the killing fields in our back garden

4 'The chicken put up a mighty fight as its neck was slowly wrung' 4
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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU KNOW someone's trying to tell you something when you come home from school to discover your parents have turned your bedroom into a chicken hatchery. It was bad enough that the mosquito grilles had been removed from the windows to fashion cages for the new chicks; then I found out that up until the day I returned to num- ber 11, Tugwilizane Road, Kalulushi, the chicks had apparently been cheeping and peeping all over my lino. Now they were banished, along with the hens, to the kaya. That's a phonetic attempt at the word: if memory serves it was spelt something along the lines of kiaa - the collection of huts at the end of the garden which was the domain of our houseboy, Chris.

In this instance, the egg came first. Zambian eggs were malnourished and disgusting: crack two in a saucer and they resembled pale, floppy breasts with grey, sunken nipples. Scrambled, they came out a flavourless, putty-coloured mess. Hard-boiled, the yolks turned an unappetising indigo. Forgoing eggs would have been easier had not basic foods of all kinds been difficult to obtain. Potatoes were out of the shops for months; housewives would pass on news of the rare sighting of a delicacy like onions. I once queued for an hour-and-a-half for a couple of pounds of butter. Milk was sour as often as not, and cheese came in tins and was like Dairylea fortified with rubber. Sweets were practically unobtainable. One Christmas I got a tin of foil-wrapped nuggets of cooking chocolate, from China via Dar- es-Salaam.

Bottles of coke, sacks of oranges and corn on the cob were our new staples. We got mangoes and avocados from the garden - there's nothing like climbing trees to fetch breakfast. The rest of the time, we had barbecues, or ''braais'', and ate out at the golf club or the Chinese restaurant in Kitwe, which worked miracles in the absence of fresh veg - they served the best spring rolls I've ever had.

But then Dad came up with his brilliant idea. We would get a couple of hens, feed them on nutritious kitchen scraps - ours and the neighbours' - and our delicious eggs would make us the cynosure of the whole town. This happy thought was immediately followed by another, no less characteristic: we would have lots and lots of plump, juicy free-range hens, sell them and the eggs, and make a cracking business out of it.

Fortunately I was back at school in England before the garden turned into the killing fields: not that I harboured any tender feelings for those strutting psychopaths, the hens. Dad enlisted the help of the imperturbable Chris in the first chicken pogrom, but felt duty bound to despatch the victims himself. My brother, barely out of infancy, was already displaying an unwholesome interest in the ritual, having heard somewhere that chickens run around when their heads have been cut off. So there was Dad, pale and sweaty at the thought of the ordeal ahead, with little bro twitching at his shorts and bleating: "I wanna see-oo cut its head off. I wanna see it wunnin' awound!" The chicken put up a fight while its neck was slowly and nervously wrung, and then it flopped to the ground, shuddering, steadfastly refusing to run anywhere, its head nodding on a broken stalk. Little bro walked thoughtfully off, apparently unharmed by this murderous scenario; until dinner time, that is, when the bird was served. He made no sound until the knife plunged into the breast, whereupon he screamed hysterically and ran out of the room. (Incidentally, I hope no one ever regresses my brother - the false- memory-syndrome quacks would have a field-day with him.)

It was decided that Chris should do the honours henceforth, slaughtering the hens with the elegant minimalism that made him so valued a member of the family firm. For this he was allowed to take the severed feet which, we were assured, would make a tasty meal for about six back at the compound. It was family convention to talk to Chris as though he were a deaf imbecile ("You . . . take . . . in Kaya!") though he spoke English well and was learning French. I suppose we treated him decently enough. Occasionally he'd get a whole chicken, and one holiday I came back to discover that my parents had given Chris my favourite jeans, which represented about a month's earnings.

The chickens thrived, though the turkeys were not such a success, condemning us to sleeplessness with their incessant gobble-gobble. There weren't any foxes to worry about but snakes were a threat, so we obtained an anti- snake device: a kitten, which never made it to cat-hood, probably because it was eaten by a snake first. The ill-starred creature was called Fred, after one of our two uncles; our guard dog, a useless, cringing cur, was named Paddy, after the other. Paddy came to a sticky end, squashed beneath the wheels of mum's VW Beetle. We had an enormous ant-hill in the middle of the garden, about the size of a Stone Age barrow, and she used to drive at it full speed, execute a turn, then park on its lower slopes. Unfortunately, this was also where Paddy used to bask in the midday sun, far too lethargic to do anything constructive like guard the property. The only time he ever roused himself was one night when I came home from a fancy-dress party and realised I hadn't brought a key to undo the padlock. There I was, pissed, straddling the eight-foot fence, dressed as a squaw, with Paddy foaming and gnashing at one dangling foot. Thank God for Chris, who came running down the garden to assist. What on earth did he make of us all, I wonder?