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  • Writer's pictureThe Old Farmyard Forceleap Farm


We arrived in Zambia to a massive thunderstorm, which almost flooded the taxi on our way to the hotel. It is the rainy season here and the rains have arrived! The following morning, we were planning to go swimming, but it was just so grey and cold, so we spent the day in the bar doing Lego! The next day, my friend Donna came to pick us up to take us to their farm a couple of hours outside Lusaka.

Some explanation is required here! Back in the late noughties I came out to Zambia for a few months to work as a stop gap manager on a small vocational training project for HIV orphans in Chisamba, which is halfway between Lusaka and the copper belt up North. The project provided orphans with some food and basic education in the mornings, as well as more practical lessons such as carpentry, farming and sewing in the afternoons. This project was looked after by a committee led by the local Catholic priest Father Tim. Unfortunately, the manager had contracted HIV himself, and so was hospitalised. My role was to look after the project until either he recovered, or they recruited a new manager. So, I lived in Father Tim’s house in Chisamba township for a few months, walking up the railway line each day to work just outside town.

While I was there, he explained that there were quite a lot of white farmers running commercial farms in the area around the town. He suggested that, as they met up every Thursday night for a BBQ and touch rugby, I should join them. So, one week I rocked up, and that is how I met Donna, who had recently married Doug. Doug’s family had an old commercial farm, Sable Farms, that his father had set up and run since 1973. The farm was growing crops under several big pivots, which create large circles of irrigated crops.

They also had beef cattle and large areas were given over to game. Over the time I was there, I was lucky enough to visit the farm and spent quite a bit of time with Donna, and we became good friends. After a few months, I returned to the UK and ever since I have stayed in contact with them via Christmas cards and the occasional text. Fast forward to me planning this trip, and I thought it would be great to rekindle our friendship, and, after living in a compound house in Ghana, it would give the boys a completely different perspective on living in Africa.

Sable Farm hills

In the meantime, in her life, things have been far from easy for Donna. Marrying into a multigenerational family business like this is often tricky, and she has had to contend with her fair share of struggles with family politics, successional issues and living and working with the in-laws. This is also intensified by the fact that the farm is quite remote, has a very different culture to what she is used to, and as with any farm business, is subject to the vagaries of weather or market prices. They also have a huge workforce which throws up endless issues and concerns. So, it is quite intense, and can really become all consuming. They had always wanted to start a family, and in the years that followed she had 3 kids, Dan, Dakota and Darci.

From the top - Toby, Dakota, Darcie, Mikey

So as a busy Mum and with Doug helping his father run the farm, life carried on for them, Africa style, much as planned, until the unthinkable happened. Totally out of the blue, nearly 4 years ago, Dan, who by then was a fit and healthy 9 year old, suddenly got sick with a fever and died. I had a voice message from Donna about a year later telling me about it and, even now, I can’t listen to that voicemail without welling up, the total desolation in her voice is heart breaking. As is often said, you should never have to bury a child and Donna went pretty much grey overnight, and even 4 years later is really struggling, no fighting, to make any sense of her life without her boy. But at the same time, she is trying her best to keep her s**t together and carry on for the sake of Doug and the two girls. The other day she told me, “What freaks me out the most is that I am only forty-two years old and if I live into my eighties, I have to live feeling like this for another 40 years, I just don’t think I can!” As for Doug, he is silent about it, he is such a quiet and gentle guy, but he has lost his boy, and I am quite certain that, under his calm exterior, he is screaming.

So, there is a great sense of sadness, a dark cloud over the place, but despite this, much to their credit, we have been warmly welcomed into their lives. In just a couple of weeks, we have done all sorts of fun things, from swimming in the dams, to bike rides, mushroom hunts to game drives, and Doug has even taken the boys both rifle shooting and fishing!

Doug teaching Toby to shoot

I must admit to feeling rather torn about our presence here. It must be so difficult for them, as the boys are sleeping in Dan’s room, surrounded by his toys, and Donna tells me that Toby so reminds her of Dan. It must also be very tough for Doug to take my boys fishing, when he has not got his boy, and so I can quite see that there is the potential for us to cause pain. There is nothing I can say or do to change what has happened, and unless you are a parent who has lost a child, I can quite see that it is impossible to know what it feels like, but I can imagine, and that is bad enough. Of course, the alternative is not to come, but I also feel, it is better to say the wrong thing, then say nothing at all. I am always amazed that, especially when someone dies, people seem to melt away, embarrassed, and fearful of getting involved or saying the wrong thing to the family. Surely it is better to try to understand, give your time and listen to those that grieve, and support or comfort them where you can. I also hope that the boys with their honesty and ability to live in the moment can help the girls, as I am sure they are affected, apart from anything else by seeing their parents so broken. I just hope that, when they look back on our time here, they feel it helped more than it hurt. But only time will tell.  

Donna teaching boys to cook on tin cans

Donna comes from a missionary family and so has always been a Christian, but her experience has led her away from the church, but into a much deeper faith with God. She says she reads the scripture with new eyes and is convinced that her very ability to live and breathe, is only possible through the grace of God, and I believe her. The way she speaks about it reminds me of the footsteps in the sand story. I am sure many of you know it.

One night I dreamed a dream. As I was walking along the beach with my Lord. Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, One belonging to me and one to my Lord. After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. "Lord, you said that if I decided to follow you, You'd walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me." He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never, ever leave you, especially during your most difficult trials. When you saw only one set of footprints? It was then that I carried you."

One of the changes that happened after this tragedy, is that the girls were withdrawn from school, and Donna started home schooling them. But this is not the home schooling we all remember as the stuff of nightmares from covid! This is proper home schooling following an innovative curriculum, that is well planned out, and very impressively delivered. There is a huge variety of activities, and everything is tailormade to meet the needs of each child as the class is tiny! They built a school room at the bottom of the garden with an art room next door.

They are now adding a gym, and plan to put up a science room (which will be a glorified potting shed) by the polytunnel in the next few months. They employ a fulltime teacher, Kayleigh, who takes them through the curriculum. Although Donna does no teaching herself, she chose the curriculum and goes to town to get supplies as well as organising extra activities with Kayleigh. They do so much practical and outdoor stuff I think it will be great. The boys are going to join them for a few weeks, and it will be so interesting to see how they do under this system of education.

So, we have 4 weeks left here on the farm with home schooling in the day, activities with Donna and Doug in the evening and weekend jaunts planned to Vic falls, Lake Kariba… among others! It is all very promising and I am looking forward to it!

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