BUZ TREVOR’S REFLECTIONS ON BEING A CHILD IN NORTHERN RHODESIA

BIOGRAPHY

My father was a government veterinary officer. He, my mother and my two brothers arrived in NR in October 1946. They spent a brief period in Mazabuka and then went to Livingstone for a few months. My dad took up his permanent posting in Abercorn early in 1947 and I was born there in July of that year, definitely an afterthought.

Lived in Abercorn until 1951

Ndola from 1951 until 1957

Smallholding outside Luanshya 1957 and 1958

Mongu (Barotseland) from 1958 to 1960

Livingstone 1960 to 1961

Lusaka 1961 to 1964

There were very few places I did not visit in NR. Many of them I knew well.

Went to school in Ndola, Luanshya, Broken Hill (boarder), Livingstone and Lusaka.(boarder and day school)

Much of my dad’s work was controlling disease in livestock. Throughout my childhood he was away for months at a time. Quite often the family went with him. The earliest Christmas I remember we were living in a tent. It had rained and I played in puddles and drank in the smells of the warm, wet red soil.

From my earliest years I was exposed to the bush, animals, awful roads, lack of facilities and vehicles that like as not would break down, if they didn’t get stuck first. It was a wonderful childhood. I enjoyed enormous freedom and rode horses, hunted and fished without too much concern being expressed by my parents.

A significant thing happened to me in early 1958.

My dad was always punctilious about treating people correctly. We had servants but I was expected to be polite to them. Unusually, among my peers, I was expected to prefix the names of my father’s black staff with Mr. At the same time my father maintained that the authorities always acted in the best interests of the people. This caused a certain amount of angst between us as I grew older.

As a little boy I remember driving along and going through villages and Africans of all ages would come out and wave as we drove by. During our years on the Copperbelt, this practice stopped and cheery waves gave way to sullen looks.

On this particular Sunday morning, I had ridden my bike from our plot outside Luanshya to the T junction where the road went to Kitwe. The Sunday Mail was always on sale here and this was my objective. On my way home I was set upon by a group of African teenagers and mildly beaten up.

The immediate effect was that my attitudes became pretty racist and persisted through my adolescence.

In 1964, just prior to independence, my dad took early retirement. We moved to what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Our time in Northern Rhodesia was over. I was 16 years old. I have never been back.

 

MEMORIES TO SAVOUR

From October 1958 to April 1960 we lived in Mongu and I went to boarding school in Broken Hill and Lusaka. I think that Mongu was the only place in Northern Rhodsesia that my mother did not particularly like but for an 11 and 12 year old boy there can have been no better place in the world.

We lived in a large rambling, thatched roof house set on the hill overlooking the flood plain of the Zambezi. My dad and I rode virtually every day. The roads were so bad in Barotseland that sometimes my dad did his fieldwork on horseback. I cannot imagine a better place for riding horses – open bush and sandy underneath so if you did fall off it was relatively forgiving!

For several months of the year the Zambezi flooded and water extended as far as the eye could see. Different from the ocean or a lake, the flood plain was a mass of vegetation and abounded with birds. It was truly a magical place. From the base of the hill channels were cut through the reeds so you could get out to the river proper by motorboat, or what I preferred in a makoro.

Another memory is the fruit trees. Oranges and mangoes were absolutely prolific. Everyone just helped themselves – they were the best.

There was a small lake near Mongu, called Kandi and the white population used to gather there on Sundays to swim and picnic. In hindsight I think quite a lot of alcoholic beverages were consumed! My parents were not inclined to go out to Kandi. That side of colonial life really was not their style. However I went there quite often with friends. There were a couple of sail boats and one day my eldest brother, Oliver, and I were taken out and given rudimentary sailing instruction. We were then given charge of the boat by ourselves. We sailed out and then contrived to capsize. Neither of us had any idea about how to right a capsized boat. I looked at the shore which was perhaps a hundred yards away. I was a competent swimmer and so I told Oliver that I was swimming to shore and set off. As I left, my brother said he would too. Almost immediately I heard him calling for help. I had not realized he could not swim. I stopped without any idea of what to do. Fortunately someone had seen our predicament and a motorboat appeared and pulled Oliver from the water. The strange thing is that this was my only sailing experience in Africa but I knew it was something I wanted to do. I now live by a lake in northern Canada and have two sailboats!

 

WHAT HAS NORTHERN RHODESIA MEANT IN MY LIFE?

First and foremost, I recognize that I had the sort of childhood that is not afforded to many people. The freedoms and experiences I had are even more remarkable when I see the circumscribed and ordered lives that children nowadays lead.

At the same time, I realize that I was fortunate to live in a particular narrow window in time and my good fortune was actually privilege based on my skin colour.

As I mentioned earlier, after being beaten up, for a number of years I was a pretty racist adolescent. Yet again I was fortunate in moving to the Bechuanaland Protectorate which became my home until 1980.

In the Bechuanaland Protectorate once more I was surrounded by happy black people as I remembered from my early days. What was going on? Bechuanaland was desperately poor. There was no mineral wealth and apart from a few white cattle farmers expatriate commercial development was minimal.

In 1966 when the country became Botswana, there were less than 10 miles of paved roads in the country and services were very basic, if present at all. With the exception of the railway line and the abattoir in Lobatse, there was pretty much nothing. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. But something amazing happened.

The common perception was that there was no mineral wealth and nothing to be exploited. So the country had been governed with benign neglect. But shortly before independence, a huge diamond deposit was discovered along with a coalfield and a sizable copper-nickel deposit. The new government ensured that the local people were beneficiaries of this new found wealth and started ploughing money into developing the infrastructure. Consequently, I can say absolutely categorically that after independence Botswana was a much better place than it had been before. What a far cry from other African countries.

My thesis is that the ills of independent Africa are mirrored by the Northern Rhodesian / Zambian experience.

Colonial powers throughout Africa invariably sought to “develop” financial wealth for commercial interests. This was primarily done through exploiting natural resources. The colonial officials may on an individual basis have been excellent people, but the overall objective was profit.

The exploitation of the resources was accompanied by a racially divisive hierarchy. In retrospect this has caused untold grief all across the continent (except in Botswana).

Agitation for more rights inevitably began. The colonial powers tended to hang on (intentionally or not) until such time as the cost of maintaining the colony was greater than the potential profit. In 1964, the glory days of the Copperbelt were gone. The British handed over power to unprepared politicians who expected the gravy train from the mines to continue, but the gravy train was long gone and there was a rapid deterioration in the economy. This reinforced the myth that black people are incapable of governing themselves.

In Botswana, the newly independent black government was given control of the undeveloped resources (purely fortuitously) and they have done as well as any first world country would have done. There was absolutely no question that quality of life in Botswana improved after independence. The only qualification is the devastating AIDS epidemic. But here again the black government showed admirable foresight in acknowledging and addressing the problem.

Now I knew from my early days that black people were friendly and kind. But in NR this had changed. In Botswana they were friendly and kind. Not only that but I could see they were capable. The only conclusion I could reach was that the way blacks were treated in NR was terribly wrong. I had been beaten up because I was a symbol of the wrong that had been done to black Northern Rhodesians. Not a pleasant thing to come to terms with.

The effect on my life has been that I absolutely abhor prejudice. I see prejudice as having denied the people of Africa the right to live decent lives. My wonderful childhood memories are also tainted by the thought that my good fortune was being white. I also question whether the authorities really act in the interests of the populace as a whole.

I know it is 20/20 hindsight, but short sighted prejudice resulted in the fact that the NR “diaspora” has taken place. It is no accident that we white ex Africans are spread all across the world eulogizing our golden pasts, and in many instances painting what has happened in Africa as being the result of incompetence alone.

My wife (ex Rhodesian) and our two sons, both born in Botswana, left Africa in 1980 and came to Canada where I worked as a geologist until I retired in 2003.

Canada is a society which really tries to address prejudice. The government is not perfect but public debate ensures that it is held accountable. It is a good place to live, not least because values are constantly questioned and merit is generally rewarded. Prejudice does exist but it is not enshrined in the status quo.

In conclusion: I have been very fortunate in my life. I lived in Barotseland as an 11 and 12 year old. I lived in Botswana as a teenager and I now live by a lake in Canada. I do sometimes think that if colonial Africa had been more resolute about offering equal opportunity to all sections of the population, all our lives might have been different and we might never have left the places where we grew up!

 

– Mark (Buz) Trevor

 

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