Twenty Chickens for a Saddle

The Story of an African Childhood

by Robyn Scott

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott X
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2008, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2009, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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BookBrowse Review

A magical childhood spent in the extraordinary, captivating country of Botswana

How refreshing to read a memoir of a magical childhood where parents are loved and respected. Robyn Scott proves you do not have to come from a dysfunctional family to tell a great story. And this book is all about stories. Twenty-eight chapters of stories of three generations and the lives they have chosen to live in one of Africa's most beautiful countries.

There is the story of Botswana with diamond mines, a new democracy and the devastation of AIDS.

There is Grandpa Ivor's story. An irascible yet charming World War II veteran of the South African Air Force who lives in a run-down home with the remains of a broken Cessna in the yard. He was the personal pilot of the first President of Botswana (Sir Seretse Khama) and, during Robyn's childhood, flies her father to remote bush clinics.

In the wealthier near-by community of Selebi-Phikwe, live Granny Joan and Grandpa Terry (maternal grandparents). They live a privileged life in the heart of the greenest and quietest suburb in a large house which "smelled of flowers and floor polish and there was not a trace of dirt anywhere" - a far cry from Robyn's new new home on Grandpa Ivor's land - a corrugated cow shed with a dirt floor covered with mounds of dry cow dung and "tiny-crocodile creatures" scurrying behind piles of wood stacked against the walls.

There is the father's story, Keith Scott, a dedicated physician who often sees as many as one-hundred patients a day with limited resources and deplorable conditions.

There is the mother's story, Linda Scott, a scientist who believes in holistic medicine and homeschooling (against her parents' wishes), and educates her children primarily through the simple medium of stories read aloud and observation of the natural world. "She read to us most days and occasionally all day - from breakfast to dinner, stopping only for cups of tea." Linda is the eternal optimist. Her comments on seeing the cowshed kitchen for the first time: "That will take a bit of work, but it's east-facing so it'll be lovely in the morning sun."

And of course, mainly, there is Robyn's story - seeing her family and their adventures in Africa through her eyes is indeed a reading pleasure. Describing her parents' return from a long day at the clinic, she writes:

"The doors swung open and clinic smell—disinfectant, latex-rubber glove powder, sweaty bodies in 104 degree heat—poured out into the night. I breathed deeply of the sweet-sharp mix, letting it wash over me as I kissed Mum and Dad. I loved that smell. The smell of relief at a safe return and anticipation of breath-taking stories Dad might have brought back with him this time."

Most of us read for many reasons. Escape, adventure, understanding of other cultures, but always for a good story. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle, the story of a remarkable family, will give you all of the above and then some. I highly recommend it.


About the Author: Born in 1981, Robyn Scott was homeschooled in her early years by a mother who believed "children often learn best in unstructured situations, when they don't know they're learning. Especially if they're having fun." The Oxford educated mother also thought a syllabus stifled creativity and that she was just as capable of getting her children to university as anyone else. Evidently her theory proved right as Robyn's formal education did not begin until age fourteen after which she went on to earn a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge University. She received a M.Phil. in bioscience enterprise, focusing on the pricing of medicines in developing countries. She lives in London but works and travels frequently in Africa.

When it was suggested that she write a book of her childhood in Africa, she asked herself the same question her grandfather asked after publication. "Why would anyone care what we all got up to in a little town in Botswana?"

Fearing that no one could possibly be interested in the magical events she recalled as a child, she discarded her original beginning (her earliest memory of Botswana-- two fruit moths sipping grape-juice from her grandfather's lips) and instead wrote of black mamba snakes, the breaking of a crocodile's jaw and other mortal danger episodes, but found that she soon ran out of exciting adventures. It was then that her agent suggested she return to the magic of the moths and so began the delightful process of discovering how the quieter character-rich moments hovered discreetly in the shadows of grander memories.

Robyn is currently working on a book about the Group of Hope, a group of inmates in the maximum security prison of Brandvlei in Botswana, who have 'adopted' HIV/AIDS orphans and people in need from the community, providing them with vegetables and clothes that they have made themselves in the workshop and toys that were received as donations.

Reviewed by Vy Armour

This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Interesting Facts About Botswana (map)

Since independence in 1966, the former British Protectorate of Bechuanaland has transformed itself from one of the continent's poorest nations into one of its most prosperous. Botswana's vast diamond wealth has underpinned this boom (Jwaneng, the world's largest and richest diamond mine, was discovered when termites looking for water brought grains of diamond to the surface), but, making it almost unique among its neighbors, the money has been carefully spent and reinvested in infrastructure, education and health by a judicious government.

The small population – fewer than two million in an area about the size of France – has also contributed to the country's remarkably high per capita GDP ($15,800 in 2008 according to the CIA Factbook). In 2004, it was declared Africa's least corrupt country by Transparency International but the country is beset by high unemployment (~25%) and the second highest rate of AIDS infection in the world.

The first reported case of AIDS in Botswana was in 1985; by 2002 the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in adults was 38.8%. According to the World Bank, life expectancy at birth in Botswana increased steadily for more than 30 years until 1987, but plunged 15 years between 1987 and 1998 (life expectancy by country).

Mothers For All, a not-for-profit organization founded by several of those who appear in the book, runs skills training and income generation schemes for the caregivers of Botswana's children affected or infected by AIDS. Some of the proceeds from the sale of Twenty Chickens for a Saddle are being used to fund the start-up costs.

Botswana is the setting for the popular mystery novels by Alexander McCall Smith, the first in the series being The No. l Ladies Detective Agency. The light-hearted series is appreciated by many for its human interest and local color.

British author and historian Susan Williams' book, Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation, tells the story of the marriage and struggles of Sir Seretse Khama and Lady Ruth Williams Khama.

Botswana was the location for the 1980 movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy.

More about Botswana at the author's website, which includes many photos of her childhood.

Reviewed by Vy Armour

This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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