We were well placed for Bim to haunt the Passenger Department of the Crown Agents trying to get us a booking. He was offered a single passage but turned it down as we felt we just could not bear the possibility of another long separation. It was due to a “tip-off” from a sympathetic clerk that we eventually heard that there was accommodation on the “Carnarvon Castle” and we felt most fortunate in getting berths on it. It sailed from Southampton at the end of September 1946, carrying us to a new life.
The “Carnarvon Castle” had been a troopship in the war and had not yet been re-converted. Conditions were atrocious and it was rightly known as “the Belsen ship”. The passenger service to South Africa had only just been re-established and there was an enormous backlog of waiting passengers, so we were crammed in and the ship was horribly overcrowded. The two boys and I were in a cabin with 11 other women and children -no curtains, no privacy, and I felt sorry for the two very young wives each with a three-month old baby who were obviously embarrassed at having to breast-feed in these circumstances. Bim was in a large dormitory of 80 men -as far as I remember in 3-tier bunks. The sexes were rigorously segregated as much as possible -Bim had to eat in one cafeteria and we ate in another. The food was dished out all at once in partitioned metal trays so there was the daily problem: whether to have one’s soup hot and ice-cream melting, or to start with ice-cream and have lukewarm soup.
After a day or two, husbands were banned from the cabin section where the women slept. In my cabin a distraught young woman with a baby and two small children used to put the two older children out into the corridor with their clothes where her husband was waiting to dress them, and other husbands were similarly engaged along the corridors. But unbelievably some of the single women objected to men being allowed there -men who might eye them lasciviously as they made their way to the ablutions -although none of the men would have had any thoughts beyond getting their children dressed in time for breakfast. So the harsh order went forth. No men to be allowed near the cabins, and this caused a lot of discontent. Bim said that on his troopship on the way back from India a small top deck was unlit at night and by tacit consent this was reserved for the few married couples on board who were thus able to enjoy each other’s company with a modicum of privacy.
But on the “Carnarvon Castle” every inch was mercilessly illuminated and again this caused a lot of discontent. I must mention however that love will find a way, and we firmly believed that our youngest son was conceived on board!
We managed to work out a fairly tolerable daily routine. Oliver acted as our intermediary as he could go into the men’s dormitory in the morning and arrange when and where we would meet after breakfast, and also he could bring me a mug of tea on the way back. There were no deck-chairs and not nearly enough chairs in the lounges, so everybody took their life-jackets and a blanket up on deck although the authorities constantly and unsuccessfully tried to stop this. Oliver used to gobble his breakfast and hurry on deck laden with a blanket, and hope to be in time to “bag” one of the coveted positions, which was the top of one of the lockers in which equipment was stored. Here we could sit in comparative comfort and be together and read and play games and talk. I can remember reading “Winnie the Pooh” to the boys and Nicky laughing so much he nearly fell off the locker.
There was yet another hardship -it was a “dry” ship, so one could not even find solace in a noggin. We noticed one man who was always carrying a large attache case, which at first we assumed held important documents. But one evening we saw him in a corner of the lounge open the Case and it was stacked with bottles of whisky and gin, and we used to watch him every evening drinking furtively and rather guiltily by himself to the envy of all’.
But all bad things come to an end and at last the day dawned when land was sighted. And what a wonderful sight it was – Table Mountain rising apparently out of the sea in 3,000 feet of majesty. As we drew closer we could see the town sprawled at its feet and on down to the sea. In those days the Docks were just beyond the Railway Station and the harbour where we berthed is now part of the Foreshore and Heerengracht.
Trains were drawn up on the other side of the quay. But first we had to endure the inevitable delays and frustrations of getting ashore, and passengers for the Rhodesia train were the last to be allowed to disembark. Our tickets were waiting for us and a telegram instructing us to proceed to Mazabuka. It was mysteriously signed. Chevetof. Bim had never heard of him and we wondered what a Russian was doing in the Colonial Veterinary Service. How we laughed about this later on when_we discovered that Chevetof stood for Chief Veterinary Officer!
After the spartan and overcrowded arrangements on the “Carnarvon Castle” the train was unbelievable bliss. We were shown to a four-berth compartment all to ourselves – yes all to ourselves. In a coupe in our coach we saw one of the young mothers who had been in my cabin and she was literally crying with happiness at being alone with her baby. No time to linger, but off to the dining saloon for lunch. We gasped in delighted surprise at the sight of the dining saloon with its crisp white table cloths and gleaming cutlery and glasses and at long last we sat down together for a delicious meal washed down with a bottle of Nederberg Riesling. We had arrived. Our new life was beginning.
It was late afternoon when the train with its two engines drew out of Cape Town and made its way across the Cape Flats to the Hex River Mountains. The line had not yet been electrified and our progress was laboured. I have since made that journey many times and I am always overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains, and I have never tired of marveling at the ingenuity of the engineers who found a way zigzagging up to the endless featureless miles of the Karoo.
I forget if we spent two or three nights on the train before getting to Bulawayo where South African Railways ended and Rhodesia Railways began.
We had to wait several hours for our train and we debated whether to have a bath, as to our amusement there were bathrooms on the station. Instead we wandered outside and I had my first unforgettable sight of jacaranda trees in full blossom. On Rhodesia Railways the tempo slowed down. I believe the average speed was something like 17 m.p.h.! Owing I suppose to manpower shortages caused by the war the dining-car was staffed by tough-looking women.
In the morning we were woken by a woman attendant rattling on the door and offering us coffee, an African orderly staggered behind her with the biggest coffee-pot I have ever seen, but the coffee was hot and good. We found our pillows covered in large gritty black smuts and of course our hair was filthy, and we learnt that coal from Wankie Colliery was notorious for its smut-producing abilities. It was a very hot journey, especially in the vicinity of Wankie where the jokers say you must drink your tea as soon as you pour it or it will get too hot to drink. We reached Mazabuka about 6 a.m., having unfortunately crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge in the dark. Our luggage was unloaded from the van, the train moved on and we were alone on the station with no sign of a porter nor of anyone to meet us. We stood dejectedly for a few minutes wondering what to do. Then a truck drove up and a woman jumped out. She looked at us and shrieked: “Oh, my God, not you!” This turned out to be our Director’s wife, also a Vet. She had been a fellow student of Bim’s at the Veterinary College in London but not a friend, and to my frustration Bim was too discreet ever to tell me the reason. The Director was away on tour so we were driven to their Guest House where we were to stay until accommodation could be found for us.
So we were driven to their house and lumped off. The cook was told to show us our quarters and get us what we wanted and Mrs H. drove off with a casual wave of her hand. We gathered that we were to sleep in the adjoining Guest House and eat in the house. Although we stayed there for nearly a week we scarcely saw our hostess. She never had a meal with us and appeared to spend her non-working time at the Club, yet she never offered to take us there nor did she introduce us to anybody. The cook did his best, which consisted every day of fried fresh bream from the Kafue river with chips and tinned peas, followed by tinned pears and custard.
We discovered that none of the houses had indoor sanitation, instead there was a small brick shed near the bathroom door, known as the Piccaninny Kya, or P.K. It contained a bucket with a wooden seat above it and a tray of sand with a shovel on the floor. Early every morning the “bucket boys” went round emptying all the buckets. The bath in the guest house was a large and rather rough cement structure, dark grey in colour, and the houseboy would fill it with buckets of water carried in from an outside boiler. By the dim light 0f a hurricane lamp its depths looked menacing and Nicky was terrified of it and could hardly be persuaded to have a bath.
Mazabuka is a bad place for ants of all varieties and we soon found that a colony of viciously-biting ants had made their base outside the door of the P.K. They moved very rapidly and one’s feet and legs would be covered in a few seconds, so I used to run full tilt and sit with my feet dangling and hoping not to get bitten too badly!
To return, however, to our first morning in Mazabuka. Before long the Deputy Director, Teddy Fern, came round and made us feel welcome. He was kind and friendly and cheered our rather drooping spirits. He said that there was no house immediately available but he was getting one cleaned out which had been empty £or some months, and he was trying to get some furniture together. Then he took Bim off to show him round the Research Station, so the two boys ant I were left to our own meagre devices.
In the next few days one or two wives came round and invited me for tea when I met other wives, and we were also asked out for sundowners. One day, I made a stupid “faux pas”, I had been asked out to tea so I arrived at 4 p.m. “What happened to you this morning?” my hostess asked in a rather annoyed tone. “I thought you asked me to tea,” I replied. “Yes, I aid. Morning tea, of course.” So in future I carefully asked what time.
I made a similarly embarrassing mistake years later when we were in Botswana. We had been asked to a party “next Friday”. As soon as we arrived we realised something was wrong -our host was in shorts and an open-necked shirt drinking beer and his wife was equally casually dressed. They looked rather surprised to see us and when we said we thought we had been invited to their party they burst out laughing and said: “Oh yes, but it’s not this Friday, it’s next Friday.” I myself would have said “Friday week”, but this is the usual phraseology with South Africans.
A day or two after our arrival in Mazabuka we were delighted when Teddy drove us to see our house. It was very isolated and stood in a jungle of weeds and overgrown shrubs. The rooms were large , high-ceilinged and gloomy with a minimum of ugly furniture. In the Colonial Service one was provided with basic “hard furniture” including beds and mattresses. When a house fell empty it was often the unattractive practice of many civil servants to go in and exchange their shabbiest items for better ones from the empty house, and also to dig up the choicest plants from the garden, so the incoming tenant would find stained mattresses, cigarette burns and beer-ring marks on the tables and a largely barren garden. The standard sitting-room furniture consisted of a coffee-table, a drinks cupboard, a wooden settee and three or four morris chairs, all with riempie seats and very uncomfortable without cushions. (Riempies are thin strips of hide.)
Of course we possessed no rugs or cushions or curtains to brighten things up. So Teddy took us to the local tailor who speedily made us cushions stuffed with locally-grown kapok. As I had virtually no money I had to have them covered in the cheapest material -which incidentally lasted for years. We could not afford curtains, but we bought a few rush mats for the vast expanses of polished red cement floors. Teddy said he enjoyed watching my face when he took me into the village store and I saw rows and rows of tinned meat, fruit and vegetables, and none of it on points or rationed as it was in England. The war hardly seemed to have affected the people in Mazabuka and I remember listening in amazement as I was told of the hardships they had had to endure -“Do you how, there wasn’t a tin of stoep polish to be had for months.”
Teddy also helped me engage servants -a cook,-two houseboys and a garden boy. Although we had no garden worth cultivating a garden boy was essential to chop wood, polish the cement floors and carry messages.
Cooking was done on a wood-burning Dover stove which needed constant feeding. There was no electricity and we were lent an o1d paraffin fridge and a few hurricane lamps and I bought lots of candles. Mazabuka is a very hot place – and the month was October which, because of the heat, was known as suicide month. Every morning I had to take the candles out of the empty bottles which served us as candlesticks and lie them flat, as otherwise during the day they would gracefully curl over in the heat and form an inverted U .
I was not happy for the few weeks we were in Mazabuka. Bim was away two or three nights a week getting to know the district and the conditions of work, and the children had settled in at the little local school. So I was lonely and often frightened, especially at night, for I could not help remembering our time on the troop ship going to Jamaica and I still tended to judge all those with black skins as a potential menace.
One day Bim came back with the good news that we were being posted to Livingstone for three or four months whilst the Vet there was on overseas leave. I looked forward to the move. I was not feeling well and every evening was being terribly sick. This was most embarrassing, for people were giving us goodbye parties and either I had to refuse to go which gave offence, or rush out to the unattractive P.K. and be sick. So I hoped that Livingstone would agree with me more than Mazabuka.
Livingstone was formerly the capital of Northern Rhodesia before Lusaka was built. It is about eight miles from the Victoria Falls and Southern Rhodesia was just over the bridge. We arrived there with high hopes and were met at the railway station by the very competent Senior Livestock Officer Arthur Robey, whose house was next door to ours on the far northern edge of the town where the tarmac ended and the sand began. Alas, we soon discovered the drawbacks of the house. It was what was known as a
Moroccan type, with very low ceilings and small steel-framed windows which opened inwards and both Bim and Nicky nearly concussed themselves at different times on their sharp edges. The mosquito frames were rigid and of such thick mesh that no air seemed ever able to get in.
Livingstone was if anything hotter than Mazabuka, the rains were late and the hot heavy atmosphere was very oppressive. One of the departmental vehicles was a splendid though rather elderly Studebaker, and we were allowed to have the use of it for ourselves by paying so much a mile. This made our visit to theVictoria Falls quite expensive, but often we could work in a trip somewhere combined with an official visit. Oh, what can I say about the Falls that has not been said many times by many others? So I will not try and only say that they are utterly fantastic and wonderful. It was absolute bliss to leave the hot dusty baked surroundings of Livingstone and drive to the cool green damp shade of the Rain Forest and listen to the roar of the Falls. On our first trip we walked along the Northern Rhodesian bank almost too overwhelmed by the majesty to speak. Eventually I said to the children: “Isn’t it simply marvellous?”
But Nicky wasn’t admiring the Falls, he was walking along looking intently at the path. Suddenly he gave an excited yelp, “I’ve found a new bottle-top, one I haven’t got!”
This was for him far more exciting.
Our first Christmas in Africa was rather a disaster. All went well at first. Granny’s parcel had arrived in time and the children enjoyed their presents. We had planned to have our Christmas meal in the evening as it was cooler and we had invited a fellow Vet who was passing through on his return from leave. I had bought a large leg of pork and explained to Dennis the cook just what to do. We were merrily imbibing gin and tonic and it was getting darker when I realised that there were no sounds coming from the kitchen and it was in darkness. I hurried along the passage and in the dark stumbled over a body – this was the cool in a drunken stupor and impossible to rouse. I shouted for the garden boy to come and light the fire. Luckily he was there and he said he thought he understood the oven on the Dover stove and he certainly knew how to cook the vegetables.
So we sat and waited, and sat and drank, and eventually ate a partially raw and very tough leg of pork. Luckily the plum pudding I had made was delicious and there were lashings of brandy butter. However, I learnt my lesson, and subsequently we always had our Christmas meal at lunch-time so the staff could get as drunk as they liked afterwards!
As I have already mentioned, we were living in a “leave” house for the Vet whose place Bim was taking, so luckily we had the use of his fridge. We had brought Dennis the cook and Tembo one of the houseboys down with us and we inherited the garden boy, so we settled in relatively easily. There was a large abattoir in Livingstone and two or three times a week Bim had to be down there between 4.30 and 5 a.m. to inspect the meat. The abattoir was a happy hunting-ground for mosquitoes and very soon Bim went down with a virulent attack of malaria. Of course we all slept under mosquito nets and had the rooms sprayed every evening, and duly took our daily Paludrine tablets, but obviously the mosquitoes at the abattoir were a more lethal breed. Poor Bim alternated between bouts of high fever and cold shivering sweats, and for several days Tembo and I were constantly having to change his wringing wet sheets. It was, I later realised, a fairly normal though severe attack but it was most alarming for me in my inexperience. And just as he was recovering I went down with malaria and sweated and shivered and felt very sorry for myself. We were fortunate in having a kind and reassuring doctor. Then Bim got a cut on his finger which became infected, and as usual he reacted badly to the anti-tetanus injection so Dr. Clark put him into hospital for a few days. The hospital was about a mile from our house but I managed to borrow a bicycle from the Veterinary Office, it was a man’s model of course and with such a big frame that I couldn’t reach the saddle. But I used to wobble along uncomfortably down the hot sandy lane twice a day to see Bim during visiting hours. One day Dr .Clark saw me and told me I ought not to be riding a bike so I said that it was better than walking. Then he asked me to go into his office where he asked me a few questions and then said he would like to examine me. I had stopped being sick soon after getting to Livingstone and was feeling quite well, so I was rather mystified. A few minutes later I was dumbfounded.
“You’re pregnant,” he said.
“I can’t be,” I replied.
I explained to him that some two years earlier I had been given a course of Deep X-Ray treatment at the Middlesex Hospital in the hopes of arresting the spondylitis ankylo-poetica which had been crippling me for months. It was carefully explained to me that, as the area to be treated in my spine was directly above my ovaries, this would unfortunately make me sterile and indeed I had not had my period ever since. Well, somehow or other something had survived. I was going to have a baby, probably early in July. I was both flabbergasted and delighted. No more bicycling, the doctor said, but luckily Bim came home the next day and we were able to think about the changes this baby would make to our lives. We had always wanted to have four children but had resigned ourselves to two, and now it would be three!
Meanwhile the hot weather continued. Rain clouds would assemble, only to disperse with a few rumbles of thunder. Before long, however, compensation came our way. Some two or three hours drive by truck from Livingstone, mostly along rough bumpy tracks through the thick bush, one came to a large, grassy clearing on the banks of the Zambesi, in the middle of which stood a little house. This was Kasungula. A unique spot, for on the opposite
bank lay the Caprivi Strip bordered on the south by Southern Rhodesia and on the north by Bechuanaland. This was an important crossing-place for cattle. The cattle all had to be inspected, so there was a Veterinary house and a motor launch in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.
I can’t remember how many times we stayed at Kasungula, but they were absolutely magical interludes and moreover we were being paid for doing something so enjoyable ~ It was fascinating to watch the cattle crossing the mighty river. There were two very long dug-out canoes and the cattle were driven into the water and fastened by their long curving horns to the sides of the dug-outs. Then with much splashing and shouting to keep the crocodiles away the herd-boys paddled the canoes across with the cattle swimming beside them. It looked very makeshift and haphazard but no beast ever got drowned nor did any crocodile ever appear.
Yet crocodiles abounded. We loved going for little jaunts in the launch when we would see crocodiles basking on the banks, utterly still and apparently asleep, yet at our approach they would swiftly slide into the river and disappear. There were plenty of hippos, snorting and diving and re-appearing with just their eyes and their huge nostrils showing out of the water. Our Veterinary Messenger had hair-raising stories to tell of hippos surfacing under canoes and overturning them, so I always felt slightly nervous. Bim had never before operated a motor boat. It had a two-stroke engine at the back which required quite a knack to start by pulling the rope. For some reason it was easier to start when in reverse.
So on our first trip, off we started at what seemed a tremendous speed going backwards and Bim couldn’t get it out of reverse! The Messenger was trying to steer, Bim was struggling with the gears, and we were all giggling hysterically at our unorthodox style of progress. Then happily Bim mastered the system and we were able to advance normally. We often laughed when we remembered this contretemps.
As well as the attractions of the Victoria Falls and Kasungula there was a 3OO-acre Game Park just outside the town, stocked with zebra, giraffe, buffalo, warthogs and many varieties of buck. At the car-park by the Falls there were quantities of baboons, inquisitive and insolent. As a newcomer to Africa I was greatly amused by their antics but later I came to realise what a nuisance they are, and even at times a danger .
Hippos used to come out of the Zambesi at night to forage for food. One evening we had treated ourselves to dinner at the splendidly colonial Victoria Falls Hotel which was just over the bridge in Southern Rhodesia.
On the way home, pleasantly bibulous, Bim suddenly slammed on the brakes.
“What the …” I began to exclaim.
Then looking ahead in the light of the rather poor headlights I saw two vast grey shapes blocking the road. These slowly moved and I realised it was two hippo ambling across the road and quite unconcerned by us.
Soon after our arrival in Livingstone the two boys started school. The school was right at the other end of town, so they were among the first to board the school bus every morning which meant a very early start for them and nearly an hour in the bus as it meandered around picking up children. One day Bim got an agitated phone call from the Headmaster.
Would he come round at once as Nicholas had threatened to kill his teacher!
What a storm in a tea-cup! It was a ridiculous case of misunderstanding a child’s mind. Nicky had found a rusty old pen-knife in the garden from which he refused to be parted, and as it was hopelessly blunt we allowed him to keep it. He was brandishing it proudly in class when his teacher ordered him to bring it to her so that she could confiscate it. Apparently Nicky strode up to her desk waving his knife and shouting: “This is my knife and I’m going to kill you.”
The silly woman panicked and ran out of the room – away from a little boy not quite six years old. Bim felt he must apologise and all was smoothed over. Need I say that we did not punish Nicky. I must admit he was a difficult child. He had to have his tonsils out a few weeks later and in those days it was unheard of for parents to be allowed to stay with their children and the unhappy little boy tried to find his clothes and run back home. He struggled and fought and they had a dreadful time with him and of course it was most upsetting for us when we heard about it.
I cannot leave my account of our time in Livingstone without describing going to the cinema. Known as “the Bioscope” one was expected to dress up as if for a sundowner party. To go there, men had to wear ties and shorts were definitely frowned upon. An essential piece of equipment was a pillowcase into which you put your feet to serve as some protection against mosquitoes! The floor was steeply raked and there was a large brick in front of every seat on which to put your feet (enclosed in pillowcase) as otherwise you would slide forward.
We knew that Livingstone was only a temporary stop-over for us and we found it difficult to settle, but at last we got the longer-for news of our posting. We were to go to Abercorn in the far corner of the Northern Province. We learnt that Abercorn was about 550 miles from the nearest railway station at Broken Hill, and Broken Hill was 400 miles from Livingstone, so we had quite a journey ahead of us. We sent our heavy luggage on in advance by lorry while we went by train to Broken Hill and from there it was arranged that we would be driven by Stanley Childs of the Agricultural Department. As well as ourselves and our luggage we were encumbered by two kittens which Nicky had found semi-wild in the garden at Mazabuka and from which he refused to be parted.
We had to stop over in Broken Hill in the Hotel right next to the Railway Station, and what an experience that was. I cannot remember the exact times, but the Up train arrived in Broken Hill soon after midnight and the Down train, arrived about an hour later. Not only was there a lot of noise and bustle in the hotel, but usually the unfortunate arrivals on the Down train had to sleep in the beds recently vacated by those departing on the Up train, and of course in their sheets!
Most men on their own had to sleep in a dormitory and were constantly woken during the night by the night porter rousing passengers or showing in new arrivals. We four were put into one room but with only one bed so we had to work out a head-to-toe sleeping arrangement -and how Oliver kicked about!
To have a bath one had to cross a courtyard and wait while a houseboy poured cans of hot water into the bath, the water having been heated in an outside boiler.
I was very shocked at the number of drunks wandering about and even lying in the corridor, and to get to our room after dinner we literally had to pick our way carefully to avoid stepping on recumbent drunks!
The journey to Abercorn took four days. We crammed into Mr. Childs’ vanette and I feel he had a really thankless task though he never showed it and I’m afraid we took it all completely for granted. Our first night stop was at Mkushi River, 122 miles from Broken Hill, where there was a surprisingly comfortable Rest House right on the river. Next day we did a long hot and dusty 196 miles to the Crested Crane Hotel at Mpika which, in an unpretentious way, was one of the nicest hotels in Northern Rhodesia. It was an important road junction where the road forked right to the border at Tunduma and on into Tanganyika. Mpika was also known as district in which there were many lions and the landlord had many hair-raising lion stories .
On the third day it was only about 135 miles to Kasama, the headquarters of the Northern Province, but first we had to cross the wide Chambesi River. There was no bridge in those days, just a pontoon which was a wide wooden platform lashed on to 44-gallon drums for buoyancy and it was winched across the river by stout cables. Although it seemed very alarming to a newcomer like me it was actually both safe and effective, though rather slow.
We were very travel-weary by the fourth day for the final 120 miles to Abercorn. I know these distances sound laughably small, but an average speed of 20 to 25 m.p.h. was all that one could expect on those rough dirt roads, which were either muddy and slippery and indeed often impassable in the rains, or deeply rutted and corrugated which made for anything but a comfortable ride.
We drove into Abercorn in the late afternoon and as soon as we had booked into the little hotel we decided to stretch our le8s and walk through the village. After the heat and dust and dryness of Livingstone it was magically green and cool, and when next morning I was shown over our house I felt sure I could be happy there.
Abercorn is 5,600 feet above sea-level and 10 degrees south of the equator, which means it never gets either very hot nor very cold, and it has an average rainfall of 44 inches between November and April. When we went there the European population was reputed to be 39 and if I could not sleep at night I sometimes tried to count the inhabitants but could never get beyond 32!
Our house was the first that one came to in the village and was about 200 yards from its nearest neighbour. Opposite the house was a stone memorial to commemorate the spot where the German General von Lettow Vorbeck had surrendered in 1918, and in the little cemetery at the other end of the village there was a cluster of graves of German soldiers which were maintained by the War Graves Commission. Later we found there had been quite a lot of fighting and skirmishing in the region and a Scottish Mission station eighty miles away had been commandeered as the local German headquarters, although the missionaries had not been molested in any way and had been allowed to carryon their work. As a reminder of the Second World War there was a large Polish Camp on the outskirts of Abercorn to accommodate some of the many refugees from that unhappy country. It was administered by an elderly British Colonel, but I never knew much about it nor how the inmates lived.
To return to our own affairs. As soon as our luggage arrived we moved into our house. We took over from Jack Lord, a Senior Livestock Officer who was retiring and were lucky enough to be able to buy his paraffin fridge .We had been advised to place a large grocery order with McMurgas – a mail order firm in Kalomo over 800 miles away ! It stocked just about everything and was very efficient, although I had one disaster when a dozen cartons of Vim and a huge packet of custard powder got crushed together and hopelessly mixed. There was a store in the village, the African Lakes Corporation, or ALC, which carried a wide range of goods but of course it was dependent for its supplies on the weekly mail lorry from Broken Hill run by Thatcher & Hobson. As I have already mentioned, the roads were often impassable for long periods during the rainy season and no lorries could get through, so ALC frequently ran out of such essentials as flour, sugar, butter and so on which made housekeeping very tricky unless one kept a copiously-stocked store cupboard. Once there was no flour for several weeks and we all swapped extraordinary recipes for making bread without flour, none of which was satisfactory. I now quote from an article I wrote in 1949:
“We live nearly 600 miles from the railway and groceries have to come on the weekly mail lorry. It is heart-breaking comparing prices with English ones. Flour and sugar are 9d. a lb, bacon and butter 3s. 8d., lard 2s. 6d., Petrol 4s. 1d. a gallon and paraffin 3s.10d. etc.
Breakfast cereals are 1s. 6d. a packet and my family consumes three a week. When the mail lorry arrives on Fridays we hurry to ask the store-keeper: Anything exciting? Usually to be told that the invoices have been mislaid so the goods cannot be put on sale. Meanwhile we are tantalised with promises of kettles, envelopes, shoe polish, children’s socks and other long-desired commodities. Oh, what unbelievable prices. But remember Bim’s salary was only £60 a month.”
Yes, conditions were primitive. No electricity and no running water. I had to learn about Aladdin lamps with their fragile mantles, and pressure lamps which had to be pre-heated, or primed, by pouring methylated spirit into a sort of saucer below the globe and lighting it, then when it had flamed for several seconds one had to judge the critical moment to pump vigorously and be rewarded by a brilliant light. As we were so near the equator darkness fell astonishingly quickly – in fact in the time it took for the meths to burn away. It was most dramatic.
Our water had to be brought about a mile up a steep hill from the beautiful Lake Chila. This Lake was a great amenity and possessed two outstanding qualities – no crocodiles and no bilharzia so one could bathe in it in safety.
Most houses had to depend on the Government lorry to bring their water, but the Veterinary Department was lucky as it had a departmental ox-cart drawn by two oxen. The cart could take two 44-gallon drums and in the dry season it used to trundle slowly up to us once, or occasionally twice, a day bringing us the lovely pure water from the Lake.
And in some amazing way we managed on 88 gallons of water a day, for our family of four , our cook, our houseboy and our garden boy plus their families who all lived in little houses at the end of our garden. In the kitchen the washing-up water was saved and put on the garden, and our cook washed the clothes on a table in the vegetable garden throwing the water on the vegetables, and we managed to grow lovely peas, beans and carrots. Our bath-water ran out into a 44-gallon drum buried outside with a lid on top and the garden boy baled it out for the flower garden. I should mention that we all used the same bath-water – me first, followed by Bim, then the two children. In the rainy season we had plenty of water caught off the roof as we had 44-gallon drums under the drain-pipes at each corner of the house. (It was a red corrugated iron roof.)
There was obviously no indoor sanitation, just the old-fashioned bucket in the little P.K. just beyond the outside door in the bathroom. Cooking was done on a wood-burning Dover stove with a Primus for emergencies. Firewood, or “kuni”, was in abundance and the ox-cart kept us well supplied.
The garden-boy spent much of his time chopping the wood into billets as the fire had to be fed more or less continuously.
Before we could move into the house we had to engage servants. Everybody had servants of course, all were male except for nurse-maids. I think we were lucky with ours as they stayed wi th us for all our 5½ years in Abercorn. Lameck the cook was a splendid person who bossed everybody and was most reliable. He had a wizened face and sad deep-set eyes and bore an uncanny resemblance to the gorilla in London Zoo. He was a Moslem and had four wives, the two eldest lived away in his village and cultivated his land, the other two lived in our compound. Yet in spite of this he was frequently summoned to the Native Court on charges of what were called “adultery!”
Our garden boy, Johnnie, was in a perpetual daze, though amiable and willing, for he spent most of his wages on dagga which he smoked continuously.
The houseboy, Gimian, was young, tall and good-looking and was just out of prison for theft. We were advised not to engage him with his record but we never regretted it. Actually he was only interested in stealing money so we always took good care to keep our cash carefully locked up. Apart from this one weakness he was an excellent servant. When, as often happened, a visitor turned up unexpectedly, Gimian on his own initiative would get the sheets and towels out of the linen cupboard and make the spare-room ready.
The servants as I have said lived at the back of our “stand” and they got basic rations every week of mealie-meal, meat, sugar, salt and soap, and of course they were provided with uniforms. So although their wages sounded low they lived free and had a patch of garden to grow their vegetables.
Abercorn is 26 miles from the tip of Lake Tanganyika and the road drops 2,600 feet in that distance to the little port of Mpulungu.
Half way down on the right was a sign saying: To LMS Station. Although I knew full well that this meant London Missionary Society, my foolish heart always gave a lurch of nostalgia, for to me this could only mean London Midland & Scottish!
On the Lake was a steamer the Liemba, which called every three weeks and brought in petrol, paraffin, salt and beer. It made a jolly outing to drive down to Mpulungu and sit on deck in the shade of an awning drinking cold beer -which was a very costly drink in Abercorn.
Later on there was a plane service once a week, with a Dakota from Tabora to Lusaka and calling at Abercorn and Kasama. When one was expecting a visitor from “the line of rail” he would usually be asked to bring along newspapers, also a loaf of shop bread as we all got so tired of our own home-baked variety.
The nearest European hospital was in Kasama which, although only 120 miles away, meant a 4 or 5 hour drive. Abercorn had a large African Hospital with a Scottish Doctor and two European Nursing Sisters but it had no facilities for Europeans. I was very unwilling to go to Kasama and wait, possibly several weeks, for the baby to arrive. Jack Meredith the Doctor was equally unwilling for me to have the baby at home but he was over-persuaded by Eve and Paddy, the two very experienced Nursing Sisters. And the baby was late. Day after day went by and we were all getting worried. At last, early in the morning of 29th July about 2 a.m. my pains started. Then all was bustle and activity. Bim roused the servants and the garden-boy lit the fire while Lameck hurried to fetch the Irish nurse, Paddy, who was our nearest neighbour. She sent an orderly to tell Eve who was on night duty at the Hospital down the hill. Meanwhile Bim lit all the lamps and put water on to boil on our two Primus stoves. As soon as it was light our Livestock Officer was roused to collect Oliver and Nicholas and take them to stay with some good friends, the Laskis, who lived above Mpulungu. Dr Meredith arrived next, and finally, just before 11 a.m. the baby was born –another boy, Mark, weighing 9½ lbs .
Nobody could remember when another European baby had been born in Abercorn and Mark’s arrival caused great excitement and interest. For the next few days, as well as callers, we received gifts of cakes, jellies, trifles, etc. in profusion. In those days one remained in bed for at least a week after the birth of a baby, so Paddy would come in early every morning to bathe the baby, then he lay all day in his pram by the side of my bed while she came in again at lunch-time and in the evening.
On the fourth day there was a huge bush fire blowing ever closer to us – our house was surrounded by elephant grass five or six feet high. I could hear the fire crackling and smell the smoke and I got very agitated, so Bim and Paddy helped me out of bed and on to the verandah -although I was convinced that my insides would fall out at having to walk so soon!
However, I could then see for myself that there was no danger as the wind was blowing the £ire in a line parallel to the house.
Several weeks later we had Mark christened. There was no clergyman in the village but a missionary friend offciated, and afterwards we gave a tea-party to which we invited all Abercorn and many of the outlying “settlers”. Our little house was bursting at the seams as everybody came and most of them brought bunches of flowers so that I soon ran out of containers for them.
It was a lovely party.
Finally, I give Nicky’s Comment when told by Mrs Laski that he had “a dear little baby brother”.
“I’d rather have had a baby rabbit,” was his reply!
– Betty Trevor