By Betty Gordon
© 2019 text. All rights reserved.
“Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood” by Robyn Scott (Penguin Books, 2008, $24.95)
The options usually available to suburban adolescents who want to earn spending money or save toward the purchase of a larger item weren’t open to Robyn Scott.
No chance to mow the neighbors’ overgrown lawns, set up a thirst-quenching lemonade stand in front of her house or pet-sit for domestic animals.
When you’re living a relatively isolated existence in the landlocked country of Botswana in southeastern Africa, you need to be not only creative but determined, especially if you are just about to turn 10 years old.
The solution came to Robyn one morning as she was eating a bowl of muesli and talking to her up-for-anything mother, Linda: Sell free-range eggs at the Saturday market in the central-southeastern town of Phikwe (population about 40,000), about six miles from their rural home.
So with her father, Keith, a discontented doctor with a knack for building, a list was compiled of supplies needed to construct a chicken coop, and a plan was hatched to adopt 20 battery chickens (destined for slaughter) as the backbone of her business.
Her Oxford-educated mother, who had a strong interested in nutrition and homeopathy, homeschooled Robyn and her younger siblings Damien and Lulu, backed by a far-ranging personal library. Linda delighted in pointing out the educational benefits of her eldest’s undertaking: This was also to be a lesson in mathematics, responsibility and entrepreneurship.
All well and good, but not the primary goal. Robyn was laser-focused on the coveted prize of a new saddle. Tired of riding an ill-fitting second-hand one of “vomit-orange color,” the project was quickly under way.
This is just one of the anecdotes lovingly — and sometimes alarmingly — retold in “Twenty Chickens for a Saddle,” Robyn’s memoir of growing up in Botswana from about-to-turn seven until she left for college in New Zealand, where she had spent her earliest years.
Any book that features a cover photo of a wobbly-legged calf tentatively standing atop a bed and bedspread in a naturally lighted room with a human female silhouetted in the background should be an indication that the story within is likely going to be exotic.
Part of an unconventional and eccentric family — those adjectives may not do them justice — the white expatriate Scotts moved to Botswana around Christmas 1987, when the weather can be scorchingly hot because it’s summertime in the southern hemisphere. Keith was sure he’d give up being a doctor once and for all, maybe become a farmer or open a business. But when the local doctor was killed in a plane crash, Keith took over the practice.
Robyn’s first impressions of their undignified new “home” in Selebi were polar opposite of the picture in her mind. The remote cowshed, formerly lived in by mine geologists, was across the way from her paternal grandfather Ivor’s place, where he lived with his second wife, Betty.
The ramshackle structure was beyond derelict: Dirty, dusty and populated with dead and alive insects and other critters. Where Robyn saw despair, her parents pointed out the possibilities, as they brightly described the transformation to come. In time, Robyn would recognize their optimism as among their most constant and endearing traits.
Before long, with plenty of elbow grease, ingenuity and imagination, the overhaul yielded living quarters and schoolhouse all rolled into one.
In stark contrast to this setup was the more traditional lifestyle of Linda’s parents, Terry and Joan McCourt, who resided in a large, well-tended house (with pool) in Phikwe’s “greenest, quietest suburb.” Terry was a personnel manager at a mine; Joan had a clothing boutique and played a lot of bridge. She looked after Robyn and her siblings several afternoons a week, filling in their threadbare wardrobes and providing the luxuries, such as sweets and TV, that the Scotts did without. Despite the comforts, Robyn says she often felt like an alien in this rarefied world.
There would be horse show competitions and ballet lessons for the girls, but education for Robyn, Damien and Lulu was informal and unorthodox. Linda made nearly everything a learning opportunity, from studying the trees, plants and wildlife nearby (little Lulu had an extraordinary talent for memorizing the Latin names of plants, much to Grandpa Ivor’s delight) to listening to Keith describe the conditions of his patients — the more gruesome the better for Robyn — at the clinics he shuttled among by small aircraft and bakkie, the Afrikaans word for pickup truck.
Except for the Phikwe location, “clinic” might be a stretch for the other four places Keith operated — sometimes with Linda’s help — often seeing more than 100 people a day. Poorly equipped, without electricity and running water, improvisation frequently came into play, as did trying to overcome patients’ superstitious beliefs. On many nights, Robyn anxiously awaited the sound of Keith’s vehicle, the signal that her exhausted father was safely home.
By the 1990s, Keith was increasingly treating more AIDS cases. As in so many countries, it would devastate the population, and leave behind countless orphans. Where life expectancy was once 60-plus years in Botswana — one of the most politically stable and prosperous countries in Africa — over the next 15 years the epidemic lowered lifespan to the 30s.
Six years after they arrived, the Scotts uprooted again, after Keith bought 2,000 acres in an area known as the Tuli Block, a strip of land where southeastern Botswana abuts northern South Africa, then in the final months of minority white rule.
“All around the house was bush, bursting with song, cries and all kinds of antelope, glimpsed through the trees; tiny duiker, impala, kudu, and fat fluffy waterbuck, peering at us suspiciously,” she writes.
“The house was only half-finished. For weeks we slept on camping mattresses and found our way at night by candlelight. Dad hadn’t yet connected the borehole to the plumbing, so we showered under a plastic water tank on the back of our old Land Cruiser, watched by curious, saucer-eyed bush babies that came out at dusk and ping-ponged between the shadowy branches of the thorn trees.”
Homeschooling continued, now supplemented by correspondence courses. In 1995, when Robyn was 14, she enrolled in boarding school at the Bulawayo Dominican Convent in Zimbabwe, about two hours from their farm. She did well academically, but she often felt like a fish out of water and sometimes bored in class, which, she notes, is not something she ever experienced at home with her siblings.
Robyn went on to get her degree at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) in bioinformatics, the “science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data.” Equally impressive was her master’s thesis at Cambridge on “the pricing of medicines in developing countries.”
Now based in London, she more recently co-founded several groups to advocate for “at-risk youth and women,” according to her website, and has finished a second book, about prisoners in South Africa “adopting” AIDS orphans. Click on “Leadership Lessons Behind Bars” to watch Robyn give a 15-minute presentation on this project. robynscott.org.