Book review: a white boy in Africa gets lessons in life and love
Peter Wood’s memoir of growing up not just white but also gay in Rhodesia is a wild ride through turbulent times in a setting of great beauty
Mud Between Your Toes: A Rhodesian Farm
by Peter Wood
In a memoir, you expect the author to be candid and, more importantly, entertaining. Peter Wood delivers on both fronts with Mud Between Your Toes: A Rhodesian Farm, a wild ride through the African bush told through the eyes of an angst-ridden boy growing up white – and gay – on a farm in war-torn Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s when the country, increasingly isolated by travel bans and sanctions, was losing its colonial grip.
Nothing has been toned down here as Wood, living under the privileged roof of white-ruled Rhodesia, finds his feet in the unforgiving African bush with an equally unforgiving father whose love he desperately seeks.
Wood, a photographer who has called Hong Kong home for two decades, has dug deep into his past to share his childhood stories, most of them sourced from diary entries from 1975-79, when the Rhodesian Bush War – the civil war that started in 1964 and ended in 1980 with the rise to power of its current leader Robert Mugabe – was at its most intense.
It opens in 2005 with Wood, his brother Duncan and mother Lib returning to the family’s 13,000-acre tobacco and cattle farm, M’sitwe, 125 miles north of the capital, Harare, the family having fled in 2001. What they find is a sad shadow of the farm’s former self, “The Big House”, as Wood lovingly refers to it, overrun with weeds, the verandah collapsed and the pool – once the scene of gin-fuelled parties attended by the region’s “high-society” of white land owners – now stagnant and green.
Wood then reflects on his happier days at the farm, sharing stories about his nanny who fed him exotic foods and scrubbed him pink as she bathed him with one of his few black friends, Alec, who would later lead a mob to overrun the farm.
Hiding his sexuality from family and friends becomes a pantomime for Wood, especially at boarding school where he’s sent aged five. Showing his true sexual colours would have been suicidal. After all, as he says: “Being a poofter was the biggest crime of all.”
Life of the entitled white G&T set along with images of hunters proudly standing next to their trophies of tusks and skins will make some readers uncomfortable. Some may also squirm when Wood bares his soul in a kiss-and-tell-everything chapter about his sexual initiation with an Australian sailor.
But it’s the stories of a barefoot kid running wild among the wildlife, being chased by wide-mouthed hippos and stalked by even wider-mouthed hyenas, with a few naked romps around the campfire thrown in, that are the most fun.
A common thread running through the book is Wood’s loving description of the vast Zimbabwean landscape, punctuated by the sounds of go-away-birds and colourful characters.