Returning Home by Ann Churcher

August 31, 2013 | By | 18 Replies More

I worked out that I lived in fifteen different bed-sitting rooms in the first ten years I was in England – a product of my rootless colonial life perhaps. By the time I made my return to Nyasaland, now called Malawi, in 1985, I’d settled into an Edwardian house in south London, where I took root for twenty-six years.

Ann ChurcherI hired a car, and set out on the long winding road to Zomba, my early childhood home. When I first went to Malawi, it was one of the few roads that wasn’t a dirt track. It had always been the same narrow ribbon of blue, hazing into the distance.Beryl Markham says, in West with the Night, that Africa is never the same to anyone who leaves it and returns again. But I had to go back; I’d made a promise to the mountain that I’d return before I turned forty, or it could strike me dead. Time was short, I was thirty-eight.

I stayed with friends up on the top of Zomba Mountain. People say that the plateau reminds them of Scotland. It provides a cool, malaria-free environment. The lucky few who live up there do so without any prophylactic pills, gambling their visits to the flat plains below. The DDT of my childhood is now banned, which is good news, but has meant a resurgence of the mosquito.

I walked the plateau, dodging the red ants that still terrorize the visitors, and drove my hired car up and down the steep, rocky slopes, noting the smell of burning rubber as I sat on the clutch. The tracks were slippery with thick red mud. While I was there, eight inches of rain fell in one night. I remembered the dead, washed away into the river in 1947, the year I was born, by rain coming down the mountainside. Napolo, the great legendary snake that lives in the mists of the high peaks, claimed many, as he slithered down the slopes to cause that flood.

I mentioned to my friends that I would visit my old home of Mikuyu. It was ten miles away, down on the plains, in the bush. My father built it in 1951.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t go,’ said my kind host. ‘It’s a prison now, you know.’

‘Of course I must go. I’ll just explain I was a little girl there.’


It was a strange feeling, re-tracing the road to Mikuyu – a place so full of myth for me now. Having been only a passenger on that road before, I was struck by the view of Zomba Mountain, forever in the rear view mirror.

Somehow I recognised the track that led into the prison compound, and turned into the over-grown circular drive without being questioned. The old well, with the red banana trees shielding it from gaze, was still there, and wagtails still bobbed in courtship on the tin roofs of the buildings. A couple of guards in shabby khaki uniforms ambled up to me, and I told them I’d been a small child in this house. I offered them cigarettes, and asked if I could look around. They grinned, and took me over to the old redbrick house with its metal roof and long verandah. It had seen better days, but was still the best building on the site. It had become the guardhouse, full of desks and filing cabinets, dusty, but dry.

Ann Churcher in Africa


I thanked them, gave them more cigarettes, and they left me to wander. I peered round the rooms and hall but, with new additions, it was hard to recognise. I went outside and cut round behind the house, past the walls that were now dwarfed by higher wire beyond, and set out towards the river.

I walked to the edge of the Likangala. I heard no baboons, but the eerie feelings I’d had as a child, persisted. The glittering sand banks still held, in their depths, the footprints of the Arab traders who came downstream, with their yellow lights, to grab, as booty, any unsuspecting night wanderer. Their ghostly slave-boats of folk memory still haunted this fast running river.

Suddenly I realised I was alone in the bush. And, in theory, anyone else wandering around was likely to be a prisoner – I decided I’d seen enough.

I thanked the guards, and drove off. On the way back, my clutch, nearly burned out on the muddy slopes of the mountain, finally died on me. The car refused to move. I stood helplessly by it on the dusty road that shimmered in the heat. After a long time, a small pick-up truck pulled up behind me, and the driver got out to help. He worked for a garage in Zomba, and would be glad to take me there. There was a telephone, where I could ring the hire company, and arrange for the car to be towed to town.

I accepted gratefully and climbed into the seat next to him. We chatted merrily for several miles until his engine, too, spluttered and died. He’d run out of petrol. By now, we were about six miles outside town, so we set off to walk the rest together. Almost as soon as we began, the storm that had been threatening, broke. Lightning forked out of the sky, creating blue fusion above; the thunder made my ears ring. We trudged along companionably; in the familiar hot heavy rain that soaks you so fast you simply accept that you move in the new medium of water, rather than air.

I felt I was home, and yet I had no right any more to call it that.

Malawi and I grew up together, and both gained our independence in 1964. I began to understand the nature of colonialism around the same time as Nyasaland was renamed Malawi. I got my first bed-sitting room in London, and we both began to make our own decisions.


Ann Churcher lived in Africa until she was seventeen, and now lives in Suffolk, England. She’s written numerous articles and two books under her stage name, Mel Churcher: Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second (Virgin Books, 2003/kindled 2011) and A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD (Nick Hern Books, 2011) She has an MA/Performing Arts (Mddx) & MA/Voice Studies (C.S.S.D.).

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Category: Home, Prose, When Women Waken Literary Journal

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  1. Returning Home – a short memoir piece | truth24timesasecond | September 1, 2013
  2. Returning Home | Words, words, words... | June 20, 2015
  1. Emily Sovich says:

    Your connection with the landscape is such a powerful force in this story. You engaged each one of my senses until the dust and the heat and the mud and the storm — and your own relationship with the mountain — felt inevitable and real. Your words brought the place to life in my mind.

  2. Mel Churcher says:

    Thank you Emily – You are very kind. It has taken years to see England as beautiful too after the primary colours of Africa! It’s lovely to know someone read this.

  3. Mel Churcher says:

    If anyone wants to find me I am on Twitter via my prof. name @MelChurcher (webpage

  4. Carol Burns says:

    Going home can be a strange and emotional journey when ‘home’ has been somewhere else. It’s almost like visiting it in a dream…you are in the right place but it feels and looks different. I loved this piece and I love the idea of making a promise to a mountain 🙂

  5. Amy Potter says:

    You left me feeling nostalgic for a place I have never been to. Beautiful images. Thank you.

  6. SjK says:

    Loved the contrasting moments of feeling at odds with a place that held your past, yet accepting and embracing everything it surrendered to you. Beautiful writing, it left me longing for places of my own distant memories.

  7. Mel Churcher says:

    Thank you Amy. It must be an age I’ve got to – nostalgia is quite prevalent – even though I love the ‘now’. Thank you for reading it.

  8. Susanne says:

    I found you 😉 – I loved this piece. I read it time and again and try to remember some other beauties, not quite like Africa, but still …
    Returning is never the same. Especially if it is returning to graves and houses empty like shells.

    • Mel Churcher says:

      Thank you for this wonderful comment. I’m so glad it touched you in some way. I love your expression, ‘houses like empty shells’ – beautiful…As if we are hermit crabs, never destined to have a home forever…

  9. Anjli says:

    What a beautiful account. I too felt like I was there with you and had read over it again to catch all the rich detail. You paint really powerful pictures Mel and I really like that you share with us even the eerie feelings making it very real. I’m more excited than ever to share with my dad a similar experience when we visit his birthplace Mumbasa in Kenya. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Ruth Everson says:

    I love the simplicity of the writing. Your immediate and gentle way of writing carries the reader into memory with you.

  11. Annecdotist says:

    Beautifully described setting, but I especially loved the conflict around the politics of this particular home along with the optimism in the final sentence: I got my first bed-sitting room in London, and we both began to make our own decisions.

    • Ann Churcher says:

      Thank you for this great comment. Yes – it was a great shock when I realised my own home was a prison – it wasn’t until after my visit that I realised poets were held within its walls…but I still have optimism…

  12. Joan Leotta says:

    Home can have so many meanings beyond a house–thank your for your explorations! (literal and metaphorical!)

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