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‘Like Sodium in Water’: Tales of growing up in Zimbabwe

Hayden Eastwood has written a poignant, telling account of growing up in Zimbabwe. Picture: Supplied
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Hayden Eastwood’s memoir of growing up as the son of white leftists in post-independence Zimbabwe was a long time in the making. He started writing the book nine years ago, but it was only when his father died that he decided to have it published.

It’s small wonder, as this deeply personal memoir tells so much about a dysfunctional family, a confrontational father and a knot of people falling apart at the seams.

While Eastwood’s novel may be uncomfortable and jolting to read at times, it’s one of those rare books that is so compelling, so refreshingly lacking in self-indulgence, paternalism and selfpity. It’s laced with an endearing wit and filled with those sorts of coming-of-age anecdotal experiences that we all grew up with. It’s also the sort of novel that many of us will find traction with – particularly if you grew up in the milieu of a liberal white family where the veneer of being politically enlightened was often marred by the hypocrisy of the moment.

While not a full-time novelist, Eastwood has that remarkable skill of relating his story through the prism of whatever period he was going through – using the lingua franca of that time.

When it all starts, Eastwood is a young boy growing up in Harare. Doubly difficult as he tackles the changing political landscape juxtaposed with an all-too common boyhood of bullying schoolmates and harsh, often unforgiving teachers; where turning the other cheek was de rigeur.

Eastwood delves substantially into the bond with his brother, Dan. It’s only about halfway through the book that we get the meaning of the title of the book as he describes his brother – “maybe he’ll realise that his (Dan’s) craziness is only the chemicals of adolescence reacting like sodium in water. He’ll see that when the sodium has effervesced and ignited the bubbling hydrogen, and the solution has frothed like a crazy witches’ potion, there’ll only be sodium benzoate left, as calm as a pond on a windless day”.

Eastwood’s father is seen as having vacillated between being utterly charming, engaging, informative and funny, and being menacingly abusive and combative. His mother is described as being at times dismissive; at other times doting and supportive. Multi-textured, the tragedy and – dare I say – the trauma of growing up in this type of environment is interspersed with deeply moving moments – the idyllic days where beneath the surface lies a singular dysfunctionality verging on destructiveness.

Eastwood tenderly relates days of adventures and high-jinx that every typical boy enjoys; and then there is also Eastwood’s magnificent descriptions of the bush and the suburbs of affluent Harare coupled with the craziness of external political factors. Considering the tell-it-all manner of his book, meeting Eastwood at a Cape Town hotel was almost like meeting an old friend. He looked almost exactly as I expected – a wide open face that’s a little vulnerable and a tad weary, but alert and forgiving, and eyes that smile along with a small clever grin that flashes across his face every now and then during our frank conversation.

Eastwood lived in Stellenbosch when he penned the book. The process of getting it published only happened in 2015 when his father died, wracked by illness.

As he says: “It’s very much a catharsis of time and place. My father was actually a bit of a pin-up boy for the white leftists and then I felt some of what they said was kind of dishonest – built on lies – the lies that went with what happened in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s transition.”

Eastwood studied in the UK and was out of the country for a number of years, but returned in 2012. He admits that despite the hyper inflation, and the concomitant difficulties of buying many basic goods that still exist as the legacy of Mugabe, he does call Zimbabwe home and he says it’s actually where he chooses to live.

“I live here because I really like Zimbabweans; they’re a decent nation. I find it remarkable that you can still sit with fellow countrymen and have a cup of tea and have a civilised conversation here, despite everything that happened. There seems to be something incredible in the people’s order and happiness and largely peaceful and friendly outlook.”

Another reason Eastwood enjoys living there is a bit of a conundrum: “When you grow up as I did in a chaotic household, what I find stifling is being surrounded by a sense of stability, maybe that’s why I find myself in this country.” The “chaos” he describes in growing up reached a breaking point in his life when his brother died and he was in his final years at school. Penning the book has allowed him to release his anger; his sadness and his bitterness at where and when his family let him down.

Speaking about what the book is really all about he says: “My father reduced me to absolute rubble. This is the core of the book – of the lies we tell ourselves and how we abandon them when we don’t have any choice. My own take was in how could I get my parents and family to participate when all this blindness was going on.”

In the penultimate chapter of the book, on the way to the airport to travel abroad, Eastwood tellingly writes: “Some personal circumstances have cursed me. But history has blessed me. I imagine for a moment the tens of thousands of families at the mercy of a malevolent madman, blessed by nothing. ‘There but for the grace off God go I,’ I think. – IOL