Philippa and Patrick White: WHAT NORTHERN RHODESIA/ZAMBIA MEANT TO US

How We Got There

My husband – Patrick, was born and brought up in South Africa. When he left school at age 18 he hitchhiked northward hoping to get a job. This was in 1955 and he had 10 pounds in his pocket and a lot of hope in his heart. When he got to Chingola he managed to get a job with Chingola General Engineering as a boilermaker apprentice. He stayed in Chingola until 1983. Later he worked on the copper mine, got his engineering qualification by correspondence and worked as a lecturer in the mine apprentice school. He then started his own engineering business and was very successful.

Me – I grew up in Mozambique. By the time I finished university in Cape Town my parents had moved to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. I graduated in December and my course in London was only starting in September the following year. My parents encouraged me to apply for a temporary teaching post. This was the time of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Having hoped to get a posting in Salisbury, I was horrified to be offered a teaching job at Chingola High School. This was 1962. My first reaction was to turn the job down. Then my father talked me into it saying I might “meet my fate”. He said I could dine out for years describing how I taught Latin near the Congo border at the time of the trouble there with Baluba tribesmen probably waving their spears outside the classroom window. So off I went on the bus feeling pretty apprehensive and never imagining that I would live there for nearly 40 years!

 

Chingola

This was the era of the high copper prices and the huge copper bonuses for mine employees. There were dress shops, department stores and everyone drove an expensive car – such a far cry from the hardships of the 70s when we had severe shortages of fuel and everything else. The social life was quite lively for a small town and there were eligible young men and women aplenty. Expatriate Europeans did most of the jobs at that time. Many came from the UK and lots from South Africa. The schools were racially segregated and so were most of the sporting clubs and the social life.

I did indeed meet my fate and we have been married 46 years! My husband worked hard and eventually bought Chingola Engineering the company where he got his first job. He started several businesses including a cattle ranch and a joint venture with a Japanese company assembling trucks and pick-ups. Meanwhile I had several teaching jobs and had three children in between. While my husband’s company was getting set up we had lots of Japanese businessmen and technicians staying with us as the hotel at that time was pretty grim. It was quite difficult hosting them especially where food was concerned. I had no idea what Japanese people liked to eat and in those days their English wasn’t good enough for them to tell me. Later, after trips to Japan I had a better idea but by then we had moved to Lusaka and they stayed in hotels. When they came for dinner we couldn’t go wrong with fillet steak.

What I remember of those early married years was how lonely some of the mine wives were. Many were far from home and didn’[t have a mother living round the corner as they had done in England. Their husbands worked long hours and were intent on saving money to take home at the end of their contracts. We young wives had servants and pleasant homes with big gardens. But for those of us who had been born and brought up in Africa it was a lot easier than for the girls from outside. Even coping with servants was quite a challenge to many of the UK wives.

When a new open cast mine (Mimbula Fitula) was started by a French company we had 100 French families arrive to live in Chingola. I remember the children riding home on their bikes and calling each other “stupide cochon” learned from their new friends up the road. I didn’t find out what they taught the French children! We had many Filipino families too working on the mine. They were such warm and friendly people and added much to our appreciation of other cultures.

We had so many wonderful camping and fishing trips at weekends and often drove down to Lake Kariba or Salisbury too. Lake Tanganyika was one of our favourite places for short breaks. We used to fly there in a small air craft or go in the scheduled planes that left from Ndola straight to Kasaba Bay.

After independence in 1963 there was quite an upheaval in the population and in the 70s a sharp downturn in the economy. Every time we went on leave we had to take cold boxes with us. Coming home from South Africa with cheese, chocolate, spices etc etc in our hand luggage developed muscles we didn’t know we had! One year my husband was in UK and I was planning a special Christmas with relations coming from far and wide. He brought bags of flour with him and still says that the loaves of bread and mince pies I made must have cost at least 10 pounds each in overweight luggage that he had had to pay!

We always managed to get meat and fresh vegetables so we coped fine even during the worst of the shortages. We soon learned that boiling green mangoes or pawpaws with sugar and cloves gives you tasty stewed apples. I remember one Christmas wrapping the children’s presents in newspaper. Through some of the tough times and the political uncertainties what kept us going really were the wonderful Zambian people. They are so kind, friendly and helpful and with them and the marvellous climate we had a fantastic life there.

At the time of the Rhodesian freedom war Zambia suffered a lot but sometimes the restrictions became exciting. During the curfews when we were not allowed out between 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. all night parties became the norm.   I remember once being late getting to one of these. The venue was a house just behind us. We waited until our security guard was asleep and then crept out with our overnight bag. We put a ladder against the back wall and crept over to the party with much giggling and sh… ing! I don’t think the guard ever knew we weren’t at home.

Our children went to boarding school at a young age, as there were just not the facilities in Zambia that they needed. It was quite sad because a lot of close friendships were broken when it was time for boarding school. We had family in Southern Rhodesia so we sent our children there. The closure of the border between our two countries made things more and more difficult. We then moved them to South Africa. Many of their friends went to the UK. Not only were they far away from their pals but the school holidays were at different times. Many people found it very hard to send their children away and so they left to live elsewhere. It was easier for me because I had gone to school in Southern Rhodesia from Mozambique from a very young age and was used to the idea.

As an incentive to foreign mine employees and to save the money they were spending on expensive school fees outside the country, the mines started their Trust Schools in the late 70s. At first these were for expatriate children only. These were very well staffed and equipped. I worked at the Nchanga Trust School for three years and loved it. By then schools were multi racial and of course the expatriate population had reduced with local Zambians taking over many jobs. The Trust Schools are still going strong and now their pupils are for the most part black Zambians.

 

Lusaka

The head office of my husband’s company moved to Lusaka in 1983 and so did we. By this time our children were at school and university in South Africa and America. We were in Lusaka until 2000 when we retired and came to live in Knysna on the Cape coast. Never in our wildest dreams had we expected to be able to retire to South Africa. When our children were at boarding school in SA I kept quiet about it because the country was such a pariah politically. Having lived for years in an independent multi racial society the last thing we wanted was to take steps backwards to anything like a colonial environment. We had actually wanted to go and live in Zimbabwe. Thank goodness the timing was such that we could see where that country was headed. Then Nelson Mandela was set free and eventually South Africa had its first free elections.   We found ourselves in beautiful Knysna and are very happy here. It’s amazing how many people we have met who are ex Zambia or ex Zimbabwe and so we feel totally at home. As well as these new people we have several old friends who shared our early life in Chingola living in Cape Town and we often meet.

I have not said much about life in Lusaka because although we were there 17 years it was never home in the same way Chingola was. I continued teaching – at the International School, Nkwazi Trust School and the American Embassy School – and Patrick continued running his business. We had wonderful holidays all over the world and were able to give our children a very good education.

By the time we got to Lusaka there were very good private medical facilities available and life was very comfortable. One could buy a wide selection of goods imported from all over the world and there were excellent restaurants and hotels.

When I think of life in Zambia when we first lived there and how it was when we left it is truly incredible! The schools I taught in had white pupils and the Africans were in separate schools. The only Africans one met were doing menial jobs. At the time of independence there were exactly 100 black university graduates in the whole country! One’s friends at the golf club and in the organisations one belonged to were all white. By the time we left there had been a complete turnaround. Most of our fellow Rotarians were black or Asian, schools were entirely multi-racial and most of my golfing friends were black girls.   I am finding that it is taking a while for South Africans to be comfortable together but I’m sure this will come as today’s children grow up together and become colour blind.

 

Our children

Our daughter married a South African and they live in Botswana. They work for a company that owns lodges in the Okavango Delta and Namibia. In 1991 when the Zambian economy was liberalised we brought funds into the country and helped our daughter and son in law build and run a fishing lodge way up on the Zambezi River. It was situated at Ngulwana about 32 kms south of Lukulu. I could write a book about the nine years we helped them with that. In the end because it was a 6-month season (during the rains of course the river floods and the area is inaccessible) it was not financially viable and had to be sold. They had clients flying into their little airstrip from all over the world for the exciting tiger fishing and still hold 14 world records of fish caught there. Anyway I am digressing.

Our elder son married a Swedish girl whom he met when she was working for the Swedish Embassy in Lusaka. At the time he was running his own microbrewery which he built from scratch. They live in Stockholm now and our son claims that his value to the company he works for is the fact that he can always think out of the box and knows how to make a plan after growing up in Zambia! He is not afraid of making decisions and I think there is a lot in what he says. It makes me think of your remark about being able to cope with power cuts! All those camping trips when things went wrong, we got lost, the boat broke down etc etc have really made our children resourceful.

The younger son married a French girl he met at university in Florida.   He works for Reuters and is based in Paris. Interestingly when he and his brother were at university in America all their friends were from Africa – Madagascar, Ivory coast, Kenya etc

I am sure that all of us who have lived in Zambia are grateful for the rich and diverse experiences we had there.   We met people from all over the world, we were fortunate enough to travel all over the world and when you think of the country being right in the middle of the dark continent it is truly amazing what a varied and interesting life we had. So many people came for a short time and then left. I realised how lucky we were to stay there a long time when we looked up friends in Montana, USA. They had worked in Chingola for two years. He was with the mine film unit – I think it was called Malachite Films – and she taught with me at the Sacred Heart Convent. Several years after they returned to Montana we were able to visit them for a few days. They kept asking us about people they had known in Chingola. Their life there was still so vivid in their minds and still such a highlight of their lives they remembered every single thing! They had to get out the photo albums to prod our memories because we had said goodbye to so many people since they had left. and got to know so many new ones. This really brought it home to us that we lived in a very special place.

We have been back to Zambia twice in the nine years since we left. We were invited to attend the opening of the extension to my husband’s old company building. As soon as I disembarked from the plane I got that special smell and feel of the air which is just unique. Friends made us welcome but their lives have moved on and many people we knew have retired and left as we did. Another time we were invited to the 70th birthday of a friend we had known for years and years. He and his wife retired to England and booked us all into the new Zambezi Sun Hotel which replaced the Intercontinental Mosi-oa-Tunya that used to be at the Victoria Falls. It is really good and the more luxurious Royal Livingstone next door is gorgeous. Zambia’s tourism has increased and improved in leaps and bounds as poor Zimbabwe’s has faltered and all but died. I think we will only go back to Zambia again as tourists and visit some of the new lodges in the game parks.   We have a new home now and can reminisce about our earlier life with pleasure. We always knew that Zambia was not a country for older European people and that we would be leaving when we stopped working.   Though there are good private clinics one still has to fly to South Africa for hospital treatment and quite frankly we were getting tired of always being the oldest people at the party! Most people with our kind of back-ground are in Zambia to do a job on contract and then to leave so one’s social life is very much tied up with one’s occupation and position in the business world. Here in Knysna we live in an estate with mostly retired people, all of whom have come from elsewhere and we have made some valuable friendships. It is still a novelty too to live by the sea after all those years inland!

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