Johnny the Jig is Holywood’s most famous child. He sits on the high street and plays his accordion. A child from another era, he looks bedraggled and content. The sculpture is my favourite thing in Holywood and while I was photographing it the other day I found myself thinking a lot about my own childhood. The oracle offers only one question on the subject:
“Am I still thought a child?”
the answer I was given –
“They know there are no children in this age”
I suppose accessing childhood memories becomes harder for everyone as they get older, but for me so many of my memories are half formed from stories and photographs – the other half a vague recollection of what my infant-self witnessed. Leaving Zimbabwe was difficult, and I think for many years I found it easier to simply not think about it. But now that I’m older (and extremely wise) I’ve discovered that thinking about my childhood has been vitally important, not just in understanding my own identity but in appreciating just how lucky we were.
I remember granadilla’s growing at the bottom of the garden, the horse eating the paw-paws, my father’s weird sculptures located in even weirder places, and dress up – I lived for dress up. I remember a new word ‘war veterans’ being introduced into our vocabulary, my mother telling me stories, I remember being feverish with malaria, and I can still smell the sweet flowers of the Jacaranda trees and the feel warm gravel burning under my feet.
I can remember Veronica shelling peas outside in the sun – I put a plastic bag over my head and she told me that I had to take it off because if I died Jesus would come from the sky and shout at her. That was the first I’d ever heard of Jesus.
I remember nights in the dormitory when we whispered about boys from under our counterpane’s and snuck out into the courtyard to gaze at the stars. I remember avoiding hippos as we canoed down the Zambezi and agonising what single sweet to choose on a trip to town. Mostly I remember a time that was largely spent in our imaginations, oblivious to the crumbling walls of the world around us. There would be other nights when our whispers turned to worry – fears of the future. The rumours and tension had slowly eased their way into our world unnoticed – and with their arrival they took the last moments of our childhood. The first white farmer to be killed was from our town, the bitter irony is that there are so many others to have suffered that we will never know about, skin colour still determining political relevance.
When I think back to those days I realise that we were the first generation where the racial divide was starting to matter less and less, schools were integrated and the colour of your skin rarely mattered. The generation of Zimbabwean children who left, like myself, undoubtedly suffered – having everything you know taken from you is traumatic – but we also had something that most will never know, we knew what it was to be children. I was a lucky one, I think of my school friends, both black and white, who were left behind and I know it was worse for them. Looking at Johnny the Jig, and thinking of my own upbringing I realise that the oracle is right, with half the children in the world living in abject poverty and the other half raised with only materialism as guidance, there are no children in this age. I think that’s worth thinking about.