The resourceful storyteller

It's impossible to find children's books in Zimbabwe, so she concocted the tales herself.


My son thinks stories come out of the oven. Every morning he jumps into my bed and demands a fresh story. "You've had all night to bake it, Mummy," he says.

We live in Zimbabwe, where books – like bread and many other basics – are hard to find. The government bookseller, Kingstons, hasn't had new books for months.

Back home in England, my mother tries to fill the gap, searching in her attic for the Ladybird books she squirrelled away when my sisters and I graduated to storybooks without pictures.

She packs them up with packets of biscuit mix and instant custard and sends them to Zimbabwe.

But Mum's packages often take months to reach us. Fuel shortages mean that the state postal service can move the mail infrequently from the main sorting office in Harare to post offices around the country.

In the meantime, what do you do with a 4-year-old who's desperate for his daily tale? You concoct it yourself.

My boy believes that his mother can make most things in the kitchen. No bread? Mummy will make a hot-milk sponge cake to put in his school snack box. No candies? Mummy can freeze homemade lemon juice in a plastic cup to make a lollipop. I use a stalk of lemon grass as a "stick." So Sam thinks I should rustle up stories in just the same way.

Living in Zimbabwe has taught me to make do with what's in the pantry. I've learned to substitute jam for honey, custard powder for eggs, and the orange cape gooseberries that grow wild next to my fennel for blueberries when I'm baking muffins.

When it comes to making up stories, I've also had to adapt the recipe. I know from hours spent in libraries that a story needs several ingredients: a strong main character with a burning quest, a few spoonfuls of conflict, and a dollop of redemption at the end.

I don't have to look far for the inspiration for my main character. She's not actually inside my pantry, but given half a chance she'd be there in a flash. Her name is Ruby. Ruby is our 2-year-old Rottweiler/Labrador mix.

In life as in fiction, Ruby is a lovable rogue. If Mummy's sandal goes missing, Ruby will invariably be found chewing it under the banana tree. If someone steals the kittens' supper, it's always Ruby who's slinking under the bougainvillea licking her lips.

So there's my ready-mixed conflict: Ruby versus Mummy. Ruby's quest is obvious: She has one thing on her mind and that's the next meal.

Into my story bowl go a few friendly monsters, a triceratops and a couple of tropical rainstorms. I beat in a bit of local color: Lake Kariba in western Zimbabwe is a favorite setting. In her never-ending search for edibles, Ruby puts her nose into places she shouldn't, gets captured by not-too-dangerous pirates, and is saved (of course) by Super Sam.

It's the redemption part that's problematic. Is it far-fetched to expect Ruby, in her relief at being rescued, to promise never to be greedy again? I fear my stories may flop, as my cakes do when I open the oven too soon. But Sam seems satisfied.

I read once that as long as you bake a cake with love, it'll taste fine. Perhaps it's the same for stories.

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