Michael Raeburn gave me his name and I kept it. Best thing he ever did for me. He was born in Cairo, his father a British colonel, his mother an Italian Jewish family born there. Displacement and colonialization from the first. Brief sortees into Britain and Kenya yielded to settling in what was then Salisbury, now Harare. Michael grew up there and when Mugabe’s policies pushed what is now Zimbabwe into unnecessary hardship, I remember him telling me how he used to trot down the garden with Micheki the cook to plant an avocado stone in the rich land where it would settle in and bloom in short order, the earth was so rich.
I would not have put Michael’s parents side by side at supper so how they conducted a marriage is a mystery to me. Still you know people do. They do and they do, and they make it up as they go along and we, watching, either don’t see the cracks or we connive at not seeing them, the oddities are just that marriage which is always a mystery to everyone who isn’t in it.
Michael talked about the Alsatians his mother kept, that she went through half the population because she couldn’t keep staff (except for Micheki to whom Michael promised a bicycle – and showed me the photograph of it and him). His mother was always angry, there was not enough of anything, not enough clothes, not enough music, not enough society, I suspect not enough love and she alternated between telling Michael how she nearly died having him and taking him to the best hotel for an expensive tea with cream cakes. His headmaster father retreated into the bottle. Michael lay in bed, curled up, hands over his ears to hide from the screaming rows. When he was off to Europe, the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was then part of London University, he said to his father – one of the few people he ever loved – “Divorce.” And Daddy Bill did.
I call this “lace curtain Africa” when the standard of living, the wide open spaces, the fruits and food generally, the animals, the land is beyond the pretensions you can only aspire to if you are the settler. I remember nearly falling over laughing when Michael launched into a diatribe in Chilapalapa – what was called “kitchen kaffir”- how you spoke to servants and even as I was laughing, wondering at the divisions between what he knew, what he saw, what he suspected, what he felt.
Because the lasting love of Michael’s life was Africa. Of course he became politically involved. Of course we knew people who … Of course it rarely worked out well because the journey to political consciousness is never straight forward, there is always a price tag and it is heavy, often unpayable. Michael was every bit as displaced as his mother had ever been. His mother’s mother (called Anna) had lived with them in her final illness. These families spoke English, Italian, French and Arabic so, while at university in France, he advertised to teach English and met Hugues from Martinique, who spoke French every bit as well as he did and was a child psychologist. And was black. And described how taken aback he was.
I did not see Michael after we split up for over thirty years. I have known two men who were marked by their tortured love for Africa and tortured is not a word I throw around. Any human mistress I will face – but not Africa because it refers to their childhood, their dreams, their guilt and their joy.
Somebody died in Zim and Michael went back to sell a house. (That his mother had kept all her treasured carpets rolled up and they had rotted seemed appropriate.) At that stage he would not condemn Mugabe as many of his people won’t, because he was part of the liberation struggle, to wave goodbye to Blighty and run their own show. No fool Michael, he knew that the financial underpinning was the next great colonialization in Africa: by China. But he didn’t want to think about that – until another journey some years later. And then he talked about devaluation and money and hunger and finally, finally the raped earth which no longer would grow the seeds that Micheki taught him to plant.