The family grows

The arrival of our daughter and of our son fourteen months later, after eleven years of marriage, changed our lives as it happens with parents all over. I will describe what happened during this period that spanned between mid 1990 and mid 1992 in two posts.

From the moment we knew they were coming, we agreed that within reason, our kids would adjust to our way of living and not the other way round as we saw many parents doing. We also decided that they would be born in African soil. Unfortunately, Zambia was out of bounds for our insurance, so we needed to go outside the country.

Many mothers to be travelled back to Europe or America to have their babies, but several were also going to Zimbabwe. We chose the latter. Harare was about five hundred kilometres away or an eight-hour journey but the facilities there were excellent and recommended by our doctor in Lusaka.

So, after her trip to the UK, Mabel, talking to mothers with young babies, got to know how to handle the situation in Harare and she got convinced to have the children there. A gynecologist called John was recommended and it was explained that the birth would take place at the Avenues Clinic. Of course, there were a few risks involved as we needed to travel to Harare for check-ups and also to go there a few days prior to the birth. The latter period we would spend at the Bronte Hotel, located a few blocks away from the clinic.

So, following the instructions of Dr. John, we travelled to Zimbabwe via Chirundu for the first time, a few months before the calculated birth date. Unlike the Zambian side of the border, the Zimbabweans appeared very strict and punctilious with the regulations. I must confess that I instantly preferred the Zambia side that even had a drink vending machine but, with time, I started to understand and to like the Zimbabweans as well.

Crossing the border included crossing the Zambezi River. At the time there was only one single lane bridge across, the Otto Beit [1] bridge and it had its history that we ignored then but that now with the internet it is easy to research.

It had been built just before WWII with funds from the Beit Trust [2] that funded also the Beit bridge over the Limpopo River linking Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as the Kafue and Luangwa bridges in Zambia. The Otto Beit bridge was very advanced for its time: the 380-metre bridge was suspended with parallel wire cables being the first one of its kind built outside the US, following the approach of the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges among others.

After waiting for a while for the incoming traffic to pass, we crossed and arrived in Zimbabwe. We needed to re-fuel so we stopped at the first petrol station that we found. As we entered it, we were very surprised to find that there were more elephants than attendants! We feared for our lives and remained in the car waiting for the pachyderms to move away. They did not.

When we asked the petrol attendant about the elephants that he seemed to ignore, he explained that they were always there but that they did not bother anyone, feeding on the surrounding trees although they would cross the petrol station to move among the trees! Frankly, while our petrol tank was being filled, I expected an elephant to come and wash our windscreen!

It was the first time that we experienced such “closeness” with elephants but we soon realized that this was not uncommon in Zambia and Zimbabwe, something unthinkable in other countries we knew.

After the novel experience of “fuel with elephants” we carried on. The good road decorated with abundant elephant dung, traversed dry country but soon the hot valley ended, and we started climbing the Zambezi escarpment where we found lots of slow heavy-loaded lorries that slowed us down. Many of the trucks were carrying copper but there were lots of different goods being taken to Zimbabwe as well as to be shipped at the various ports in the East coast of Africa.

At the top of the escarpment, we stopped at the veterinary cordon fence that blocked wild animals from going beyond and into land destined for cultivation. Apart from elephants that would create havoc when raiding crops, buffalo (a foot and mouth disease reservoir) were the ones being stopped as they could pass the disease to the commercial cattle industry of Zimbabwe.

The post also checked that we were not taking tsetse flies with us. The procedure consisted of a control officer armed with a small net walking around the car catching any flies that may have been in the outside of the car. After that we were also sprayed inside to kill any flies that had decided to travel more comfortably!

After the control gate we drove through Morongora first and then Makuti. At Karoi, 86 kilometres further, we decided to stop for lunch. The Twin Rivers lodge looked nice and clean from the road and we decided to try it. It did not disappoint us. While waiting for lunch I ordered a ginger beer, a non-alcoholic drink new to me. I was pleasantly surprised by its piquant taste and became a fan of this drink from then on!

Beyond Karoi, agricultural land dominated and we saw numerous irrigation systems and dams from where water was taken to transform the dry land into crops of various kinds, mainly wheat and maize. The road was excellent and there were many well sign-posted secondary roads that reached other localities inland. There were good road signs and grass-cutting tractors were working at several places to keep the grass on the side of the roads, short. Zimbabwe looked like a more developed country than Zambia.

The large silos plants were an additional proof of the grain production of the country that was considered at the time the “Granary of Africa”. We reached Chinhoyi, a busy town where lots of people were moving about, including many “white farmers”. After passing Banket we finally got to Harare, still admiring the beautiful land we were travelling through.

We had no difficulty to find the Bronte Hotel and Harare still maintained the aspect I remembered from my earlier visit in 1985. However, we realized that requirements for tourists had relaxed and we were not “inspected” before we were allowed to enter our hotel!

The memory of my 1985 experience with my Swiss friend François (a tick ecologist) still fresh in my mind. We were staying in the Monomotapa Hotel in Harare, prior to our trip to Nyanga to attend a tick meeting, when we decided to have our dinner outside the hotel only to find that we were denied entrance as we were not dressed properly!

Although we were offered ties to be allowed in, we refused to wear them and left. Walking a few more blocks we came to a North American-style restaurant that did not care about ties so we ended up enjoying a few pounds of the excellent Zimbabwean beef. Dinner over, we walked back to our hotel only to be stopped at the entrance by the conciérge, for not being dressed well!

We were still in a heated argument with the man that was very stubborn and refused to understand that we were guests in the hotel when, luckily, one of the meeting organizers happened to come and talked to the doorman that finally gave in, but he still looked down on us whenever he spotted us in the lobby!

The Bronte Hotel boasted about its garden and it was right as it was well kept and large. Although Harare was much cooler than Lusaka the rooms were comfortable although the corridors and garden were quite chilly so we did not spend much time outside as we were not prepared for the cooler weather. Dinner was simple, good and trouble-free, apart from the issue of two bills, one for the food and another one for the drinks with the consequence that you paid one and started to move off only to be interrupted by an embarrased waiter bringing you another bill!

Breakfast was included in the price, but we also had difficulties understanding the serving system. The waiters worn bands of different colours across their chests and each colour fulfilled only one function and there was no flexibility between them. I do not recall what each colour did but let’s say the green was for drinks, the red for food and the blue for paying. After a few futile attempts asking a “green” or “blue” waiter for food, etc.  I adjusted to it after a couple of days, but still found it weird and somehow irritating.

Dr. John was good and all was well with Mabel’s situation. He recommended another visit after two months. The Avenues Clinic looked very nice from the outside, so we were satisfied. The return journey was uneventful and so were the next journeys required for the various check-ups that also went well.

About a week before the estimated time of birth we travelled again to Harare and we settled down at the Bronte Hotel to wait for the first signs of birth to appear but, after a few days, although there were some false alarms, nothing happened. We decided that I would go back to Lusaka after having spent seven days waiting. Paternity leave did not exist in those days and the work needed to continue.

I believe that Murphy’s Law applies in all situations and the birth of our daughter was no exception. As soon as i got to Lusaka I phoned the hotel to talk to Mabel and they told me that she had gone to the hospital! I could not locate her so I decided to refill the car with diesel from our fuel reserve [3] during the night and return as soon as I had a few hours rest as the border would only open at 06:00hs.

Before leaving I informed Bruno, who stayed in charge of the project in my absence, that he should not worry about us and continue with his work at Lutale. “Do not phone me unless the project burns down” I told him trying to make the point! I left early and, not having had any news about Mabel, it was an anxious journey and I made an effort not to drive too fast.

I went straight to the Avenues Clinic and, fortunately, I found her in good health and very cheerful as she had gone through the birth process and our daughter Florencia (Flori) was also well. She had been “deposited” in another room, together with other babies. I looked at her through a glass and hoped that they would not swap her for another baby but then I convinced myself that it would be unlikely as she had an identification bracelet and it was clearly different from the other babies with her dark hair and eyes!. I was relieved to see them both well and immensely happy!

A laughing Flori.

The following day we moved to the hotel and settled down to wait for a day to start the journey back with our newcomer. Then, in the evening the phone rang. It was Bruno and, before he could say anything I reminded him of my parting words about not phoning me. He let me rant for a while and then said: “the project office burnt down!”. “It is a joke, right?” was my reply but he repeated the news and I believed him.

The project offices were local huts with straw roofs, and it was October, the end of the dry season and the dry straw had caught fire. We lost important records but, luckily, we had duplicates of everything, except the latest records that were lost forever and a gap can be seen in all our publication graphs that remind us of the fire and the birth of my daughter! Before he hanged up, Bruno did congratulate me about the birth! He calmed me down telling me that the burnt office was being re-built and I forgave him instantly for calling!

The following morning, we needed to take Flori to the pediatrician, a very young and nice doctor. He saw that Flori was rather yellow and told us that she was suffering from infant jaundice, a common problem that required a couple of days to improve and no treatment. The following day she turned very yellow but afterwards the problem cleared, and we got the green light to travel.

Although we had a birth certificate, we still needed a travel document to enable us to cross the border. So, after taking Flori’s photograph, we went to immigration and got the needed document that even included her thumb print with no pattern, just a black stain! Armed with this new document, we travelled back to Lusaka with our new arrival and started our new family life.

The bushsnob learning to be a father!

[1] Sir Otto John Beit, 1st Baronet, KCMG, FRS was a German-born British financier, philanthropist and art connoisseur. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Beit

[2] The Beit Trust was created with funds left in his Will by Sir Otto’s older brother Alfred for infrastructure development in the former Northern (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Beit

[3] At the time we were going through a fuel shortage and I kept fuel at home.

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