My life in Zambia was a challenge but wonderful. I was lucky to have extraordinary and enriching experiences. It gave me respect and love for its people, its wilderness, wild animals and beauty. There aren’t many stories written about this period so that was an opportunity to write something new. It was a time full of confusion and conflict as colonialism ended and Africa struggled with underdevelopment and the fallout of the Cold War and it provided me with the political and historical background of The Tin Heart Gold Mine.
I met people who were passionate about Africa. They weren’t all good or altruistic but many were courageous. They inspired The Tin Heart Gold Mine.
Writing The Tin Heart Gold Mine was a challenge
The Tin Heart Gold Mine had as long a gestation as my first book The Shaping of Water. The idea first came during a visit to an isolated safari camp in the Kafue National Park. It was close to the defunct Hippo Copper Mine, 26 years ago. It was an extraordinary sight — an ugly scar in the bush hundreds of miles from anywhere. It recalled tales of old explorers and gold-hunters who after punishing and dangerous journeys into Africa in the forlorn hope of becoming wealthy ended up with broken dreams. It made me think of Henry Hartley — no relation of mine — but a game hunter who accidentally discovered gold when an elephant he killed disturbed the earth as it died.
Gold mines and my father
My father had searched for gold on the rough hillside above his farm as a boy. He made his farm labourers dig pits in the rocky ground of the kopje. Each pit was as long and deep as a grave. They were never filled in and became deadly traps for unwary animals and walkers in the bush. As a child, the unfulfilled promises of gold fascinated me. I remember bellowing cattle dying from accidental cyanide poisoning from the nearby mine dump. My father had worked on the isolated Phoenix goldmine during the 1930s depression and I had an alcoholic auntie with a mine-blasting licence. I knew the greed that grows from desperation and deprivation.
What I wanted in my book
I wanted a female protagonist who was driven into danger by her passion for art and sex.
I wanted to write of the beauty, the fragility and the strength of the African wilderness.
I wanted to write a different version of Kurtz, the exploitative villain in Joseph Conrad‘s“Heart of Darkness”. I had grown tired of the racist scenario which blamed the failures and political instability of developing countries on Africans alone. European wars and imperial ambitions had impacted on the continent for 100s of years, as Conrad’s book shows. Readers imagine that the dark heart is African, in fact, it is Mr. Kurtz’s heart that is in darkness.
It was economic migrants displaced by wars in Europe who became the new colonialists though not always from choice.