A Very Personal History,
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This review is from: The Guinea Fowl Girl: A colonial childhood Southern Rhodesia 1939-1958 (Kindle Edition)
A memoir can serve many purposes. It can serve ones descendants with personal information that would otherwise be lost, it can cast light on an era and place that may too easily be forgotten because of political, social and attitudinal changes and, perhaps more importantly for the writer, it can serve as a catharsis by which the past may be laid to rest. I believe The Guinea Fowl Girl fulfils all these elements, although only the writer will ever know how effective the last element has been.
In The Guinea Fowl Girl, Val Sherwell (Borgie Hawkey, to those who new her then) describes a period of history that has receded over the horizon with very little to mark its existence. No prominent writer, with the exception perhaps of Doris Lessing, has recorded the strange - sometimes incomprehensible - life-styles and attitudes of the British settler and expatriate in Southern Rhodesia. Val's experiences of a childhood that spanned WWll, its aftermath and the run-up to the demise of settler dominated Southern Rhodesia, serve to highlight the fact that standard histories about any society can only brush the surface. Underneath there is (or was) a random mix of families, many of which had already been split by past events, both political and personal, such as war, marriage, divorce, and, in some cases, estrangement from kith and kin from the homeland.
For anyone unfamiliar with Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), it's important to note that the guinea fowl of the title is not a bird, but a school. Situated on the Gwelo-Selukwe road in the Midlands, the `School in the Bush', as it was known in the country, was a whites only (all schools were segregated) co-educational boarding school catering for children from all three countries of the Central African Federation (Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland). I won't give away what this highly unorthodox and idiosyncratic school meant to Val, other than that it could not have contrasted more starkly with the Benedictine all-girls' school she'd previously had to endure.
The early part of Val's memoir describes a typical family living in the late 1930s in Southern Rhodesia. Her father was a resident magistrate, which meant they were afforded automatic status. Consequently, Val and her brother, John, led orthodox lives, getting into the usual scrapes with neighbours, school-friends, etc that might be expected of children growing up in a small, white rural community. But, beneath the respectable façade of family life, unbeknown to either child, their parents' incompatibility was taking its toll in ways that would probably have been totally incomprehensible to either of them.
However, what moved me most was the `cathartic' element which is central to Val's memoir. In particular, her relationship with her father and the extraordinary effect he was to have on her life, both while she was at GFS and in the years following. Here she describes a highly flawed, yet, in his own way, loving and well-meaning father, whose clumsy attempts to ingratiate himself with her eventually led to their estrangement.
Val Sherwell's memoir stands out as a rare, personal recording of the tail-end of what was known as `British Africa'. It describes a childhood spent in the protective cocoon of a community that had little in common with the wider native society, and it also offers a graphic account of her growing realisation of how fragile her family really was, where neither parent appeared to understand the complex needs of an intelligent and energetic girl. It also highlights how a timely move - from one school to another - can have such a profound affect on a child's life.
Val Sherwell has been brave enough to tackle what must have been at times a difficult childhood memoir to write. Her recollection of past events, especially when she was very little, is astounding, as is her ability to convey her feelings in a simple and unfussy narrative.
I recommend The Guinea Fowl Girl for anyone interested in both the history of the region and in the parent/child relationship.