I am a Zimbabwean by birth but have lived in the UK for 14 years now.
Living in Zimbabwe is a dream, a dream if you love freedom, nature, friends and family. We were lucky enough to have wildlife at our fingertips. The town I grew up in was called Mutare which bordered Mozambique on the East. Mutare is based in a valley surrounded by beautiful rolling hills of which half of them was game park and the others were wild spaces. You could often look up and see the elephants roaming through the openings in the trees or if you had a pair of binoculars, you could see the various other animals, quite often a loan Kudu. Monkeys! Well, they were everywhere. They are our equivalent to the grey squirrel in Britain. Very entertaining to watch and you are bound to have a troop move through your garden at some point raiding your fruit trees. The white rhino in the game park were prone to escaping and on the odd occasion were found wandering down the main street in town.
When I was a baby, I wasn’t very well for a lot of the time and the only way I would fall asleep was when my mum drove me around the local game park. This is back when the park was thriving with giraffe, elephants, impala, zebra and all the other African game but excluding predators. The reserve was far too small to sustain the needs of predators and in the latter years, man became the main predator. As the park was based along the border of Mozambique, it was hit hard by border jumpers. People who illegally cross the border in search of basic commodities, clothes, blankets etc. to then bring back to the struggling Zimbabwe to then sell on as there were shortages in the shops. Whist the border jumpers passed through, they would camp in the park and in under 10 years there were no iconic wildlife left except for a few elephants, baboons and monkeys. The rhino had been relocated for their safety, including Daisy, the famous white rhino in the park.
Just an hour’s drive in one direction you have Nyanga, a regular weekend break away where we would camp in the summer. Trout fishing is popular here but most of all, the walks in the pine tree plantations, the stunning sceneries, the classy hotels, the amazing food and golf courses, horseback riding and the gorgeous log fires in the winter. It’s like an alpine village without the snow. Well, that is a little lie as when I was very young, there used to be snow on the peak of Mount Inyangani, the highest mountain in Zimbabwe. Nyanga is also home to the second highest waterfall in Africa and the 6th highest in the world, Mutarazi falls with a height of 762m. Beauty an hour’s drive from home.
Less than an hour’s drive in the other direction, up in the hills and winding roads from Mutare, is the Bvumba. This is my favourite place to visit as you are surrounded by rain forest everywhere. There is the botanical gardens with flowers and trees from all over, ponds with loads of fish you can hand feed, various birds taking advantage of the nectar from the hundreds of different flowers. Within the forest, there is a walk you can go on to see the rare Samango monkey. The only place in the whole of Zimbabwe where you can find them. Only once did I see one swinging through the trees briefly.
Until I was 7years old
Now having set the scene of my home town, you can now see where my passion for animals began. Having a blue budgie, cats and dogs as pets when I was very young, I grew to appreciate animals and I am thankful to my parents for instilling such compassion in me. My dad had grown up on a farm and is very in-tune with nature from bird calls to behaviours to specie identification and much more. He was my idol. In our garden we had a huge aviary where my dad kept doves: – Cape Turtle doves, Bush doves and Ring Necked doves. I would often find myself sitting in the aviary watching the birds interact, incubate eggs, feed, fly and perch. I would know who is ‘dating’ who (I was only 6yrs old), when eggs were laid, how old each individual was and their behaviours. I would never want to touch them as I knew they were not pets per se and I would only disturb them.
7 – 13 years’ old
We then moved onto a farm on the border line with Mozambique and this is where the bush baby in me came out. We had a small dam on the farm and surrounded by wild hills. The bush was my home. I was weary of wandering the bush alone as I was a young girl and I knew there may be border jumpers passing through and you never know what may have happened to me. We had a permanent police officer living on the farm, Thando. Thando taught me karate and respect. We used to run and train together and he used to accompany me in the bush when I wanted to explore and remove animal snares. I would often accompany him on his patrols to deter the border jumpers. At our dam, I would sit and watch the dragon flies mate, lay eggs, interact with each other and feed. I would watch the same with the frogs and toads. My favourite was in the rainy season, watching the plattys (a frog) lay eggs and seeing the tadpoles grow, develop and hatch. Their little front legs grew first and over the days, the little back legs grew and then they would lose their tail. It amazed me watching life at the dam change with the seasons. Different ecosystems in the dry months and the busy ecology in the rains. When out exploring, you would know each tree, shrub, bird, snake and insect. You knew that when the swallows and dragon flies fly low, the rains are coming so hurry home. I had a tree I would sit in called ‘echo tree’ as when you would shout like Tarzan, it would echo in the hills. Here is where I would watch the birds with my binoculars I had found in the bush, such a vintage pair but with some TLC, they worked fine. I would follow ants on their little missions collecting food or just breathe in the fresh air and be at peace.
On the farm I had an aviary again with the same doves from home but I had gained a few tortoises. I would do the same here and learn about my birds. I had many white doves and I knew that if a certain two birds mated, what colour babies they would have. I was always so happy when the white doves were on eggs as almost always they would have white babies. We did of course have the od incident where a hungry mongoose would break in and attack my doves and no matter how secure the fencing and boards were, they would get in somehow. This always broke my heart but thankfully it was not often. Outside the aviary there were 3 or so big bottle brush trees where the Masked Weaver bird lived in the winter to summer (August – September). I’d watch the pretty males construct the nests from stripping the leaves to clear a space to the careful intertwined strips of palm tree leaves for the initial shape and then use stripped grasses and banana tree leaves to complete it. The female would come and inspect the nests and the best built one was the lucky male. They would make so much noise as there were flocks of hundreds of birds. Every time I saw a nest on the ground, I’d worry thinking there may be an egg in it or a baby but that never was the case. Only later to discover that if the males nest was not up to the female’s satisfaction, he would rip it off the branch and start again. I would know when the eggs had hatched as you would find tiny egg shells on the ground. Sometimes I’d find a dead chick so I would bury them in a section in the garden dedicated to those who have physically left the earth.
In the African sand there live antlions. They make little funnel shapes in the sand and when an insect like an ant falls to the base, they are then food for the antlion. I love these little creatures. Many times I would find a blade of grass and mimic a trapped ant and the antlion would appear and latch onto the grass with his pincers. Through my little experiments I made an observation: – the smaller the funnel, the bigger the antlion. My dad rescued a monkey as his mother was killed but sadly he had maggots and passed away very young but we tried our best to save him. One night whist at the dinner table, the front door was slightly ajar and in walked a fat, healthy grey cat. How did she get passed our dog who hated cats was a question we will never know. I named her Smokey. Not long afterwards, I was waiting in the car for my mum outside my dads work in town and in the rearview mirror I saw a kitten rummaging in the bins. I snuck up slowly and quietly and caught her. She was feral and scratched me so badly but I never let go. I was so allergic to cats but that never stopped me from loving them. I took her back to the car and hid her in my jumper. How was I to tell my parents was the question running through my head. Well, mum came out and I showed her the kitten and she was in love. Bonus, I could keep her. So off she came to the farm to live with Smokey. I called her Kisher as she became so tame and loved licking your neck. Toppie was a specie of bird I rescued from being kicked out a nest from my mums friend. The poor thing was featherless and starving. After months of hand rearing, the bird was christened Spike as they have a crest of feathers they raise when happy or threatened. Spike never lived in a cage, only at night. He played hide and seek with me, stole my earings and hid them and lived a long happy life with me. He was a best friend. Along with cats, monkeys, dogs, doves and tortoises, I also had a little pet mouse. My little zoo.
Whilst at school between 8 – 12yrs old, I was in the Wildlife Club and every other weekend we would go to LaRochelle botanical gardens in Penhalonga about a 40min drive from home. There are amazing aloe gardens here along with trees and flowers from all over the world. We would sit and watch the sunbirds feed, identify them and watch the bees hard at work pollinating. This was a great place for bird watching and specie identification. Mr Harrison, my teacher and role model was an encyclopaedia of wildlife and I couldn’t get enough of learning from him. He was my deputy headmaster so I had the utmost respect for him. His office was full of preserved specimens, books, pressed leaves and rocks. I used to love making an excuse to visit his office so I could see his collections and hear him talk. We used to go on many trips into the bush on farms and collect snares and I remember one afternoon, after 5hrs in the bush, we retrieved 32 snares. Success! From little bird snares in the trees to larger mammal snares on the ground. Sadly in one snare there was a hare that was not successful and had not been collected. I thought, “What is the point snaring when you are not going to collect it! What a waste!” These were all building blocks to my passion today.
When I was 10yrs old, I joined the Junior Museum Club held for an hour on Friday afternoons at the Mutare Museum. Here we would identify species and learn about conservation. There were only about 5 of us in the group and in the end, I started to run the group for the very busy head of the Zoology Department, Mr Musango. He must have seen my passion and knowledge to allow me at such a young age to do so. I was determined to learn more though so I would stay longer than the hour and help prepare the food for the aviary that was home to a southern yellow billed hornbill, doves, rollers, tits, robins, bee eaters and much more. I had to grate 2 big packets of carrots of which I had raw knuckles from, break up 4 loaves of bread, chop up tomatoes, bananas, apples and mix it all together and feed them. There were also the terrapins in the pond that needed feeding and the many leopard backed tortoises who needed their cabbage. My other Friday afternoon job was to clean the terrapin pond out and put fresh water in. I loved it all. In the aviary we had created different sections for the different birds; fruit tree section for the fruit eaters, nut tree section for the nut eaters, desert section with rocks and aloes where the birds liked to sand bath, a compost section to attract insects for the insect eaters, an open section for the hornbill to fly and a section for the owl boxes. I used to love sitting on the bench watching all the birds interact, build nests, feed and fly. For some reason, every time I entered the aviary, the hornbill would circle my head and show off his beautiful plumage so I nick named him ‘Show off.’ He was my favourite. My other jobs were to clean the 2 large fish tanks out that housed bream and assist Mr Musango clean and feed the Gaboon viper and the Black Mumba tanks. Adrenalin used to rush when we did this. Once in a while a member of the public would bring in an animal and we would nurse it back to health and release it or keep it in an enclosure to keep it safe. The Black Mumba was caught by my dad at a friend’s house and would have been killed but he took it to the museum to be studied and kept safe. One day a vulture was brought in malnourished so he was nursed back to health and released. I remember the strong stench of rotten meat that he smelt of and him reaching up to my armpit because either he was huge or I was just short.
At the museum I would upkeep the specimen records when I had a free minute. We had drawers, cupboards and jars of preserved and stuffed animals and I would have to ensure the book entries matched the species tags. If not, I would have to log them. No computers then so it was all by pen and paper. If a deceased specimen was brought in, I would assist in the taxidermy and one day Mr Musango stuffed a parrot whilst I did one too and he taught me step by step. I did it! I performed taxidermy on a delicate creature and took details of its wing span, body length, beak size, weight, colours etc. We did not have it in our records so here was a chance to update the record books. There were different ways to stuff an animal if they were going on display in the main exhibits of for storage in the specimen room. The worst bit of the job was updating the smelly moth balls to keep the moths and silverfish away.
On Saturdays I would volunteer as a cat socialiser at the SPCA in town. I sponsored a cat called Spook as she was pure white cat with a cute pink nose. She was so sensitive to the sun so she was under a lot of care and had to stay in the shade. I helped feeding new born kittens and puppies but mostly gave lots of love to the animals for many years. Here is where I adopted Scruffy, a Yorkshire Terrier who had been locked in a garage with another dog and the owners fled the country. They were in the garage for a week and the larger dog had jumped into wire and lost his eye. He was rehomed so I adopted Scruffy. I used to be allowed in the surgeries and watch dogs get their injections and the neutering of animals then my job was to give them love post-surgery. Loved watching adoptions and seeing animals develop with care and love. They really did the best with what they had. The dog food was and still is cooked in a large pot on an open fire with a few scraps in from donation from a butcher and a grain based dog food to plump it up. There isn’t food in tins as you get in first world countries. They were certainly fed well and looked good. Dogs usually had a large area where they could all socialise but the naughty ones with dog on dog aggression had a separate paddock time. Once a year the SPCA held a fundraising dog walk of which I attended for six consecutive years and fundraised a lot of money from friends and family. It was the highlight of my year.
Camping, going on safaris, tracking black rhino in the bush, being in a club in senior school called Overlanders were we learnt survival skills, orienteering, camping and more. We used to go on yearly camps to Gonerazhou, south of Mutare and camp right in the heart of the wilderness too scared to go for a wee at night in case a lion is waiting outside your tent. We used to collect elephant dung and burn it to keep mosquitoes away, learnt about erosion and geographic processes, track leopards and learn about African wildlife. The one night there was a lion kill right by our camp. We had just returned from a game drive and missed it but the group behind saw it all. We just heard it all and there sure was a lot of roaring and commotion. Just amazing times.
In Mutare I was known as the animal rescuer. The one time my dad brought a baby vervet monkey home who he had rescued from local children in the rural lands who had caught him in a snare that had cut deeply into his abdomen. You could see his internal organs. My mum used to be a nurse so with a needle and fine fishing line all sterilised, she stitched him up and he healed well. His name was Choko. In the local language they are called Tsoko which is where the name came from. He lived happily in the lychee tree, free range in the garden and used to terrorise the dogs but they were all best friends. I used to return from school and he used to dash to the gate and climb up me to give me a great big hug and I struggled to get him off me. After many years of an amazing friendship, the council found out about him through a tip off from the postman so I was told to put him in the wild or they will euthanise him. I knew he wouldn’t survive in the wild so I released him on a friend’s home that bordered the game park. He grew into a handsome young man but sadly passed away from a heart attack. This happened whilst writing my GCSE’s and all I did was cry throughout my science exam. Probably why I didn’t get a good result. I had also rescued a Wahlberg’s eagle squashed in a shoe box that was bound for the pot. We plucked his wing feathers so new ones could grow back. Meat preparation daily and my parents never complained about the cost. Once his wings grew back, he was released on a friend’s farm.
When I was 17yrs old, I applied for a Dutch passport through my mother as she used to hold one. After receiving my Dutch passport, I was then given two months to leave the country as you are not allowed dual nationality.
I decided to move to the UK where I was then made stateless as the Dutch embassy issued me the passport by mistake. 7 years passed where I was stuck in a job and due to not having ID, I was not able to go to university or change jobs. In this time I completed an Open University course in Life Sciences and gained a Pass.
With a residency card, I was able to apply for university but not access a maintenance loan. As I had not completed any A’Levels, I had to complete a foundation year in order to get on the degree course. Environmental Sciences if the course I enrolled on with the University of Salford where I proudly gained a First Class Honours as well as working full time to fund my studies and pay my bills. Due to completing the course before being in the UK for 3 years, I was not able to further into the degree course unless I changed my career path and only then would I get full funding so sadly I made the sad decision not to continue and returned to just working at the fast food restaurant.
After being in the UK for 7 years, I then paid to complete my Life In The UK test of which I passed first time and as soon as I got my results, I applied for my UK passport. I was eventually I had an identity!
First on my agenda was to get a new job and I did. Whilst I was working at the fast food restaurant, I volunteered at an animal rescue and it was the charity who offered me a position. There was no second thought to accept the offer. I was a volunteer coordinator recruiting volunteers, managing the animal husbandry, fundraising events, admissions and adoptions. Within a year, I was made a manager and I was with the domestic animal charity for 5 years. I achieved a substantial amount of knowledge and met many like-minded individuals. My job involved animal care, home checks, all areas of fundraising from community to corporate, microchipping, hand rearing kittens, life, death, accounting, maintenance, school talks as I believed teaching the grass roots of the world. The list is endless. I was involved in the grant funding and applications where we raised funds to build a dog lounge. This was a grooming room and a home environment where dogs could receive love in a stress free home environment and where we could temperament test them. It was also a healing room for volunteers who needed animal love and where a dog needed the love too. I believe in natural remedies and alternative therapies where I had many ladies who did reiki on the animals. People with learning and physical disabilities would visit to receive healing from the animals. It was something the charity never offered but I knew that the individual benefits as does the animal.
My biggest challenge was a dream I had from day one at the charity – build a new and larger cat rehoming building and convert the old one into a cat boarding unit to create a business and take some pressure off fundraising. The target was £80 000 and I had full confidence in achieving it and I did! From the design pack, solar and renewable energies, builder and electrician liaising to the planner and planning permission to grant writing, I did pretty much everything. A Trustee helped with the brief but it was my goal to achieve. Through grant funding and public donations, we did it! There was going to be a therapy room in it to serve the same purpose as the previously mentioned animal lounge.
I loved the experience, the challenges, the highs and lows. I used to cry when an animal was adopted but then realised they were going to a good home and they will have a better life than where they were or a pen. My favourite part was going out and rescuing animals, bringing them back and showering them with love. The hands on care was second to none.
After completing my NVQ Level 3 in Animal Management with the rescue, a big decision was made to then break away and give university a go again and this time on the direction I want to go in – Wildlife Conservation. My application went in and I was ecstatic to receive an unconditional offer.
My dream is to work in wildlife law or conservation to help those who need us. To educate those who live side by side wildlife and eliminate wildlife crime.