Twenty Chickens for a Saddle
The Story of an African Childhood
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Botswana in 1987 is a well-off country: politically stable, economically viable, peacefully integrated—the perfect place for Keith and Linda Scott to reinvent their lives. A family of wanderers who make up their own rules as they go, the Scotts are a traveling circus of offbeat philosophies, can-do spirit, and love of adventure. As Keith and Linda settle their three children in the bush of Botswana, they create a world of their own design, one of personal expression and constant wonder, one where experience is valued above all else. Eldest daughter Robyn Scott tells the story of her family’s time in Botswana in her memoir Twenty Chickens for a SaddleTwenty Chickens for a Saddle, a lively and loving reminiscence of her childhood in Africa.
As Scott’s memoir makes clear, when her family commits to something, they commit to it completely. In Botswana, Keith becomes a bush doctor, flying miles between small-town clinics while Linda home schools their children, giving them an education that favors freedom of thought over structured lessons plans, imagination and exploration over the confines of a classroom. Scott paints a portrait of a home without boundaries and parents determined never to stifle their children’s curiosity or creativity. And the children are never never stifled—Robyn and her siblings are free to run through the Botswana countryside, and their confidence and independence are a testament to Keith and Linda’s unique parenting philosophy.
Taming horses, dissecting snakes, rescuing chickens—Robyn Scott writes about a life that other children can only dream of, set against the exotic backdrop of Botswana. A witty and wistful examination of her youth, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle re-creates Scott’s adventures and brings to life a broad collection of family members and friends, opening a window onto an intimate, little seen side of life in Africa. As she traces her own journey from uneasy transplant to knowledgeable local—one accustomed to crocodile-filled rivers and wide, dusty plains—Scott not only presents the maturing of a girl into a young woman but sketches the outlines of a changing nation. Written along the edges of her story are the darker notes of her family’s time in Botswana, as she bears witness to racism, ineffectual government, and the rising AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Yet Scott clearly loves Botswana, accepting its flaws and celebrating its charms, and Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is a touching love letter to the time, place, and family that shaped her childhood. Compelling and touching, her memoir shares the beginning of a fascinating life, and hopefully marks the beginning of a long career.
Born in 1981, Robyn Scott began her formal education at the age of fourteen, when she started boarding school in Zimbabwe. Moving to New Zealand for her undergraduate degree, she studied bioinformatics at the University of Auckland. In 2004, she was awarded a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge University, where she took an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise, focused on the pricing of medicines in developing countries. Robyn lives in London, but visits and works regularly in southern Africa.
Q. What reaction do you get when you tell people about your childhood? How do you respond? Is there one particular anecdote from your time in Botswana that you believe sums up your life there?
Most people, having thought about it for a while and asked a few questions, say they consider me privileged to have had such a childhood. However I find that initial reactions are often quite polarized. I think this depends on what people instinctively associate with “African bush.” By those who think “beautiful” and “exciting,” I’m told, “Wow, you are so lucky.” At the other extreme, from those who think poisonous snakes and crocodiles and the deprivation of comforts like water and electricity, will be exclamations of horror or pity or relief—relief, that is, that they weren’t subjected to the same. Most interesting for me is how often readers say the book reminded them of many of their own experiences of childhood. Often these are people who have grown up on farms or in the wilderness, but I have also received such comments from readers who grew up in large cities.
Because mine was a childhood led primarily through a series of haphazard experiences, I find it quite difficult to find one anecdote that sums things up. But on the education side, I think I would pick the day when my brother, sister, and I dissected a puff-adder beneath a thorn tree in our garden. This “lesson”—led by my father (who in fact, compared with my mum, contributed little directly to our education) was typical of my parents’ opportunist approach to education. We’d come across the poisonous snake in our cluttered old shed and, being unable to retrieve the poor creature without killing it, my dad made an exception to his rule of not killing snakes. (We usually tried to catch the poisonous snakes and release them far away in the bush.) After reluctantly chopping off its head, he then made us help him dissect it, instructing us in animal biology as he went along. On finishing, we went in search of a wooden board on which to pin and dry the beautiful skin. We were looking in one of the two abandoned trailers that stood under some trees in the chaotic area around our little house. Crammed in by the door, we, the three children, watched as my dad, farther inside the trailer, made cocky jokes about how this was just the sort of place that one might find another snake. Then, showing us how “not to lift up a piece of wood in Africa” he very nearly got bitten by a second snake, which by a bizarre coincidence was lying beneath the second piece of wood. He felt pretty sheepish as a result, and we teased him for days, humor being always a great leveler in our family.
Q. For many people, Africa is an impossibly exotic continent, unfamiliar and perhaps misunderstood. What do you see as the most common misperceptions about Africa in general and Botswana in particular?
I see the misunderstandings as falling into two main categories. The first, which includes assumptions about practical realities—for example, that in Africa you wouldn’t have power or running water—is related to misperceptions of the level of development on the continent. Of course, there are many people in Africa who have neither, but there are many who have both and live in big cities and who, provided they have money, can enjoy most modern amenities. The second relates to viewing Africa as a homogenous place, which to me seems akin to assuming everywhere in Europe is the same. Pretty much everything people hear about “Africa” in this context—war, corruption, poverty, racial grievances, et cetera—is of course true somewhere on the continent, but there is tremendous diversity. Botswana is one of the great examples of this. An exception to some of the most common generalizations, it is peaceful, relaxed about race, relatively wealthy, and relatively free of corruption. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to write Twenty Chickens was that growing up in Botswana had given me the opportunity to tell an “African childhood” story set in a country that is so different from the stereotypical African nation. It is a story that I believe is too seldom written about.
Q. The education you and your two siblings received was unconventional even by homeschooling standards, and all three of you have grown up to be intelligent, highly accomplished adults. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of the unique education your mother provided?
I think my parents would take pride in both the above assertions: 1) that their children have turned out well, and 2) that they managed to be unconventional even by the standards of others deserving of that description! From my perspective probably the greatest benefit of our education was to have instilled in us a deep respect for and love of learning. When I eventually went to school I was surprised by how many of my friends resented what they saw as the “work” involved in learning. My mother had never made us learn anything, and I thought of it as a great privilege, as “play.” Another bonus was that we, the children, came to believe that we could do anything. We were always encouraged to try new things, however difficult, and not to worry if we failed. Among the Americans I know this can-do-anything-and-it’s-okay-to-fail attitude is pretty universal, but I think it is less common in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. Disadvantages? Well, when I eventually went to school, I did have a bit of catching up to do in some areas. Sometimes as a young girl I also resented how different my parents were compared to my friends’ parents. And I do still occasionally regret that my spelling isn’t better—spelling was never something my mother worried about very much—but when that’s the most I have to hold against her, I’d say there aren’t really any lasting drawbacks.
Q. You and your siblings Damien and Lulu have very clear personalities, quite different yet united in your confidence and affection for each other. In what ways do you believe your childhood developed your character as well as that of your siblings? Where are Damien and Lulu today?
I think my parents’ laissez-faire approach encouraged each of our characters to develop in very different directions, based on our predispositions. At the same time, it was an environment that powerfully fostered some shared characteristics, such as curiosity and determination. Although we saw our friends in the afternoons and on weekends, we mostly had each other for company, and this I think also deeply influenced our relationships with each other. Because our days were dominated by shared adventures and discoveries—none of which were judged or managed in any manner—we developed a great respect for the richness of experience and ideas to be found in the often very different perspectives that each of us brought.
Damien now lives in Oxford, where he works for a Formula One racing team, some of his work involving new cleaner technologies for motor vehicles. Lulu is in New Zealand at the moment, but she’s recently spent a lot of time in France and England. She’s learned excellent French and Spanish and has been teaching English, working as a chef, and painting a great deal.
Q. Over the years, Africa has attracted many expatriate writers and artists, some of whom have gone on to write memoirs of their years there. With regard to temperament, purpose, or experience, do you see a common thread among travelers who move to Africa? What do you believe your parents were seeking when they moved to Botswana? Did they achieve it?
When we moved to Botswana, I had grandparents on both sides already living there. Also both my parents had been raised in southern Africa, so from their perspective it was as much a homecoming as traveling into the unknown. That said, my father’s dream—at least one part of it—had little to do with living near his family, but was rather to live on a game farm in the middle of the bush. In this he did succeed. My mother placed more importance on being near her parents and on creating a happy and stimulating environment in which her children could grow up. The other part of my father’s dream associated with returning to Africa was to reinvent his career, and to give up medicine. In this respect he was less successful. This hope of reinvention is, I suspect, also shared with many expatriates coming to Africa for the first time. And wary though I am of generalizations about Africa, I do think the continent offers a sense of great possibility and the prospect of a vivid and intense experience of life—both so seductive to those with itchy feet and a desire for change and adventure.
Q. How has life in Botswana changed since your childhood? Are you in touch with your family’s friends and former employees? Do you plan to return to Africa permanently?
Several of what were then small sleepy towns have grown substantially, in many cases thanks to the commodities boom over the last few years. Crime sadly has increased a great deal, which was almost inevitable with Botswana squeezed between a disintegrating Zimbabwe and an increasingly violent South Africa. I am still in touch with many old friends and some of our old employees. The publication of this book has also reconnected me with many people with whom I’d lost touch. It’s quite funny because when I was writing the book I was very worried about offending the people I wrote about. But I think I’ve offended people mainly by not mentioning them. I return to southern Africa often. I hope I always will, and that I will end up there. But when, I do not know.
Q. Many children growing up in the suburbs would envy your childhood. When you were younger, was there anything from that more traditional lifestyle that you craved? Did you ever resent or become frustrated by how your parents’ decisions affected your life?
It was less the substance of the traditional lifestyle that I sometimes craved than other’s perception of it. I went through a period of longing for more normal parents mainly because I didn’t want to be seen as different by my friends. There were however some specific things I wanted—particularly a new normal saddle like all my friends had, rather than my ancient old-fashioned one that my parents said was “perfectly effective.” I protested at length and they did eventually capitulate, agreeing to help me buy a new saddle. This however was only on the condition that I contributed, which I did, as a ten-year-old, by starting a twenty chicken egg business: one step back and one forward toward conventionality. Later, in my early teens, I started to long for a more structured education, and I think I would have become very resentful if my parents had insisted that I continued to be homeschooled, which of course they did not.
Q. As a doctor, your father witnessed the very beginnings of the African AIDS crisis; as a child, you understood it through him. Did this experience influence your own career decisions? How did you approach writing these sections of the book, now that you have the benefit of hindsight?
It has influenced my career profoundly and in a variety of ways. I did a master’s thesis investigating the pricing of medicines in developing countries, relating in particular to AIDS. Prohibitively high prices were one of the main reasons the AIDS drugs weren’t accessible in the early years of the epidemic. In terms of this book, one of my strongest motivations to write it was to give an account of AIDS in Botswana. The more I considered it, the more I believed I had an opportunity to tell a story of AIDS in Africa from an unusual perspective. A lot of writing about AIDS, I find, involves extremely fact- and statistics-rich accounts of the disease, which usually involve a plethora of mind-boggling numbers that are both difficult and profoundly depressing to comprehend and absorb. There is another class involving deeply tragic personal stories of the direct experience of AIDS. I have enjoyed books in both categories, but I think, for different reasons, both can be off-putting. The way I observed AIDS, through my dad, was sort of secondhand, and via a series of anecdotes. These were sad and shocking but to some extent removed, and diluted by an otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience of childhood. I thus felt that the account I had to give of AIDS was perhaps a more than usually accessible one, and I have always hoped that readers will finish the book feeling they have learned something about the disease but, at the same time, not feeling miserable for it, nor seeing it as the totally insurmountable problem it sometimes seems. My next book, though very different, also involves AIDS. It is the true story of a group of maximum security prisoners in South Africa who have adopted AIDS orphans.
Through my dad’s work we came into contact with a remarkable woman called Elizabeth Kgano, who was HIV positive and who devoted her life to helping others to avoid contracting or to live with HIV. In 2008, inspired by a long time dream of my mother’s, and with some of the money I’d received for Twenty Chickens, we started Mothers for All, a not-for-profit organization teaching income generating skills to women, like Elizabeth, who care for AIDS orphans. We have since received further funding from a global bank and have now expanded into South Africa. I am also an ambassador for the Access to Medicine Foundation. More generally, observing my mum and dad’s work has made me come to believe that one’s career, undertaken thoughtfully, can usually bring significant benefits beyond those to oneself. This is not to say I think one should work for nothing, rather that it is possible to find work that produces an abundance of positive outcomes for others, whether in health, the environment et cetera. I haven’t yet had enough of a career to know whether I can succeed myself in this respect. But it is something to which I aspire.
Do you believe that Keith and Linda were responsible parents? What obligations do you believe parents have to a child, and do you believe that Keith and Linda fulfilled them? What examples can you find in the book to support your argument?
What anecdote or moment in Twenty Chickens for a Saddle did you find most memorable? Most amusing? Most upsetting?
As a child, did you ever have dreams of living in a foreign country? Where? Would you uproot your own children to somewhere across the world?
What were the benefits of your own childhood? The drawbacks? If you could change anything about your youth, what would it be?
Do you think Linda gave the children a good education? Why? What does it mean to be well educated?
What was your initial expectation of Scott’s life before your read the book? How did this match up with her narrative? On what did you base your expectations or understanding of life in Botswana?
Ga ke itse—the phrase is used constantly in Botswana. What does it mean? What does it say about the culture?
Why do the locals—Grandpa Ivor included—believe in witch doctors? How are their suspicions of Keith and his practice reconciled with their respect for him as a doctor?
When Robin’s father advises a Botswana government minister to take action to stem the rising tide of HIV infections, the official replies that he cannot do anything, saying, “When you are in the bush, you don’t talk about the lions” (p.144). What does he mean by this?
The title Twenty Chickens for a Saddle refers to Scott’s free-range egg business. Why do you believe she turned to this particular anecdote when naming her book? What does it tell us about her?