A memoir of children, lions and trauma

Review: Myrna Robins
Under the Camelthorn Tree – Raising a family among lions, by Kate Nicholls (Jonathan Ball)
Kate Nicholls says this is not an “and I was born” memoir, but rather a series of snapshots of events between 1994 and 2016. Her tale is not assigned to chronological chapters, but moves from Africa to the UK, jumping a decade or more and back again.
It all adds up to an extraordinary stretch of Nicholls’ life, a momentous 22 years during which she brings up her five children in a lion conservation camp in Botswana, is attacked by three men, descends into a mental hellhole fuelled by whisky, and pulls herself out of it slowly, healing helped by her work of home-schooling Russian children in London.
We meet Nicholls and her family at the start of the new century at their canvas home near the Gomoti River in Botswana. Their camelthorn acacia tree is coming into flower and the older children are helping her partner Pieter fix the antenna back to the radio mast while a car approaches their camp. It turns out to be two government officials taking the census. With the forms completed, a small tin rectangle with their number is hammered into the trunk of the camelthorn, which stands sentinel at their home in the Okavango Delta.
In 1994 Nicholls decided to exchange life in a Gloucestershire village for one of adventure in Botswana, bringing along her five children from three different fathers, ranging in age from 15 years to 11 months.
Two years on we find her settled, teaching her children in a novel way that sees them absorb knowledge like sponges, taking in principles of subjects like ethology and geology and zoology and more in ways that intrigues them.
Kate makes education the most exciting pursuit possible. She is also drawn into an organisation called WAR that helps young local women cope with adult and child sexual abuse, rife because of belief that HIV/AIDS can be cured through rape.
And she spends time helping her lover Pieter with his lion research project.
Just coping with life is a pretty fulltime occupation when elephants help themselves to the drinking water supply, large animals try to get into their fridge and lions wander around close, very close.
Large snakes have to be removed from under beds. Insects invade and spiders make homes where they are not wanted. But she is happy, the children are happy, and she and Pieter love each other.
In 2003 bliss is shattered when three local men stop her on her way home to a town house she rents in Maun, pin her down and take turns to rape her. She makes it to the local police station, summons a doctor she knows, and starts AZT treatment along with a cocktail of antibiotics.
Nicholls’ writing is at its most powerful as she grapples with the anger and fear – that escalates into rage and terror – in the aftermath of the attack, along with grief. Chilled white wine helps, but as a glass becomes a bottle, a new danger arises.
Not only humans but lions too are suffering from (feline) Aids, and the animals they know are ailing and dying slowly.
The family, minus Pieter, moves to London and sets up home. The teenagers prove that their mother’s homeschooling was of a high standard, as they exchange tent for classroom, succeed in completing school-leaving exams with ease, and find success when applying for university. By 2014 they are scattered across the globe – Ireland, the US, Chile and London – practising an impressive assortment of disciplines.
The chapters recording her experiences before contacting a professional organisation for alcoholics are stark, powerful writing with nothing spared. Even inthe darkest period, bursts of humour and clear evidence of strong family love serve to counter the trauma.
Nursing her former partner through recovery from a near-fatal car accident is another mind-blowing experience in store for Nicholls even as her role as mother diminishes – heartbreaking but leavened by the love and support of family and friends.
As the book ends, Nicholls has bought a rundown stone house in an Apennine village in Italy to be her new home. As she concludes brightly: “Italy is a new adventure. I have no definite plans; something will turn up: it always does…”
Readers are helped to keep pace with the frequent transition from Africa to England by a change in typeface. This is a gripping story for all who have experienced life under canvas in wild areas of southern Africa, and a compelling read for women, especially for those who inhabit our vast continent.

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