“I’ve never used that road,” the campsite owner says doubtfully.
The tent is folded. Our mattress is squashed on top of the now-empty food boxes in the back of the car. One lost pink flashlight in the shape of a pig has been located. After a weekend of camping, it’s time to go home.
The question is, which way?
The campsite in the mountainous Nyanga region of Zimbabwe is an hour and a half’s drive from our house in Mutare, the nation’s fourth largest city. There’s one road between Mutare and Nyanga that everyone uses: It threads past the Juliasdale turnoff, through Watsomba, past the Old Mutare Mission, and over Christmas Pass. It’s a good road with few potholes. We’ve driven it many times.
But just before we’d left for our holiday, a friend had e-mailed to say she’d heard of another route. “It goes past the Bonda Mission,” she said. Is the road tarred all the way? I’d asked. Or are parts of it farm tracks, which our aging, inherited vehicle might not be able to manage?
There had been no reply. (Sue had left on holiday.)
So now here we are, an hour and a half before nightfall in rural Southern Africa, with two roads from which to choose.
“I don’t know if that Bonda road is tarred all the way,” the campsite owner continues. She looks at our tired children. I know which road she thinks we should take.
“Let’s try it,” I say to my husband once we’re back in the car. “Surely it can’t be too bad.”
Unlike me, an English girl who’s never forgotten her four years in Paris, my husband grew up in this part of the world. He knows firsthand the danger of untended cows wandering onto roads in the dark, the dread of breaking down miles from anywhere with no cellphone signal.
But to his credit, he turns right at the Bonda Mission sign. Almost immediately, the magic begins.
“Look, Mum,” Sam, who’s 10, cries. “It’s that famous school!”
Sure enough, just past Bonda Mission there’s a sign to Knowstics Academy. It’s a small rural girls’ school that nobody had heard of until last year when two of its pupils got the best results in the world for their divinity and history final exams, set by the University of Cambridge. We’d read about Knowstics in Zimbabwe’s main state-run newspaper but had no idea we’d see it today.
The tarmac is narrow but smooth, unpocked. It rises and falls in rhythm with rocky outcrops peppered with pine trees. Goats – well behaved, as goats normally are – stick to the sides of the road. We can see smoke rising from countless thatched kitchens.
I drink in, once again, the primary colors of Zimbabwe: the lilac-gray of the road, the bleached sandy-yellow of the grassy verges, the blush-pink of the sunset.
Thirteen years ago, I worked in the headquarters of an international news agency in Paris. I loved my life, my Montmartre deux-pièces with its purple whistling kettle, drinking mint tea on weekends at The Paris Mosque restaurant. I thought I’d live and work in France forever. But then I met the man who would become my husband. With two words, I changed my world. I shipped two bookshelves’ worth of books to my parents’ garage in eastern England, squashed a wedding gown into my suitcase, and followed him to Zimbabwe.
Sometimes I think of what my life might be like if I’d stayed there, if I’d kept to the main road, the one almost certain to have taken me where I thought I wanted to go: to financial security, job satisfaction, a pension. And then I remember what striking off into the unknown in Africa has given me: experiences I could never have dreamed of, friends whose loyalty stretches across the racial divide and enriches my life. A love of sadza, Zimbabwe’s staple cornmeal porridge. Two children who can identify the early-morning call of the purple-crested lourie and the droppings of a dassie. Bush landscapes that have seared themselves into my heart.
We drive past the wooden buildings of a clinic in the Mutasa communal lands. Coming out of the gate is a woman holding a tiny baby cocooned in a peach towel. She’s surrounded by other women, all smiling and laughing. A new mother, just discharged.
Tears prick my eyes.
“When you’re older and you live in another country,” I tell Sam. “You’ll remember all this beauty ...” and I start telling him about my childhood holidays in the mountains of Scotland.
He cuts me short. “But I’m never going to live in another country,” he says. “I’m staying in Zimbabwe forever.”