Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood
by Robyn Scott

The Penguin Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59420-159-2.
Reviewed by Janet Grace Riehl
Posted on 06/11/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

While set in Botswana and praised by Alexander McCall Smith as a "striking portrait of one of the world's most beguiling countries," the deeper subject of Twenty Chickens for a Saddle turns out not to be Africa at all. Rather, Robyn Scott has written a searching portrait of the limits of individualism and an exploration of education in its several forms.

Ordinarily, the problem with being idiosyncratic is that there you are, all by yourself. In this story, however, there's an entire clan of stark, raving individuals who totally delight one another and somehow come together as a family of eccentrics. I knew a family much like them when I lived in Botswana for three years in the 1970s, learning to speak Setswana.

What constitutes a good education? What makes a family, a culture, a nation? How does the individual fit into these gathering units? What is the trajectory of a marriage? What are the limits of change? How is the dignity of a human being colored one way or another? Searching for Robyn Scott's views on these basic questions kept me reading. Clearly, this is more than an exotic memoir of a faraway country and people having nothing to do with the rest of us except to entertain.

It is with a sense of homecoming that I enter Robyn Scott's Twenty Chicken world. Her family is one of a maverick breed of outlanders that has loved this country and contributed to Botswana's peaceful and harmonious development.

Seven-year-old Robyn came to Botswana in 1988, about 11 years after I returned to the United States. She was homeschooled by her mother until 1995, when her formal education began. A successful adult, she appears to have suffered in no way from her early fluid education of learning by doing, by observing, and by being read to.

Graceful asides define Botswana's history, culture, and challenges, including the AIDS crisis, which is told in frank language. Written mostly from the point of view of a child, this is a coming-of-age story of the best kind. As Robyn matures, she takes us through Botswana's changing fortunes in the Selebi-Phikwe area of the Limpopo River and later on a game farm closer to South Africa. This is an environment that both embraces her and allows her to grow up on her own terms.

Twenty Chickens is particularly good at describing Botswana's plant life and wildlife and the freedom of the bush land. The narrative is complemented by photos, a rough map, endearingly drawn icons, and glossaries of Setswana and Afrikaans. An index would make the book even more accessible.

One of my favorite sections is Chapter 16, The Whole Family's Half of an Island. Here, more than in other chapters, we are given a direct sense of Botswana culture and relationships and the heartfelt hospitality lavished upon extended family, even if part of that family is white. There is playfulness and ingenuity here, and a demonstration of natural Batswana diplomacy which is wonderfully revealing of this quiet people living in a vast land.

Robyn Scott was born in 1981 and began her formal education at fourteen, at boarding school in Zimbabwe. She moved to New Zealand for her undergraduate degree, studying bioinformatics at the University of Auckland. In 2004, Cambridge University awarded her the Gates Scholarship; she received an M.Phil in bioscience enterprise, focusing on the pricing of medicines in developing countries. Robyn lives in London, but visits and works regularly in southern Africa.

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