Meryl Harrison is renowned for her part in the rescue of the animals forcibly abandoned on farms during the turmoil of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution programme.
“I never thought I’d reach my 80th birthday. Those of you who know me well know my life has been a bit of a car crash, and really it’s quite unexpected. I’ve crawled here one way or the other.”
The party is ready. Through the wide open doors birdsong and sunshine breeze in beneath the bunting. There are flowers on each polka-dotted table, and two beautiful arrangements amongst the scones, cakes, and bursting sandwiches laid out for tea.
Slowly the crowd gathers, each of us from different chapters of Meryl’s life, including many with no first hand experience of Africa, and little knowledge of where Meryl began. It’s the loss of her twin that haunts her most at this time of year.
“…he was murdered by Mugabe’s supporters…for me it’s important I remember him today…we were in an orphanage for the first year of our life and later adopted. I’ve only recently found out who my parents were. Unfortunately he was killed before we found that out.”
Meryl’s son Nick Dean has flown in from Melbourne, Australia. He gives a speech about his mother, packed with humour and admiration, and a real understanding of just how strong she is. Included in the anecdotes is this one about a donkey.
First he gives us the context.
It is the early 2000s, and Nick, who lives in Scotland, is on a visit to see his mother. She is Chief Inspector for the ZNSPCA (Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and is on a mission to help the donkeys in Matabeleland. They, pullers of the two-wheeled scotch carts, are a main form of rural transport in the region which covers the west and south-west of the country.
One day he and his mother are in the ZNSPCA 4X4 between Hwange, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, and Bulawayo, its second city. Due to a fuel shortage there are few, if any, cars on the road, and around them the drought-struck land is so hot and dry that warthogs graze the road edges, desperate for food.
About two hours from the nearest town they crest a rise to see a donkey in the distance pulling a scotch-cart up the next hill. As they draw closer they see that the overloaded cart has three people sitting on the back.
“The poor donkey, with one trembling hoof at a time, is trying to pull this load up the incline. So, of course, mother gets out and starts lecturing, trying to establish who the owner is. Then she looks at the donkey, and, as is unfortunately so often the case, the harness is made of wire and causing terrible wounds, suppurating wounds – fly-blown.
In the back of the 4X4 we have donkey kits, ointments and wound powder and proper harnesses, because this is part of the campaign to treat donkeys and get better harnesses. So we snip off the wire, treat the wounds and all the time there are these other two people sitting on the back of the cart looking at us, with what I can only describe as bewildered malevolence. They had been trotting along in the African sun quite happily, being pulled along by their donkey, and suddenly this truck pulls to a halt and this mad woman comes out and starts haranguing them. They are staring down at us.
The donkey gets treated – new harness, all looking good – and the three of them start to make as if they are going to head off again. And mother says:
‘Oh no! You’ve got to unload the cart. There is no way you are going to make this donkey pull this cart.’
And so they grudgingly climb off and they start unloading the cart, and every time they take off an oil drum, or a big bag of grain, they look at her expectantly:
‘Can we go now?’
She is standing there like this (Nick folds his arms, juts out his jaw).
Eventually the scotch cart gets unloaded to half its load. Mother is satisfied and they are almost free to go. She has one last look at the donkey, gives them some more antiseptic wound spray, more wound powder, puts some reflective tape on the back of the scotch-cart, and hands out a few more harnesses for the donkeys back in the village. The owner is pretty happy at this stage even though it has interrupted his journey.
Mother is very clear: donkey goes back with a lighter cart to the village, where they will get a fresh donkey and come back for the rest of the ‘kutundu’ as we call it.
We get in the truck and drive off. After a few minutes of silence I say:
‘You know that one day you’re going to do that, and you’re going to be alone, and they’re going to donner you.’ (‘donner’ is Afrikaans slang for assault – so it is not a good thing). ‘You know it’s going to happen?’
‘Yes’ she says ‘possibly, probably.’
I say: ‘It’s not going to stop you is it?’
She says: ‘No.’
We drive on in silence for the next 50kms.”
This one incident, Nick tells us, shows four of his mother’s key qualities:
1. “The courage to do the right thing – the fearlessness of it.”
2. “The concern for one animal. There are hundreds of thousands of donkeys in Matabeleland, most of them are suffering. It was a case of not being able to do everything, but being able to do one thing. Who knows what happened to that donkey? It could have died on the next hill but, we all tell each other stories of why things can’t be done, but this was a case of: well, I can help this donkey, and at least I’ve made that effort.”
3.“The practicality of the thing. Sure we can all sign petitions, and those are necessary for change, but they are not going to be sufficient. At some point you have to be at the side of the road on a hot African day, and trying to help someone get that animal home. She has spent a lot of her life on the frontline and that is something I have always respected her for.”
4. “And the last one is that, despite her assertiveness in that situation, and maybe in others, I still believe that those people left that scene with respect. And she has always had that with her dealings with folk in Africa, whether she’s dealing with stoned youths with AK47s blockading a dairy farm, or brutal, sneaky cabinet ministers who she’s been haranguing through the courts for animal welfare abuses. She has the ability to give people a hard time, including myself, but still have the respect of the people she is giving a hard time to…and that is a rare thing.”
“Perhaps Africa was the best continent for mother to spend most of her adult life on as I don’t think any other place would have been able to accommodate her big personality. Only Africa, which is so vivid and random, could be the match for her.
George Bernard Shaw once said that:
‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’Or woman.
I am proud to be the son of an ‘unreasonable’ woman. Please raise your glasses and teacups to a woman not only ‘unreasonable’ but also courageous, caring and creative.”
Messages followed – some from friends and family, and others from those Meryl had worked with and for. Just hearing them was emotional. Here are extracts from the final two:
Veterinarian *Mark Donaldson:
“I know Africa well. I’ve experienced how quickly a situation can deteriorate to the point where you say to yourself: am I going to get out of here? To deliberately put yourself in that situation time and again takes a very special kind of person. The strength of character it takes to face what Meryl did I can only wonder at. Meryl thank you for all you did for the animals and people of Zim, and for all you continue to do. I genuinely cannot think of anyone who could have accomplished what you did. You are a true hero of Zimbabwe.”
Lastly this from Veterinarian *Chris Foggin, who Meryl describes as her ‘boss’ when, from 2010, she was with VAWZ (Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe):
“Your work in the darkest days of this country’s history was inspirational at the time, remains an example now, and will be remembered by all who lived through and experienced that dreadful period. The gratitude of those families whose pets were saved by your courageous work could only be surpassed by those actually rescued…if only they could have expressed it. I wish you a very joyful birthday and hope you will be permitted to bask in the honour of your achievements.”
The afternoon, the remembering, ends all too soon. Plates are cleared and farewells said as we make room for the choir rehearsal that follows.
It is the end of a wonderful day but it feels still as if there is much to say.
*Mark Donaldson: “I am the owner of Steppes Road Veterinary Surgery in Ballantyne Park. I am a born and bred Zimbo, but spent 20 years working in the UK. It was while on hols back in Zim that I first met Meryl. Her co-book with Cathy Buckle virtually reduced me to tears. I became a trustee of VAWZ (Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe) firstly in the UK, and then in Zim, when I moved back. Meryl, of course, was the force that drove this charity, doing some very unpleasant work under the most trying of circumstances.”
*Chris Foggin: “My current position is Veterinarian to the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, where I came to work after retiring from the Wildlife Veterinary Unit, of the Dept of Veterinary Services, in 2012. I remain a committee member and Trustee of VAWZ, which I was involved in assisting Meryl to found in 2010.”
My thanks to Nick Dean for allowing me to use his speech, and to veterinarians Chris Foggin, and Mark Donaldson for permission to use their messages to Meryl, and finally, of course, to Meryl Harrison herself whose wish is that publicity around her story will remind us all of the suffering, and the needs, of animals caught in conflict.
If you would like to know more about Meryl Harrison, particularly her work on the farms in Zimbabwe during the chaos of the land invasions, these links will take you to a few more articles on The Phraser about her work.
- Interview with Meryl Harrison
- Review of the book Innocent Victims by Cathy Buckle
- Extract 1 from Innocent Victims by Cathy Buckle
- Extract 2 from Innocent Victims by Cathy Buckle
- Extract 3 from Innocent Victims by Cathy Buckle
- Extract 4 from Innocent Victims by Cathy Buckle
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019