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.