Chesham’s Kirstie Heslop living the dream in Zambia

PUBLISHED: 16:18 25 July 2014 | UPDATED: 16:18 25 July 2014

Kirstie Hislop, general manager of Tribal Textiles, says life in Zambia 'is a dream come true'. Photo: Ian McIlgorm

Kirstie Hislop, general manager of Tribal Textiles, says life in Zambia 'is a dream come true'. Photo: Ian McIlgorm

© IAN MCILGORM 2014

The internet goes down, a curious giraffe wanders by… but Buckinghamshire’s Kirstie Heslop is ‘living the dream’, Karen Kay finds

After baking in an industrial oven, each item is washed in a bath tub. Photo: Ian McIlgormAfter baking in an industrial oven, each item is washed in a bath tub. Photo: Ian McIlgorm

The road to Kirstie Heslop’s office is poorly maintained and dotted with potholes. As she sets off on her daily commute to work, the 43 year-old from Chesham is prepared for the kind of bumpy ride that so many of us experience each morning, cursing the lack of investment in our highways.

But, the 20 minute journey she makes is a far contrast from that of so many of her contemporaries back home in Buckinghamshire. Kirstie’s drive might see her pausing to admire six lions sleeping on the verge, stopping to let a herd of elephants cross the road, or maneuvering cautiously as a tower of gangly giraffes navigate a path alongside pedestrians, cyclists and a handful of cars that traverse the long straight road linking Mfuwe (pronouced Um-foo-wee) airport to the South Luangwa Valley, a Zambian national park the size of Wales.

Three years ago, Kirstie flew from her home in leafy southwest London, where she worked as an interior designer, to start a new life in the African bush. She arrived in Mfuwe - a small village about 400 miles north east of the capital, Lusaka - on her 40th birthday.

“I landed here, nervous with excitement and anticipation, with just a couple of bags, on a landmark date in my life,” she recalls with a warm smile. “And the old cliché is true: life really did begin for me.”

A chance meeting had led Kirstie back to this remote corner of Africa, a place she first fell for while backpacking after graduating from Oxford university 20 years ago.

“I’ve been under the spell of this captivating continent ever since, and had always wanted to come back to experience it more fully, as someone who lives and works here. I’d cut short my travels in 1995 to fly home to Bucks, to spend some time with my mother, who had a rare genetic disorder and needed major surgery. My older brother, James, and I have both inherited the condition, and it has thrown endless health challenges at us, not least losing our mother 12 years ago.”

“None of us knows what life has in store and my parents always worked so hard, towards a retirement they never had (my father lost his battle with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma when I was in my first year at university), so I’m determined to live my dreams while I can.”

When a phone call came out of the blue from Gillie Lightfoot, who Kirstie had met at a wedding in 2007, offering her the chance to run her business in Zambia, it didn’t take her long to say yes. Today, she is General Manager at Tribal Textiles, an enterprise that employs over 120 local people, handpainting beautiful designs onto organic cotton. Lightfoot herself is English, and trained at Winchester School of Art, before moving to Zambia two decades ago: “To live the hippy lifestyle, and find myself. The textiles started as a ‘hobby’ as something to do out of the small Safari camp I was living in. Having an artistic background, I experimented with techniques and dyes, with limited resources, and Tribal Textiles was slowly born. It became my lifeline and companion in this extremely remote area. I became so engrossed in the textiles, loving the rawness and being inspired by the wildlife around me.

“Any time I was not mixing up new paint combinations I was busy researching traditional African designs, locally drawn paintings on village huts, or just from the wildlife; everything became an inspiration. As the business grew so did the workforce, and I was able to start handing over some of the drawing and painting to a select few.”

Lightfoot is now based in Lusaka with her young family and that select few has grown into a skilled workforce of talented artists, and a production team that creates contemporary African art on cushions, table linens, wall hangings, bags and other decorative accessories. Designs are hand-drawn using a starchy flour and water paste, which dries in the sun and acts as a ‘resist’ when paint is applied. Each item is then baked in an industrial oven, washed in a bath tub, and the starch paste is scraped off to reveal an outline design before the fabric is pressed and sewn into a finished product.

It is artisanal, steeped in cultural heritage and has brought employment, training and purpose to a remote community, who work to the principles set out by the Fair Trade movement.

For Kirstie, the business presents challenges that she “simply didn’t face in England, where we took so much for granted: intermittent internet and phone access, frequent power cuts, having to bring everything you need in by truck, usually from overseas. But far from being a negative, it has brought all my priorities into perspective, and made me a happier person. I love the simplicity of my life now: I eat fresh, seasonal produce (though I do miss Galaxy chocolate), and I don’t worry about my crow’s feet anymore.

“Late nights in London bars have been swapped for the simple pleasures of proper social gatherings with good food and wine – which I definitely appreciate more now it’s not on offer round the corner at a fancy deli.”

“Like friends, I cherish the moment when I kick off my shoes each evening after work, and relax on my terrace with a well-earned drink. But in contrast to many back home, I am enjoying my sundowner, soaking up spectacular surroundings in the heart of the African bush.

“Throughout the year, dusk falls early in Zambia, and I never tire of watching the vast African sky change from bright blue through flaming oranges to the intense black scattered with millions of stars. It’s a magical, peaceful scene, interrupted only by the distant roar of a lion or the hum of insect life – not a beeping Blackberry in sight. It is, quite literally, a dream come true.”

“Soon after I arrived here, I met Ed, an English safari guide and wildlife photographer, and we recently married in a lovely ceremony in an ebony grove with baboons leaping through the trees. Many of our friends and family flew in, and dozens of friends from the valley joined us for a party on the banks of the Luangwa river, which we now call home.

“You can always find reasons not to do something, but I’ve learned the hard way that you never the regret things you do, just the things you don’t. Every single day, I am grateful for the opportunity to wake up in such magical surroundings and live the dream I’d held so close for all those years.”

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