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Lost story

2015-03-01

Revenge for years of torment

Loyal servant of 50 years halts plan for book on Zimbabwean farmers with “impressive” colonial roots

In the beginning, I thought I’d stumbled on a unique Zimbabwe story. It featured an elderly British couple from aristocratic origins and their touchingly loyal employee, Eliya, who continued to toil for them without pay after they mutually hit the hardest of times in the Mugabe era.
I was planning to write the ultimate end-of-Empire narrative, in which a few jaded stereotypes were destined to nose-dive – such as the alleged ease with which white African farmers grew rich – and wherein the infamously feudal master/servant relationship would acquire a kindly, albeit fleeting, face.
Part of my motive in pursuing the tale for over a year despite the most trying of circumstances – the interviewees being far away and too frail to concentrate for long periods – was a foolhardy hope that the mythology of the servant “who is an integral part of the family”, as I’ve heard so often in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, was at least occasionally true.
Eliya told me that he had come from Malawi to look for a job, and started working at the Skiltons’ farm in the year they tied the knot, 1960, when “the madam” was a pretty classical singer trained by the best British music academies for a different life entirely; her husband the younger son of an influential English family who would never inherit his father’s estate in the UK so decided to become an African country squire instead.
Both of the Skiltons’ lineages were impressive in colonial terms: one of his forebears saw distinguished service in Palestine, while another was decorated for bravery in Malaya, each becoming lord mayors of London. Her most illustrious relies were known as The Socrates of India and The Maker of Modern Nigeria respectively.
Over five decades that included guerrilla war in Rhodesia and the subsequent scorched earth politics of Zimbabwe, Eliya rose from labourer to gardener to cook, telling me with what seemed like pride when we first talked that he used to prepare roast chicken with crispy potatoes while whipping up a sherry trifle for Sunday lunch, after clearing the debris from a breakfast for six – the Skiltons having four children – making their beds, feeding their pets and sweeping the yard. Despite being overworked, he seemed to speak fondly of them.
Having chanced upon this apparently harmonized relationship in 2008, I returned to Harare several times to interview Eliya and the couple. She told me of her mental breakdown in the back of beyond, as her English relatives called Karoi; describing in tears how she’d managed to claw her way back into a daily routine only after an interminable stay in the “barmy ward”, where a psychiatrist explained that her crippling sorrow lay in dreaming lifelong of a brilliant singing career in Britain when her reality was to struggle against the dusty odds of a tick-infested, mosquito-ravaged farm in Africa.
The only time she’d actually made it on stage was in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado performed at the Karoi Club, which she remembered mostly for her battle to be on time for rehearsals after bathing and feeding the children and driving in her sumptuous Yum-Yum costume, hair piled high and held aloft Japanese-style by a pair of ivory chopsticks, while the kids squabbled in the back of the landrover.
But the main problem they seemed to have borne stoically was her husband’s ineptitude in his chosen career. He told me with typical English self-deprecation that the farm house he originally built for his bride, after they’d lived in a tent for a year, leaked so badly in the rainy season that he’d had to construct a tin shack inside it – and when that too sprang holes, another tin roof had to be erected on top of their Edwardian four-poster.
Amusingly, he described his access road as being so treacherous during the rains that he tired of towing half-buried cars out of the mud and put up a warning to hapless drivers. It stood next to the place’s official name, Quarry Farm. Over time, he recalled, the signpost to his pitiful pile fell down and it became known instead as Slippery When Wet.
It was not an enticing picture, but as those of us who grew up on Rhodesian farms know, life in the remote homesteads dotted across a lonely landscape was sometimes unpleasantly primitive – and certainly not for sissies. For a Brit with a keen sense of humour but scant resources of any other sort, and especially for his delicate wife, it proved a challenge too far. She admits that she never recovered from what she calls “personal fatigue”.
Both credited Eliya with helping to raise their children as well as nurturing tomato plants, beans and lettuces for the table, delivering calves, dipping dogs and dismantling bee hives. The couple always spoke to me glowingly about Eliya, once describing how he used to sprint from the postbox in later years clutching letters from Skilton children living abroad and begging to hear their news.
In the end, though, my proposed book collapsed recently on arrival in Harare for a week of serious interviewing, when Eliya presented me unexpectedly with a school exercise jotter titled The History of My Life – in which he completely trashed the family. Noting the pittance he’d been paid since signing on with them fifty years earlier, he described how the husband would refer him to the wife if he requested an increase, whereupon she’d send him back to “the boss”, and so on and on, until he gave up.
Bitterly, he listed his interminable chores, expressing outrage that the Skiltons had sometimes gone to England for several months but never rewarded him for keeping their home safe in their absence. His deepest grievance concerned a bicycle he thought he’d been given, until he was told out of the blue one day that it was required by a Skilton daughter still living in Harare. She never claimed it, however. Eliya described in a brittle tone how he’d hammered nails into the garage wall as instructed, on which the bicycle was to be hung so that its tyres wouldn’t perish – and where it remained as a trophy of his gravest disappointment.
I asked Eliya over and over again why he’d spent half a century working for people he loathed. There must have been alternative employment opportunities for a versatile man over so many years. But he seemed unable to grasp my bewilderment. It was god who had directed his actions, he told me repeatedly.
Not for the first time, I found myself at the mercy of cultural mysteries way beyond my comprehension. His painful testimony meant that the relationship I had seen as unique actually straddled the love/hate fault line as uneasily as most others of its kind. Long after explaining to him why his confession meant I could no longer write the proposed story, I was left with the disquieting feeling that Eliya had spotted in me a chance for revenge following a lifetime of powerlessness – and grabbed it.

 

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