My second memory (which surprises me given I was so young) is of the birdlife: walking through the narrow gate in the wall into a sanctuary of shady trees around the front of the hotel, and into a prism of dappled light and bird-song.

My third memory is of the proprietors, Harold and Sylvia Broomberg, who ran the hotel for decades, including the horror times of the war and the Gukuruhundi. It is only after my adult mind has arrived and been welcomed by them that I turn to the 'sweetie' memories of childish fun listed above.

As I've grown up I've developed a deep reluctance to look back to those times. For a start, much of the content on the web where people celebrate 'looking back' is dominated by ex-Rhodesian die-hards,  their memories offered to the world in the context of '...see... things were better then than they are now'. This mind-set denies the reality of the experiences of the majority at the time, and in sharing my memories, I in no way want anyone to think I endorse the historical and social context they exist within. However, nor do I want to qualify the sheer joy and innocence of childhood memories with political caveats.

I know full well that had I experienced those days from the perspective of the person I have grown up to become today, I would look at pre-Independence experiences with a very different set of eyes. As a child though, I was unaware of the context I grew up in: I didn't know until I was much older, for example, that behind his back some people referred to my father as a 'communist', because his views of the current context angered many around him (the word used less to accurately describe his political views, and hurled more as an expletive at a man who believed the Smith government trying to maintain the status-quo was profoundly wrong).

I think one of the most overwhelming reasons to not want to look back though is the nostalgic pain it invokes. I looked at the photos my friend gave me with deep sadness, and then found myself gripped by a desire to see pictures of what it looked like when I was child. In my search to do so I found this Facebook group, and it was when I saw pictures of Harold and Sylvia that I started crying as I recognised the deeply familiar faces of two people that I have such fond memories of.

Only then did it dawn on me that the beauty and warmth of the place and my most treasured memories had everything to do with these two people.

I remember both of them exuding an incredible gentleness, softly spoken and extremely kind. They knew me by name even though I must have been one of hundreds of children passing through their hotel, whining before we reached the front door that I didn't want to use the loo first, I wanted to go straight to the trampoline! I know that my parents were probably aware that they were arriving at an establishment owned and run as a formal business by a couple, but as a child I had no appreciation of formalities: for me, visiting the Gwaai River Hotel was like arriving at a relative's home and settling in as quickly as possible, and moaning like hell when I had to leave. Harold and Sylvia made it feel that way.

In the discussion section of the Facebook group, Harold and Sylvia's daughter writes in 2008:

Harold has a prayer that has been in his heart almost all his life. It goes like this:

All through this day
let me touch as many
lives as possible,
and every life I touch
do You, dear Lord, quicken,
whether through the words I say,
the things I do
or the life I live.
So be it.

Harold carried this prayer in his heart, but he showed it in his actions and speech too.

When I first saw the photos my friend gave me today, I felt deeply depressed and I said "I'm never going to go back there. My dad was right, I'll bawl".

Her response was one word: "Rebuild".

There is something very forward-thinking and positive about that: just because it’s over doesn't mean it’s OVER. And as I realised towards the end of my self-indulgent trip down memory-lane, the real gift wasn't the stuff - the fan, the trampoline, the putt-putt course etc. What made it so special to so many - even if they don’t properly realise it yet - was that it was run with love and deep affection for the people who visited the place. Harold's prayer says it all: if only his prayer was the philosophy in the hearts of everyone and all the political parties involved our country, we would be rich and happy beyond our wildest dreams.

Harold died last year, peacefully in his sleep. I can only imagine how Sylvia and their family may feel when they see these images: but I hope they take away from this a perception that the most important part of Gwaai River Hotel, the heart and soul of the place, can never be destroyed by the hate and ugly destructiveness of Mugabe and his thugs. And that's the postive attitude and warm spirit embodied by Harold and his wife:  a special thing to keep in mind and hand down to generations to come as we all move forwards to rebuild, repair and nurture our beloved country.

If we treasure this spirit instead, and stop weeping about what once was, then what a gift they've given us.


Dan says:

Thank you for this moving testimony and encouragement.

Submitted by Dan on 12 March 2010 - 9:58pm
gary says:

yr final comment is so true ,but we still have the anger for the senseless destruction in the name of racial equality

Submitted by gary on 13 March 2010 - 7:15am
Dennis Mitchell says:

@Dan - @Dan - Thank you for the memories of Gwaai River.
On one call up we were based at the Falls and our duty was to drive down to Inyati daily to check the Reserve Airport for morning and afternoon arrivals. This necessitated travel on the back roads for a spell game viewing in the early morning, the airport, Inyati, the afternoon airport sortie and back to the Falls for evening and sleep. Idyllic trips which we reckoned tourists would pay a fortune for.
Invariably there was a stop off at the Hotel for one beer which we paid for but, although offering, we never paid for the meal.
There were about eight in our party, all races, and I would like the Broomberg family to know that their kindness is remembered after more than 40 years.

Submitted by Dennis Mitchell on 13 March 2010 - 11:25am
thornton says:

you write (of some Rhodesians) : "their memories offered...things were better then than they are now. This mind-set denies the reality of the experiences of the majority at the time...."

do you imply that things "for the majority at the time" were not better "then"? face facts.

Submitted by thornton on 13 March 2010 - 12:57pm
Rina Broomberg says:

On behalf of the Broomberg family, we are so touched by this. Thank you. Sylvia is doing well....still welcoming everyone into her home here in Johannesburg. Louise visited the Gwaai last year and was going to post some pics on Facebook - "Memories of the Gwaai Valley" but hasn't done so as yet. We so agree with your message - rebuild. When my folks came to JHB everyone wondered how my Dad would cope. In his usual style, he made the kitchen and the computer his domain - taught himself both - and continued entertaining in Gwaai style. We are truly blessed to have grown up at the Gwaai with our special parents and all the wonderful friends who helped make the Gwaai what it was. Thanks.

Submitted by Rina Broomberg on 13 March 2010 - 1:04pm
Sally D says:

Oh my gosh, Hope. I'm totally finished, reading that. Full of tears. But your friend is so right - we must remember, and we must rebuild, in whatever way we can.

Or as my favourite Shakespeare quote has it, "Serve God, love me, and mend". Because it isn't over and it never will be.

Thank you for posting this, I'm going to share it with friends and family who have happy memories of their own yet choose to meander around in pointless one-eyed nostalgia, remembering only one side of the story.

Submitted by Sally D on 13 March 2010 - 1:14pm
Mandy Steele says:

Thank you for posting this. I grew up at Gwaai as well and am so sad to hear about Harold's death - the worlds most gentle man.
Rina, if you reas this please say hello to Syl for me.
My auntie, Bev MacIntosh and my Great Auntie Aili, live at the Gwaai for years and I spent many happy holidays there - exactly as you describe it. (Do you remember being paid to collect jars of fire-flies for the dining tables in fire-fly season? One of my best memories!)
Sadly my darling Bev died in 2008, that was the final page in my Gwaai story.
If anyone does rebuilt - please post it. What a wonderful tribute that will be.

Submitted by Mandy Steele on 13 March 2010 - 1:24pm
nelson says:

Your testimony is very touching and provokes high emotions. Anyway we can not continue to weep.I only wish the things that happened during our colonialism period would have one to visit lobby for campaign for or ask for restitution.

What i mean is for so many years or history have not been well documented because it is regarded as not important.

Also, sorry to say this, both the former white commercial farmers, and the government of Zimbabwe were cheated by Britain and now every one shifts the belief that one man is to blame.
In its quest to solve the issue, Britain took all its old white farmers to the old age homes who could not denounce their British citizenship after the Zim Govt banned dual citizenship. The same happened soon after world war 2 she took orphans and placed the to Australia.

It required and until now , Zimbabweans whether Black or white to come together reunite map a way forward.

Its a pity, that one man had decided to accept the blame. I also used to hate him until i had to ask myself why would one be so stubborn mischievous and so defiant yet so confident tactful and courageous

Submitted by nelson on 13 March 2010 - 2:51pm
Rina Broomberg says:

@Mandy Steele - Mandy I remeber you and my Mom would love to hear from you. So great to make contact. Please email her

Submitted by Rina Broomberg on 13 March 2010 - 3:10pm
Twig Wood says:

Such a very special place.
My memories of it will never lost.
Fondest regards to Sylvia, who hopefully will remember me.
I remember you and Harold so well.
Twig Wood.

Submitted by Twig Wood on 13 March 2010 - 4:14pm


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