The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Valerie Pixley

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Valerie Pixley

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Summary: Jill enjoyed Valerie Pixley's account of her madcap adventures, finding them funny, frightening and enlightening. They had plenty to chat about when Valerie popped in to see us.
Date: #
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Jill enjoyed Valerie Pixley's account of her madcap adventures, finding them funny, frightening and enlightening. They had plenty to chat about when Valerie popped in to see us.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Valerie Pixley: Hmm ... I see young people travelling to Africa, looking for fun and adventure ... A barefoot Boer, sitting on the verandah of his farm in the bush ... A white haired lady living in Cambridge with a cat called Freya ... In fact, anyone who is interested in real life adventure, African animals and birds and the strange things that happen to people when they live in strange places.

  • BB: What inspired you to write yours and O'D's story?

VP: Acute boredom! It was 2000, the year the floods devastated much of southern Mozambique and I was imprisoned in the house by the incredibly heavy rains that thundered down onto our grass roof day after day after day. There was mud and water everywhere and absolutely nothing to do. We didn't have a television or DVD player, computers or telephones. All we had was a rather battered shortwave radio that you couldn't even hear over the immense roar of the rains.

So I sat down in front of the 30 year old Facit manual typewriter I had bought in the little Zimbabwean town of Mutare (just across the border from us) and pounded out some stories about the forest and Mozambique to entertain myself. They grew and turned into our life story.

  • BB: If you could do it all again, would you change anything?

VP: Yes, I would.

For one thing, I would have made sure that my lovely Arrojela wouldn't have been lost to us. If O'D had stayed on a bit longer in his job at Tabex instead of burning his boats and rushing off to the Nhamacoa in 1995, we would have been able to get over the financial hump caused by the lawyer Carmen and would not have had to sell our home in the Algarve. I loved that place and still regret its loss even after all these years.

Sadly, most of the other things that I would like to change were things that were completely out of my control. You know, like the death of our beloved friend Caetano because of a doctor's mistake and the deaths of some of our animals because all the Vets had left Zimbabwe, thanks to the turmoil caused by President Mugabe. Mozambican Vets, unfortunately, still can't handle anything complicated when it comes to the health of our pets.

Talking about President Mugabe, though and strange as this may seem, he was partly responsible for my regaining my fading eyesight. If it hadn't been for his closure of the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique in 2002 when I broke my reading glasses and couldn't get a replacement, I would never have resorted to trying out Dr. Bates' eye exercises. As a result, my eyesight improved to such an extent that I've now been reading without glasses for eleven years. So some good does come out of bad!

  • BB: How worried should we be about deforestation? And what can we do about it?

VP: You should be extremely worried about deforestation. Humans are waging a terrible and often quite bloody war against nature and Africa's wildlife. As well as the destruction caused by the local people opening fields, we now have to contend with the Chinese as well. They have an insatiable appetite for Africa's raw materials and the destruction of Mozambique's indigenous hardwood forests has escalated since their arrival here. Apart from the ecological problems this is causing, many of Africa's monkeys, birds and other animals are becoming extinct because of loss of habitat. Where do they nest or live when there are no trees for them? What do they eat when all the fruit, berries, seeds and leaves and insects are gone?

For those of us who love and care about Africa's wildlife, it's absolutely heart breaking to watch these so very helpless animals being driven out of their habitat or killed in often very cruel ways to make way for man who considers them to be vermin or a threat. The decimation of our rhinos, lions and elephant because of human greed and the nonsensical ideas that their horns or bones can cure impotence has certainly brought our rhinos and lions almost to the point of extinction. The root of this destruction is again the Chinese, together with the Vietnamese.

What can you do to help? Nothing much, especially in view of the fact that Chris Moye of the Environmental Investigation Agency went undercover and discovered that the Mozambican Minister of Agriculture himself was involved in major illegal logging practices with Chinese timber companies! Chris's report, 'First Class Connections' is an eye-opener. As the divine Leo diCaprio said in the film 'Blood Diamonds', 'TIA - This is Africa!'

  • BB: How do you see the future for Mozambique?

VP: Mozambique's future is anyone's guess. As long as African governments continue with their rampant corruption, lack of law and order and a judiciary where justice goes to the person who pays the judge the most money, it is going to be difficult for ordinary Mozambicans to benefit from Mozambique's wealth in the form of its minerals, recent gas finds and other natural resources.

Although the BBC World Service is always describing this country as one of the poorest in the world, the ruling elite are staggeringly wealthy. Champagne corks pop in Maputo, there are luxury villas, luxury cars, designer clothes and first class travel. In the meantime in the rural areas, people live in huts, wear rags and mostly do not even own a bicycle to get themselves around on the dusty roads.

  • BB: Where do you write? (We're hoping for glorious African vistas!)

VP: I tried writing outside on the verandah and even under the trees but there is always so much to look at that it's hard to concentrate. I now write in the spare bedroom, facing the window and the big old mango tree. Even here, though, my attention often gets diverted when I catch sight of one of our lovely or rare birds in its branches or those really naughty little vervet monkeys peering at me with their bright brown eyes through the window.

  • BB: What would be your desert island (or African forest) book?

VP: All the Elizabeth George books that I missed buying because I live in Mozambique where there are no English book shops! The last of her books that I bought was 'Deception on his Mind'. As with all Elizabeth George's mystery murders, the plot is intricate, the characters so well drawn and of course there's that delightfully politically incorrect, chubby, chain-smoking Barbara Havers. Until I get back to a town or city, I've been left in the dark with another mystery .... Did Barbara and Azhar ever get beyond the beginnings of their platonic friendship?

  • BB: Which authors inspire you?

VP: Stuart Cloete. I love books about Africa, especially old Africa. Also Peter Godwin. His book Mukiwa made a deep impression even on Douglas, our Shona cook and right-hand man.

  • BB: What advice would you give to other people thinking of sharing their memoirs?

VP: Do it! Everyone's life is unique and even if your life story doesn't get published, writing it leaves some family history behind for your future generations. I wish my ancestors had left a diary or even some letters. From the little I know, their lives were fascinating but all I have are a few stories handed down to me by my grandparents and a couple of sepia tinted photographs. We all like to know where we come from and now that we no longer write letters but use email, young people are going to know even less about their ancestors.

  • BB: What's next for Valerie Pixley?

VP: At the beginning of 2014, I plan to enrol in a script writing course with Daniel Derckson at his Writing Studio in Cape Town. I have some great ideas for a film. As well as this, I'm trying to expand our tree growing project to include the local people living around us and in this way help to alleviate some of their poverty while helping the environment and wildlife as well. The project involves growing indigenous trees from seed and planting them out in the desertified areas around the Nhamacoa. Arend de Haas of African Conservation Foundation in the U.K (together with a biologist and a photographer) is paying us a visit in the Nhamacoa at the end of September this year and will hopefully help us to get the project off the ground.

And just a last word. If anyone reading my book wants to see the monkeys in my garden, they can go to our video blog on the Internet. They'll also be able to see our forest and its other inhabitants, as well as me and O'D, Douglas and Lee. On one of the videos, Douglas shows us how to make matapa, a delicious Shona dish with kale and peanuts ... But only try it out if you don't have a peanut allergy!

  • BB: That was fascinating, Valerie - thanks for chatting to us.

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