Notes from an author: Irene Sabatini on finding inspiration in Zimbabwe's landscapes

Still landscapes and encounters with elephants — the scenes and sounds of the Southern African country spark fresh, if unexpected, inspiration.

By Irene Sabatini
Published 30 Sep 2020, 11:03 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Tourists cross the Knife Edge Bridge with the mighty Victoria Falls in the background.

Tourists cross the Knife Edge Bridge with the mighty Victoria Falls in the background. 

Photograph by Getty

Although I’ve now spent most of my life living outside Zimbabwe — in Colombia, Barbados, England, Switzerland and now America — I always seem to make my way back home.

Two of my books (The Boy Next Door and my latest, An Act of Defiance) are set in Zimbabwe, and though the characters may travel, may yearn for a life of peace and prosperity, for a less complicated existence of stable currencies and full supermarkets, their hearts (and bodies) belong to this fractured land, bountiful in its beauty. My other book, Peace and Conflict, though set in Geneva, is connected to Zimbabwe through family ties. Key authorial decisions I’ve made in my books have been because of specific Zimbabwean landscapes, whether I realised so or not at the time of making them.

In Peace and Conflict, one of the main characters is Aunty Delphia, a wildlife vet. She didn’t exist for a long time as I worked on the novel, and then suddenly she was there, occupying a vital space in the story. Where had my subconscious conjured her from?

In 2011, my husband and I, together with our two sons, took a road trip from Bulawayo, my hometown, to Victoria Falls — a 273-mile car ride on a narrow, patchy single carriageway. We drove under an expanse of cloudless blue sky at the tail end of a Southern Hemisphere winter. The road stretched lazily ahead, unchanging. There wasn’t much to distract the eye: bush and woodland, a few huts, people idly walking on the dirt verge, the occasional man riding a bicycle, and a splattering of vendors selling tomatoes or oranges in tin dishes. When I think of that car journey, I think of stillness.

Award-winning author Irene Sabatini spent her childhood in the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

Photograph by Irene Sabatini

About halfway to the falls, just outside Hwange National Park, we turned off the main road onto a dirt track and drove through the Sikumi Forest Reserve to the Ivory Lodge.

We had dinner at the communal table in the rondavaal (round hut). The manager regaled us with tales of the bush and used phrases like ‘as far as the eagle flies’, which I’d only ever heard in books. There was a beautifully carved tsoro (two-player board game) on one of the tables and a guide showed my youngest son how to play this ancient game. Outside, we gathered around the firepit for stories. And then to bed in the thatched huts on stilts, all of them with clear views on the watering hole elephants, bucks, giraffes and zebras gathered to drink.

Here I was: a black Zimbabwean, city-dwelling woman in her 40s, who'd never been on safari, who yelps at spiders, and now here she is in the great outdoors in a space with bare windows, shielded only by rolled-up reed mats. How my imagination soared — in the night, the stars twinkled so brightly that I couldn't help but recite Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and the moon seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch it. And the my mind wandered: what are the noises outside? Monkeys, snakes, lions, leopards, cheetahs? Every animal I'd ever seen in The Lion King could suddenly leap into my treehouse.

“How my imagination soared — the moon seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch it. And then my mind wandered: what are those noises outside?”

by Irene Sabatini

My fears, luckily, were unfounded, and in the morning, we set out on safari in an open-top Land Rover. Our affable guide drove us through the bush, where we saw so many elephants that my eldest son grew bored and fell asleep. But I was transfixed and terrified. How could we be so close to these powerful, magnificent creatures that I could see the hairs on their tough skin? That I could watch how their trunks wrapped themselves around tree branches and stripped them clean of leaves? That I was close enough to witness the herd gathering around a tiny calf? 

But then came the flip side. On our drive back we saw the devastation that elephant overpopulation can do: woodland where the trees had been stripped of leaves and branches, whole trunks uprooted, and our guide pinpointing out why elephant culling was necessary to keep the herds down. 

In Peace and Conflict, I imagined Aunty Delphia worked in that national park, lived in a treehouse like the one I'd slept in and operated on animals underneath it. I'd never have had the scope to imagine her like if I hadn't taken this trip, seen what being a conservationist in this country might mean, and what it might cost. 

An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini is published by The Indigo Press, RRP: £10.99

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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