The search for Paradise lost

We sat down and reread the letter more carefully, savouring every word. The Ministry explained the school was in the Midlands, near Gweru, very isolated and small. They warned us although it was a boarding establishment as well, we would be the only teachers to look after about 50 students. Far from being concerned, we were elated at the news as it fulfilled our desire live in rural environs again and we felt confident we could meet the challenge. Our friends were horrified.

“Somabula? Why, it’s hell on earth,” they warned. “It’s barren and remote. In winter, the wind howls over miles of endless dreary grasslands. No one in their right mind would like living there,” they emphasized.

“I quite agree,” said Mother. “It is preposterous even considering the idea. You now have three children to think of. The country is at war. It is the height of stupidity to move into the bush!”

We disregarded their well-meant warnings and within a few weeks, we packed our belongings, loaded them on to a train that would transport them to ‘hell on earth’ and arrived at our new work place and abode.

Alan and I loved our home at first sight. The house looked out on to a sea of golden grass as far as the eye could see, gently waving in the breeze. I sometimes visualised our home as a ship sailing over a yellow ocean, interspersed here and there with islands of clusters of imposing gum trees. On the left hand side, edging the grassland was a low range of hills, clad in the Somabula Mopani forest. There were no other buildings in sight; only the railway line that snaked around a minute station. I thought we had arrived in heaven and knew that at last we found an ideal haven for raising our family. The tranquillity and spaciousness of this vast plain made me feel completely at peace for the first time in ages. Maybe this was where my search for Eden would end.

The girls were delighted, but Mother grumbled ceaselessly. “The empty loneliness will drive me mad. There are no shops and at night, the only lights visible from my windows are the stars. It makes me feel claustrophobic. I thought we were done with uncivilized living. Why, once again we drink water pumped straight from a stream. The hostel does not have an electric stove and we most have to heat our bath water in a coal boiler. Why, oh why must you choose to live like savages?” she lamented. Then, as an afterthought she added, “And what about terrorists? What will happen if we come under attack in this desolate place?” She clutched at her chest dramatically as if she were about to have a heart attack.

“Don’t worry, we are completely safe,” answered Alan impatiently, but this was not completely true, as we were to learn later.

However, no matter what my sentiments were, we needed to be aware of, and prepared for, the dangers that surrounded us. The army supplied us with guns and a gun cabinet, and they expected Alan and me to do regular target practice at the shooting range. I hated it. In addition, we needed to practise various safety drills to cover a variety of different situations.

We had to criss-cross all the windows with clear tape to prevent the glass shattering and hurting anyone in the case of a missile attack and we used blackout curtains at night. To my dismay, the gardeners were asked to destroy my tenderly cared for plants on the patio and certain flowerbeds, in order to clear a wide passage around all buildings where terrorists could possibly hide. There were also panic buttons linked to piercing sirens placed at strategic places. Most importantly, they supplied us with a radio for emergencies. We had to call in daily at a set time. Failure to do so resulted in the army and helicopters storming in, thinking we were in danger.

My mother’s reactions to (and comments about) these arrangements do not warrant mentioning. We suffered weeks of heaving and sighing, along with regular checking of her pulse, lest her heart was failing due to the worry. She constantly peered from behind curtains in case fighters were lurking nearby and finally we offered to take her to South Africa to stay with her sister. She then suddenly calmed down and refused the offer. I personally think she enjoyed the drama and attention.

At one time a farm very close to the school was attacked and the army decided the hostel needed a new and more effective alarm system, which they immediately installed. An officer arrived the next day to drill the children in case of a night attack.

He familiarized them with the sound of the new siren and warned them, should they hear it at night, they were to remove their blankets and pillows, climb under their beds and, most importantly, remain there without moving until further instructions. The children listened intently and nodded seriously to the orders. The next morning, two greatly agitated matrons banged on our door. They were both white-faced and trembling.

“Come quickly, all the children have been abducted!” They wailed in unison. Flabbergasted, Alan rushed to the dormitories, his heart in his mouth. Sure enough, all the beds were empty. He stood silent and unable to move for a few minutes – and then he heard a groan from under one of the beds. He bent down to look underneath and to his amazement found all the children still fast asleep.

Feeling relieved, yet enraged at the same time, he yelled, “You little horrors! What the hell are you doing there? Come out at once!”

There was a short silence then a small boy stuttered, “Please, Sir, is it safe yet?” “Stop playing the fool. Get out at once and explain yourselves,” said Alan, tempering his voice and trying to compose himself, but still furious at their thoughtless prank. The children clambered out and he then saw they were genuinely looking terrified and very bewildered.

“We were just following instructions,” explained a bemused older boy.

The story slowly unfolded: quite by chance, the railways had introduced the new diesel express train on the same day as the installation of the new alarm. No one realized the diesel engine’s hoot was an exact replica of the new siren. When the train rushed past at midnight, signalling as usual, the terrified children thought the hostel was under terrorist attack and had followed the instructions implicitly. They fled under their beds, scared out of their wits, and remained there obediently, not daring to move until they eventually fell asleep.

World’s View

We woke early every morning and over breakfast, we discussed and planned the day’s activities. By mutual agreement, our first port of call was usually a visit to World’s View and Rhodes’ grave.

“Don’t forget to put on your walking shoes. We have quite a climb to the top,” I reminded everyone. It was a picturesque drive and after parking our car in the public parking area, I looked up at the long steep incline to the summit of the gigantic kopje.

“Come on; are you all ready to start the long trek?” I asked, but the children were already on their way up the path. However, it was not long before Vic wailed, “I can’t go any further. My legs are sore!”

“Yes,” added Fran. “Our legs are too short. We can’t climb so high.” I must admit that even with my long legs I was having a difficult time.

“Okay, just a short rest,” agreed Alan resolutely, trying not to pant.

Soon we were on our way again. The older girls picked sprigs of what looked like dried pieces of weed that grew in between stones and small crevices beside the path. They knew that later, when placed in water, these aptly named Resurrection Plants quickly and miraculously sprang to life again with tiny green leaves.

At last, we reached the top, red-faced and puffing with the exertion. Immediately, bright yellow and green blue-headed lizards that had been resting contentedly, enjoying the warm sun, streaked to the safety of crevices and crannies under the rocks, certain we were on a lizard-murdering mission. The first thing that struck me was the jigsaw pattern of yellow and orange lichen that covered the rocks. Then looking out, the stunning views astounded me.

One looked out onto a huge expanse of rolling, tumbled landscape that stretched to the horizon. In the distance the barking of the Chacma baboons broke the otherwise miles of silence. The stately rock formations and the stillness inspired a feeling of hallowedness. I noticed we had suddenly started whispering quite naturally, as if we were afraid to disturb the holy serenity we often associate with cathedrals or cemeteries.

Rhodes’ tomb stands almost in the centre. It is simply and unpretentiously hewn out of rock and covered with a large, bronze plaque with the inscription, ‘Here lie the remains of Cecil John Rhodes’. World’s View is also the burial place of his right hand man, Leander Starr Jameson, the first prime minister of Rhodesia, Coghlan, Alan Wilson and the soldiers who died in the Shangani Patrol. To one side there stands an imposing stone and bronze memorial to them. Unlike other graveyards, there is nothing dismal and sad about this one; instead, it a sunny place of grandeur and dignity.

As I stood there looked at the view that has remained unaltered over the years, I realised that although the country was on the brink of enormous change, these hills were timeless. I wondered how many know that World’s View was the sacred and revered place of the Ndebele people? Mzilikazi called it ‘Malindidzimu’, meaning ‘The Hill of Benevolent Spirits’. I was puzzled why this great Ndebele king was not interred on this splendid place of his African spiritual ancestors as well. Instead, he rests in a lonely, hidden and walled up cave amongst the kopjes. Did he choose that place?

About the author

Elizabeth Ann Smith was born in South Africa and spent her early years on her grandparent’s small holding. After her father returned from fighting in the Second World War, they went to his family home in England and I attended Hitchen Girls grammar school. But her parents were restless and after a while returned to Africa, settling in Zimbabwe, a country we all fell in love with. She completed her education at the Dominican Convent, Bulawayo, and was a pioneering student at the new Heany Teachers’ Training College. She and her husband lived in Malawi for many years and had five daughters. She is now retired and lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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