BY JAMIE FOSTER
Some people are born political, some achieve politics and some have politics thrust upon them. Families pass allegiances down to their children like heirlooms. The place you live can point to a party of least resistance. Many don’t really care and only half halfheartedly follow the crowd. For others it is a calling. I was given my politics by Robert Mugabe and a boy called John.
When my broken home sloped back to England to lick its wounds at the beginning of the 80s I knew little of British politics. I had learnt to love ice hockey in Canada and rugby in New Zealand. I discovered the country I had mythologised all of my life had elected an Iron Lady, who inspired adoration and despisal in equal measure to the two new tribes I encountered. As a teenager I was largely uncommitted.
While my father remained comfortably off on the other side of the world, my single mother scrimped and saved to bring up three children. We had very little but in those days that was something to accept rather than to shout about. Not being able to afford a warm coat for me to wear to school in our first English winter might have made me a socialist, but it didn’t.
One of the reasons was an angel who took us under his wing. He was the Deputy Editor of a national newspaper and the sort of compassionate Conservative that Cameron claimed to be talking about. Not that he would ever have been a Cameronite. He was far more interested in helping people than making sure anyone knew he had. He has been an inspiration to me all of my life. I didn’t take on his politics but he did send me off to find my own.
Out of concern that I may waste a gap year on sloth and enjoyment I was told by my patron that I was to volunteer. An excellent charity, in the days before charities became wealth creation vehicles for middle class aspirants, put me on a plane to Zimbabwe with a boy called John.
John was the son of a judge and an alumnus of a very expensive school indeed. He had found his politics from a firebrand master who taught him the joys of Marx and Engels. John was ready to save starving Africans from colonial oppression and the evils of Western capitalism. I was looking forward to seeing an elephant.
When we touched down in Lusaka en route to Harare, we were cordially informed that the connecting flight would leave in eight hours. John and I decided to get a taxi into the city to do some sight seeing. When the driver asked us where we wanted to go, John cried out in a cut glass voice, “Take us to a shanty town.” Our driver looked bemused but willing.
The Lusaka shanty town we arrived at was an explosion of colour and activity. Laughing children played with makeshift toys in the unpaved streets. Men in bright clothing drank beer outside barber shops. The housing was clearly not expensive but appeared to be functional. I was enchanted by the heat and the light and being in Africa. “Look at the poverty,” said John. “I can’t believe people have to live like this.”
The headmaster of the bush school we were to teach in picked us up from Harare airport. An educated, generous and truly inspiring man, he had fought in the war of independence and now intended to help the children in his area benefit from it. He was the first black man I had ever spent any real time with and I will never forget him.
To get to the school we had to drive 100 miles along tarmac and then 60 miles along a dirt track. The headmaster proudly showed John and I our living quarters. It was a breeze block hut with an asbestos tile roof. We slept on rolled up cardboard boxes and drew our water from a well. While John lay on his cardboard cot listening to U2 and reading John Pilger, I ventured out into the locality. My first port of call was the local ‘bottle store,’ a hut that acted as a makeshift pub. Having bought a beer I noticed two old men playing chess with handmade pieces. “Here is my chance” I thought. I will thrash the locals and become the chess king of the area. My fame will spread far and wide. In the months to come I never won a single game.
The time I spent at the school was some of the happiest of my life. The irony of trying to teach children about the idea of wandering lonely as a cloud, when the only clouds they saw were two miles long and spewed lightning, wasn’t lost on me. Nor was the fact that the children I was teaching had run miles to get to school after working in the fields for their parents. For them education was an opportunity to be grasped with both hands. The people I met were welcoming, funny and fond of a drink. They treated a skinny white boy fresh from the Mother Country like a god.
At morning assemblies the children chanted “Death to the United States” and sang “Ishe Komborera Africa”. It didn’t bother me that they had rejected the politics of my homeland. This was their homeland. What did bother me was the vicious criminal who stole their futures from them. Mugabe owned hotels on the banks of Lake Geneva and rode everywhere in a full military convoy. His goons crushed any opposition to the kleptocracy he created. He turned a vibrant, prosperous country that could have been the bread basket of Africa into a wasteland. John loved him.
A motorcycle accident kept me in Harare for a fortnight. When I returned to school John rushed up to me and said “I’m so glad you are back, I had no one to talk to.” We were utterly surrounded by people.
I still remember John with fondness. We had some good times together and I wish him well. He taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life. If I had never met him I might have drifted into left wing politics and now be facing the misery that Brexit, the Tories and Trump inspire in left wingers. John saved me from that grief and for that I will be forever grateful to him.