November 5, 2009

"I had a farm in Africa..."

Well, I didn't have a farm in Africa, but one of my oldest friends does - or rather, her family does.

My friend's ancestors emigrated from Britain and settled on a farm in Zambia some time in the 1800's and my friend's mother and her brother grew up there, with some time away for boarding school. My friend's mom met her husband and they had four daughters, the youngest, my friend Toni. When Toni (short for Antonia) was four years old she emigrated to Canada with her family, leaving farm and family behind, and two years later we met at St. Joseph's Elementary school in Nelson.

Toni lived one street below mine in a rose coloured house with a sloping lawn and a view of the lake. Many of us in uphill Nelson had sloping lawns and a view of the lake; it was hard not to in that town built on a mountainside. Going to Toni's house was like entering a different time and place, which widened my little view of the world considerably. I have always been keenly aware of the details that mark someone's home as their own. At Toni's there were framed cameo portraits of relatives, wooden furniture kept spotlessly polished, and over the years, additions of floral upholstery fabric bought on a trip through London to visit relatives, two hundred year old dishes inherited from the farm among other antiques, a rhino foot with a wooden lid, woolen blankets with patterns of African animals, and even deep red carpeting in the hall to mimic the brick red tile of the farm house that, I believe, was so much missed by Toni's mother.

Everything at Toni's house was so fascinating to me. The furthest from home I had ever travelled was to Vancouver to visit grandparents. We weren't really a travelling family. We didn't go camping either, at least not in my memory. My mom always said she loved to go for a good long hike (which we did often) and then come home to a hot meal, a bath, and her own bed. My parents certainly weren't Disneyland sort of people either, so I, unlike so many of my school friends, never went there or any place like it. My parents did most of their travelling in an armchair with a book. ( My sisters and I talk about taking my mom to Europe. She would make the best tour guide because she is a historian and knows so much about everything.) The town I grew up in was not in the least multicultural when I was growing up. The Kootenay First Nations people had been driven down into the States long before. Unlike many of the big cities in Canada we had no concentrations of Caribbean, Asian or Latino cultures to educate us and bring different colours to our lives. I don't think I even noticed, as a young child, the variance in skin colour of the few Asian-Canadian and First Nation classmates I had. Someone would have had to point out the differences to me. It's almost funny now to look back on how exotic I thought Toni's family were.

It was not merely the foreign objects that made Toni's house different than those in my limited experience. I developed my taste for real butter at Toni's house, butter scraped off the cold brick in thick slices like cheese and placed on a piece of cold, dry toast taken one at a time from the toast rack. At my house we grabbed the toast the minute it popped and spread the margarine so it would melt into the warm toast, and I liked that too, so I didn't think I would like cold butter on cold toast - but I did. Toni's mom left the table bare until it was time to eat, then we would spread the pretty red, orange and rose plaid tablecloth and set the table with matching dishes and bone handled Sheffield silverware. One day at dinner, Toni's dad stopped me in my tracks. "Rebecca, it is time you learned to eat properly with a knife and fork. I've put up with watching you shovel in your food for long enough!" He could be quite fierce, despite his khaki bermuda shorts and long, cream coloured socks imported from England (or maybe because of them). I was then tutored in the elegant partnership of the fork, the knife, and the soup spoon that you "push away from you through the soup, not toward you like a shovel." I'm still grateful to Toni's dad when I eat in a classy restaurant, although I honestly have never made a habit of using the spoon in that way - too much effort.

At twelve I was invited to go to Zambia with Toni and her mom. I was told I only had to cover the cost of the the plane fare - $2500.00, even in 1981. Of course I could not go. The price of the ticket was just too steep for me, the youngest of six children, and my parents. I had to remain content with travelling to the farm in Africa in my imagination through visits to Toni's house, and through the souvenirs (a wonderful woven comb and an elephant hair bracelet) she brought back for me. I still have the comb.

Toni, like me, has recently turned forty. Our friendship is still strong and I still value the connection I have with her family very much. Her eldest sister, who moved back to Zambia and married a farmer, and I chat on Facebook. Her other sisters live nearer and I even see them ocasionally. Toni's mom and my mom are still very good friends, as they always were. Some day I hope to see the farm for myself, but even if I never do I will always appreciate the window to a new and beautiful world opened for me at such a tender, impressionable age by Toni's family. In the meantime, I can always watch 'Out of Africa' one more time...


  1. Out of Africa is one of my favorite movies. I liked it so much that I read the book (normally I do books BEFORE the moveis, but this was an exception) and then I loved the book so much my now ex-husband biught me a first edition for my birthday.

    It's still one of my treasured possesions.
    It's so wonderful to hear that you keep in touch with your old friend.
    Great post. I loved every word.

  2. Hi Nancy. I love the book too, though mine is a second hand paperback (you lucky thing)

  3. I didn't know you were invited to Africa...where was I? great post...lets win that 50 million and travel to a "Room with a view" the meantime I am visiting Alaska by armchair with a grey haired sleuth and a daschund.

  4. Hi Clare, I've been travelling to New England, San Francisco and Santa Fe with Tomie DePaola in his very sweet little collection of stories called Christmas Remembered - I know it's a bit early but I just found the book and read the whole thing in bed while sick. It made me feel so warm and cozy. xoxo

  5. My friend Toni asked me to post the following comment for her:

    "Your house was pretty exotic to me too, Becca! Thanks for the post, it was wonderful to read and very funny. I've passed it on to my mum and sisters. the farm is still going, and for anyone who's interested, you can see photos here:"

  6. Too bad you couldn't go, what an adventure that would've been!

  7. You were lucky to have a friend who could open you to so much--from the plains of Africa to the Old World sophistication of Britain. Why did they wind up moving to Canada?

  8. Hello! I believe they moved to Canada because they had relatives who could sponsor them. Toni's dad was not a farmer, more a municipality administrator, and perhaps there were more opportunities here?
    Thanks for stopping by. Come by often!

  9. i recently picked up den afrikanske farm and started it - the danish is very old-fashioned and a bit slow-going for me. but the language is so beautiful, you really should read it. i suppose it's the same name as the movie in english, but actually, i'm not sure. :-) you should be able to find it from karen blixen. :-)

  10. I think it is the same book I have read, 'Out of Africa', but, of course in English it is only a translation. I'm sure in Danish it is that much more beautiful! Actually, as a writer (and maybe only for her North American audience) Karen went by the name Isak Dinesen (I have some other of her books). She is truly wonderful.
    By the way, my husband was a Canadian national sales manager for Ikea when I met him - maybe that was part of the attraction? (hee hee)
    Thanks for stopping by - come again!

  11. Its funny but the film was on the telly today so when I looked to your site to see if you had posted I noticed the ref'to Zambia.
    Here in Ireland there were many returnees during the late '60 early '70. We even had in my primary school some followers of the Aga Khan who left Uganda very quickly indeed. And most ended up in Canada or New Zeeland.
    thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  12. Funny, yes! It is interesting that this was my first post to receive so many comments. I really think people love that book/movie, and the concept of Africa.


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