You can take the boy out of Africa . . . PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 18 October 2014 20:16

Matthew Parris - The Times UK, 12:01AM, October 15 2014


I walk from the big aeroplane. Johannesburg airport lies at an altitude of more than 5,500 ft, and something in me knows it’s high. Something in the air invigorates.


I was born in Johannesburg and from boyhood until I came to England at 19, was raised in Salisbury (now Harare, in Zimbabwe) at a similar altitude. There’s a very slight thinness to the atmosphere and my nostrils scent it without conscious recognition: but something feels right. Like a freshwater fish swimming back up river from the brine, I’m returning to my habitat.


Every African-born white boy I know in Britain feels the same. We’re happy here, most of us; it’s our country now and we’ve made our way in it. The relative success of the tiny proportion of the British population who come from the former Rhodesia and from South Africa is striking and deserves study. But something of a sense of exile will never leave us.


Hi, my beloved country

Jo’burg was only a stopover. I was on my way to my beloved Zimbabwe, to write for Tatler about tourism there. Tourism’s growing.


Americans and continental Europeans are discovering a place that’s safer and gentler than South Africa or east Africa; that mass-tourism has yet to mar; where most things work and where the welcome from ordinary African people, who know their country’s loneliness, is heartfelt. On the verandah bar at my lodge at the Victoria Falls, you heard Italian and French spoken, and plenty of American and South African accents — but almost no British.


Why? I shall steer clear of politics. There’s a case for staying away from countries whose politics we disapprove of, and a case for visiting and making friends with their people. I’m decidedly of the second view but do respect the first. In any case, that’s not the reason so few British come: we will merrily tan ourselves on the beaches of some of the world’s most obnoxious regimes. No, we don’t go to Zimbabwe because we’ve heard it’s in chaos. “What will you eat?” said friends.

And that’s just wrong. Zimbabwe is a safe and ordered place with a stable economy: one of Africa’s more advanced countries and probably the continent’s best-educated.


I blush as a journalist to suggest that the reason we think it’s in chaos is that we British have read so much about Zimbabwe in our newspapers. The country was once ours. Some of the whites who stayed — our cousins, as it were — have had an awful time: mainly those who were farmers. It’s right to care about them but this is what gets the press going and has skewed our whole view of the country.


“What kind of government is there here?” two Americans (both professional people, just flown in from Florida) asked me. The elderly couple, totally uninformed, had the more balanced view. They didn’t read the papers. They relied on the Bradt guidebook.


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