Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott

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Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Robyn Scott is nearly 7 when her family moved from genteel New Zealand to the rigours of the Botswana bush. Her anecdotes of the next ten years or so paint a beautiful picture of an amazing country and in many ways of a truly remarkable family. An absolute pleasure.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747595960

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As misery memoir piled upon misery memoir and we were obliged, even those who chose not to read the genre, to bear witness to the appalling things some parents are capable of doing to their own children, I began to wonder if the happy childhood had gone the way of Spangles and club trips to the seaside: things I knew had existed once upon a time.

My overwhelming thanks then to Robyn Scott (and publishers Bloomsbury) for restoring my faith. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is subtitled the Story of an African Childhood, but more than that it is the story of a recent and happy childhood. For that alone it would be worth the read.

Of course there are trials and tribulations. Idylls don't actually exist, all children have their difficulties. This being Africa the everyday upsets are of a kind that might well have permanently traumatised me at such an age… but then I wasn't born into such a wildly eccentric family.

The author is the eldest of three children. Robyn herself was nearly seven, Damien was five and Lulu was three when their parents uprooted them from the family home in New Zealand and landed them, via South Africa and then courtesy of an erratically-flown light aircraft and a rickety old bakkie in Selebi: an ex-town a few hundred kilometres inside Botswana.

It's an auspicious landing. A defrosting chicken is sufficient to see them through customs and a warm welcome awaits in the paternal grandparents' abode. For the next ten years or so, this country will see the Scott children launched into the world via what the author's mother eventually calls her grand experiment.

To put the African experience in context you do need to know a little about the Scotts. Both parents were of 'ex-pat' heritage. All the variations of grandparents (more than the usual two sets as a result of early marital break-ups) lived on the continent. Robyn's father was a Doctor by default – his University didn't offer vetinary medicine – and hated it. Her mother was a vegetarian committed to home-schooling her children and a born Pollyanna determined to see the good in everything and everyone. Both parents support alternative medicine… acupuncture, homeopathy… and yet are strangely resistant to the tribal beliefs they come across upon their return to Africa.

Even in New Zealand, life can hardly have been conventional, so its fair to assume that the children arrived in the Bush (in that third of Botswana that doesn't have the distinction of being desert, but scarcely gets enough rainfall to lay the dust) with an adventurous spirit and a resilience that most kids their age couldn't dream of.

We also need to remember that it wasn't going to be a total culture shock. They had family here. They had previously visited. The fact that they arrived really wanting to see snakes and that both parents and grandparents do their best to comply on Day One (although the best they can produce is a scorpion) completes the perspective.

The fact that Twenty Chickens has a tendency to read like a Famous Five story (Thrilling Three Go Native?) is actually a plus rather than the minus it could be. This is partly down to Scott's undoubted skill with words. I knew I was going to love the book as soon as they at landed and she tells us that Heat was the only thing moving.

Simple. Direct. Evocative. Mainly, though, it is her very specific perspective on growing up. The memoir starts when she is young enough to be thrilled and frightened, but old enough to know she is the oldest and has to look after the others (or at least be less scared than they are). Moreover she is precisely at that age when children start listening to adults. Not ‘listening to' as in taking note & doing what you're told – but listening to, in the sense of eavesdropping. Picking up on conversations that you don't fully understand but which lodge and become formative later on.

She reports events with the novelist's eye for detail and ear for dialogue. It's hard to know whether these are imagined conversations based on family characters and the things they'd be likely to have said, or whether she remembers the precise exchanges. Many would argue the latter not to be possible. I know that it is. Given the right circumstances, I can rehearse who said what from years ago. But try to get me to recognise a famous actor from a photograph – no chance! I'm prepared to take her on trust therefore.

Not that it matters. The result is a truly delightful read. It captures the children perfectly in all their bravado and sulks. The differences in their characters emerge slowly, with Damien nearly blowing his face off testing underwater detonators rescued from the local ammo dump, but far too squeamish to watch close-up the dissection of the snake. Lulu, perhaps arriving too young to know any different, simply falls in love with all creatures great and small and sets about rescuing anything that moves, which causes complications when you're trying to keep snakes but don't really want to feed them live prey. In true Enid Blyton fashion however a solution is found.

The unbounded curiosity and ingenuity of the Scott children is the best advocate you will ever find in support of home-schooling. Their breadth and depth of knowledge is astonishing for their youth. Given the limited nature of their 'formal' schooling – Lin is easily persuaded to allow them to go off and do something creative instead – it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that children are best left to learn at their own pace and in their own way. That would be wrong, since it would overlook the fact that the Scott children had phenomenal access to ‘life experience' way beyond the average, not just in their own travels, but in the family stories: Grandpa Ivor's tales of his commercial flying days, Dad's tales from the clinic. Add to that the intelligence of the parents, their tendency to talk to the children as adults right from the start, instilling in them the sheer love of learning, working things out, needing to know and finally recognise what a truly gifted teacher Lin really is.

This isn't just a book about one family however. It is also a portrait of Botswana. Familiar from McCall Smith's wonderful detective stories, it still comes over as a beautiful country. A largely peaceful and prosperous and wise one. Which is not to say it is perfect. The land is harsh and can be unforgiving. Many of those creatures of childhood fantasy can kill you. During the period covered (late 1980s through the 1990s) racism persists and permeates local politics. The missionaries are still hard at work trying to make converts. Traditional cultures and beliefs assist the rampant spread of HIV / AIDS and hinder any attempts at control or treatment.

Much like her mother, Scott crams in an astonishing variety of incidental factoids among her anecdotes. Well, did you know that chameleons have acrodont dentition? Or that you can make faux flagstones out of varnished brown paper? Or that the sterols and sterolins found in the African potato were known to have significant immune-modulating effects as early as the 1990s which could revolutionise HIV control in Africa if only a proper clinical trial could be funded?

She achieves a rare balance in producing a book which is eminently readable and full of humour, whilst allowing the pain of individuals and of a country the focus it deserves. That her growing maturity is reflected in a more serious tone as the book progresses reinforces the sense of time passing, but in no way does it serve to back up her father's theory that she was born without a sense of humour. Her wit survives even in the toughest of circumstances.

A truly wonderful book.

If you enjoyed this, you will love the Mma Ramotswe novels of Alexander McCall Smith starting with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

Booklists.jpg Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott is in the Top Ten Books About Africa.

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