Robert & Connie McChesney’s Life In Northern Rhodesia/Zambia and After

In March 1956, at the age of 28, I left my home in Liverpool and travelled to Africa ‘on spec.’ having read in publicity produced by the Federal Government of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that there were opportunities for work in the Rhodesias. After an apprenticeship in U.K I had had numerous jobs in electrical engineering including three years at sea. I took the train from Cape Town to Bulawayo where I worked for a short while to help out with expenses. The experience was quite an adventure. I met people and gained a lot of information about the two Rhodesias, particularly on the political situation. Most importantly I learnt that S.Rhodesia was not governed from Whitehall whereas N. Rhodesia was.

I managed to get a lift with a caravan salesman who was going to the Copperbelt and once there I started to look for work; which I discovered was not easy. Eventually I found my way to N’dola and the Public Works Department of the Northern Rhodesia Government where I was told there was a position available but I would have to return to Lusaka for interview. This I did and then after some mental gymnastics was offered the post of Electrical Works Supervisor in Kitwe.

But before I could relieve the Supervisor in Kitwe I had to spend two months in the office in Lusaka, something I did not relish, and as accommodation was at a premium I was lucky enough to lodge with friends I had made on the ship but finally, after some negotiations on my part, I was transferred to Kitwe where I found myself in a small office in charge of African artisans (very different from S. Rhodesia where Africans were not allowed to train as tradesmen.) I was also responsible for electrical works in Chingola, Mufulira and Bancroft so I was provided with a vehicle, which was a tool of the job.

I was surprised and delighted to be housed in Edinburgh House in Kitwe. Although nominally a hostel it was newly built and could have passed for a five star hotel.
Connie arrived at the same hostel in May 1957, shortly before her 22nd birthday, having been appointed as a teacher in Prince Charles School in N’kana. Her journey to the Copperbelt had been far more comfortable than mine having been, as she puts it, ‘feather bedded’ courtesy of the Federal Government. In December 1957 we were married in the Anglican Church in Kitwe. In the newly formed Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland we thought, naively, that we had a great future ahead of us.

In August 1959 I was due for my first overseas leave and we flew from N’dola to London. In those days the flight took 23 hours on a Hunting Clan Viscount. There were unlimited drinks on board but no meals so we landed at Entebbe for tea, Khartoum for dinner and Rome for breakfast.

That summer was one of the hottest Britain had known for a long time and we made the most of it, travelling up and down the country and visiting old haunts in our brand new Morris Minor Traveller which I bought on ‘overseas delivery’ terms which meant it was free of Purchase Tax. Then in the January of 1960 we sailed for Cape Town aboard the Durban Castle. We made a leisurely journey up through South Africa and Southern Rhodesia and finally arrived in Lusaka where I called at the Establishments Office to be given my new posting.
Since I could only be posted where there was an electricity supply I fully expected to be allocated the Copperbelt again or a line-of-rail town. I was astonished when Eric Cottell, the Establishments Officer told me I had been allocated Mongu. I thought there had been a mistake but he said I was wanted there for the Royal visit. Connie decided it was a joke. But no. A small power station had recently been installed in this tiny Protectorate of the British Empire in the middle of the Barotse flood plain and I was to relieve the man who had been sent to start on the reticulation of the Government buildings, not only in Mongu but anywhere that was likely to have an electricity supply in the future i.e. the whole of Barotseland. Special funds had been allocated for electrical works for the Queen Mother’s visit in May 1960.

Barotseland was a great place if you were interested in hunting, shooting and fishing. It was also the place in which you could study the old Africa, its ways and its people.
I loved game fishing and Connie became interested in the sport purely for dietary reasons as freshly caught bream was a great supplement to the tinned and dried foodstuffs we had to have delivered from Lusaka every six weeks or so: a rather erratic supply system as it depended on the state of the roads which could be under water for long periods of time.
Connie was lucky enough to have a teaching post at the 41 pupil European school which spared her the endless tea and coffee parties which were the lot of many colonial wives.
We lived in an old BSA Company house that was basically a living room, dining room and bedroom (with dressing room!) all surrounded by gauzed-in sleeping porches. The bathroom had the only shower in Mongu. The lean-to kitchen had the usual ‘tin’ roof which with the inevitable Black Monster cooking range made the room as hot as a blast furnace. Connie did all the cooking, including the bread making and some of our finest meals were produced in that kitchen.

Mongu was a unique place with its Paramount Chief, Sir Mwanawina Lewanika and its ku’omboka ceremony. The whole way of life is dictated by the inundation and receding of the Zambezi. The 80 or so Europeans who lived and worked there all seemed to have been handpicked for their eccentricities. Many of them loved the bush and would live nowhere else. Those three years in Mongu have affected us to this day. It was a very special place.

In March 1963 we went on home leave. We were flown out of Mongu to Lusaka in the tiny single engine Beaver aircraft. Three years before we had been flown in on an old clapped out Dakota. We were fortunate to leave Barotseland with our health intact. The PWD Establishments Officer had thoughtfully arranged our passages via the East Coast to London Docks as he was aware we needed a long sea voyage to recover from three years in the bush.

On our return to Africa on the Transvaal Castle in August I was posted to Lusaka for 6 weeks to work in the PWD office then, to our delight we were transferred back to Kitwe on the Copperbelt where our son was born the following January.

We had learnt while travelling home to U.K that N. Rhodesia would become the independent Republic of Zambia on 24th October 1964. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion in Government circles. Special Branch Officers and senior Police Officers left early in the proceedings, clutching their ‘lumpers’ or ‘Golden Handshakes’. Members of the Provincial Administration who could not live with the idea of Independence were also leaving. Anyone with an axe to grind began to move to South Africa, taking their compensation with them. For us this had its advantages as bigger houses that had once been allocated to the Provincial Administration department became vacant and we were able to choose a very nice house close to town.

There did not seem to be any reason for us to leave at this time. We still enjoyed a better way of life than we would have had in Britain. I even invited my parents, who were well into their 70s to come and join us for a holiday, which they did. But by the time our daughter was born in September 1965 things in general were beginning to deteriorate and this was greatly aggravated by Southern Rhodesia’s UDI in November ’65 which had a profound effect for all of us in Zambia. There were shortages of the most basic items in the shops and petrol, which had to be brought in via the infamous Hell Run, was strictly rationed.

By the beginning of 1967 Zambianisation was creeping up on us and it was obvious that my career in government was restricted although I could not easily be replaced. I could have continued for quite some time but all Permanent and Pensionable posts had been withdrawn by the Colonial Office just before Independence and I would have had to remain on a Contract/Gratuity basis. I was an acting Clerk of Works and a Trade Tester to boot but not getting paid for it. The white man’s days were numbered. As an American once said, colonial civil servants were expendable. So, after 11 years, I resigned.

Luckily I had the chance of going into business with a partner who could provide accommodation. For some time this worked well but then the work dried up and the business could not support two people. In 1968 the partner bought me out, which allowed me to buy my own house in N’kana and I was fortunate to be offered a job with GEC/AEI as a technical advisor liaising between the copper mines and the Company. This was a career I really enjoyed and I was glad to be out of Government employment.

Throughout the three years that I was with GEC/AEI the situation in Zambia deteriorated rapidly and you had to be wary of who you spoke to and what you said or did. The company was considering moving to Jo’burg. Many of our friends had already left. Some had been obliged to leave.

Because they had persistent ear infections our doctor recommended that our children should have their tonsils removed. By now the hospitals were multi-racial but children’s wards had been done away with all together and they were both put into separate adult medical wards which was horrifying for them. Eventually we managed to get them into a room together, away from Hogarthian scenes of Bedlam. At this juncture we knew that we would have to make a move soon for the sake of the children who were too young for boarding school.

Education was also multi-racial and both children were in Primary School with Zambian and European teachers. One day our daughter came home very puzzled and showed us a picture of a ship. She said her teacher had insisted that it was a ‘sheep’. Our English speaking daughter was being taught to speak
English! This little incident was the one that prompted us to make that final decision; which was in fact very hard because we loved the country and the climate. It had become our home.

I was apprehensive about leaving Africa entirely because I was now 43, not a good age to start seeking a new career but Connie was adamant that we had to go for the children’s sakes. GEC/AEI said they would give me introductory letters to their branches in Salisbury and Johannesburg. Although it is easy to talk in hindsight we did feel that sooner or later the rest of southern Africa would become independent and we couldn’t live through a repeat of such an unsettling experience. So, reluctantly, the decision was made to leave Africa. We knew that once the house was sold it would be difficult and expensive to turn back.

Now we faced the obstacles with the banks and Exchange Control. We were only allowed to take a limited amount out of Zambia and that included the value of the car and its contents. The rest of our money was frozen and would be allowed out on an annual basis as dictated by Exchange Control.

With high hopes we left Kitwe on 11th April 1971 en route for Cape Town and the Union Castle’s S.A. Vaal with our car and all our worldly goods inside and on the roof. Strangely, on the way down we met several families from Kitwe making the same journey.

After a pleasant voyage we arrived in Southampton on 2nd May. At Southampton the car was safely unloaded from the ship’s hold and we were informed by Customs that we could use it with the present Zambian registration and free of tax for a year.

We drove to London where we were fortunate enough to be able to stay with Connie’s parents for the time being. This helped with finances as we couldn’t have stood the expense of a hotel. We knew that life in the U.K had changed greatly since we left England 15 years earlier and even since our last home leave five years ago. Everything had speeded up but standards had dropped. It can only be described as a cultural shock and it was going to take us time to rehabilitate ourselves. We felt we could not consider renting or buying a house until I had a job, and I felt it better not to confine myself to any one area.

As we realised this might be a long haul we put the children into Connie’s old school near her parents’ home and, luckily, they settled in very quickly.
I had registered with the Expatriate Resettlement Bureau in London that had been set up to advise ex-Colonial civil servants about careers, housing etc. I reported to their office in Victoria W1, so my credentials and my C.V. were now on their files. They were very good on advice and information. They told me about various employment agencies for people in my position. After a friendly chat with tea and sympathy I left with a bundle of literature.

I was becoming aware that I had arrived at a time of high unemployment and it was necessary to intensify my search. I registered with the Institute of Electrical Engineers (I.E.E) in London, of which I was a member, giving them my current address so that they could send me their monthly magazines which carried a vacancies column for those in the electrical field. They were not an employment agency. I had also sent my C.V. to every company I thought might have suitable work available and had filled in numerous applications for jobs that were advertised.

In the meantime we visited my parents’ home in Liverpool. They were now in their 80s. Although they were delighted to see us and we were warmly welcomed home we knew that we couldn’t impose on them for too long. But there was enough time to spread the news that I was available for work. I carried out the same exercise as I had done in London. This is where I had a couple of good interviews which went well but once they noticed my age, now 45, things went distinctly flat and inevitably it ended ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you.’
I felt I was lucky to get those interviews as Liverpool was economically depressed. Obviously London and the south-east was the best place to be if I was to stand any chance. So we returned and I intensified my search there. I even wrote to the Union Castle line as we had travelled with them frequently on home leave and I was impressed by their vessels, especially the engineering aspect. They replied with a pleasant letter saying that times had moved on since my days with Cunard and that I would find the work quite different. But the main point was that my age was against me. This was put very kindly but like other sympathetic replies I received the answer was in the negative. No one actually wanted to say, ‘You’re too old, feller.’

We travelled extensively, following up leads and considering business propositions. It was all time consuming and was eating into our savings. Some ex-Zambia friends had made the best of things and settled but others had a hard time. We all felt we had been uprooted.

Our other worry was the children. Although in school and apparently coping they were bewildered and aware of how unsettled we were. In spite of being spoilt by their grandparents they were clearly affected by not having their own home and their toys and playthings were all still in unopened trunks.

So I continued through the summer of 1971, sometimes applying for jobs that were well out of my field. Many companies didn’t have the courtesy to reply or even acknowledge the application. The impression grew on me that employers didn’t want ex-colonials.

But Africa still called us back and I was beginning to realise I may have made the wrong decision in returning to U.K. This was brushing off onto the children who had been used to wide open spaces and sunshine. The turmoil and the traffic noise in London were unbearable at times. We had had so much freedom in Africa and now felt confined and restricted.

We were living on our savings and it was a balancing act, having to be careful and hold some back in case we decided to return to Africa or even try Australia where many of our friends had gone.

It is now 40 years since this all took place and there is much that we haven’t been able to record here. Suffice it to say that we were finding life in Britain very difficult. What we do remember is the anxiety and apprehension of that time. In addition it was now November and a hard winter was setting in. We were longing for the African sunshine.
With my experience of supervising Africans I knew that I could always get work in Africa and I now made the first move for our return. I went to the Union Castle offices in Cockspur Street to arrange our passages. The first date they could offer me, with space for our car, was 7th January 1972. I paid the deposit of £50. Now came the onerous task of informing everybody of my decision.

On 29th November my eye caught an advert. in the I.E.E. Newsletter. What intrigued me was that a Supervisory Council was asking for older men, between the ages of 30 and 45. I qualified for their requirements in electrical and electronic engineering and I had the clean, current U.K. driving licence for the vehicle that was part of the package. The salary was right too. I had made so many applications but thought I would make one last effort. I sent my C.V. accompanied by a short but succinct letter in which, as a second thought, I had mentioned my experience some 20 years before in closed-loop electrical systems although this was not one of the requirements listed in the advertisement. What possessed me to include it I shall never know.

I posted my application on 29th and received an acknowledgement four days later, something that had not happened so quickly before. I was surprised to see that it was signed by a Rear Admiral.

On 14th December a second letter arrived saying that I was on the short list and would I attend for interview on 21st at 11, Catherine Place W.!
Catherine Place was, in fact, a crescent of prestigious houses and the name plate on number 11 had confused me because it was marked BSIA. I rang the bell and was told that the NSCIA was on the first floor. I went up the narrow stairs to what appeared to be an apartment where a secretary greeted me and shortly after I was shown into a small office and introduced to Rear Admiral Callaghan, the Director General of the National Supervisory Council for Intruder Alarms. He was the epitome of a high ranking naval officer.
The interview went very well from a technical point of view and I was closely questioned on my previous experience, especially in Africa but he concentrated particularly on the closed-loop electrical systems which I had mentioned in my application. I was unaware of it at the time but closed-loop systems are what many alarm systems consist of.
I had stressed from the outset that I had no knowledge or experience in alarm systems. The Director said it was not a requirement. I was surprised by this but unknowingly I had said the right thing. He explained that this was a new inspectorate whose business would be to oversee the implementation of British Standard 4737 throughout the intruder alarm industry. For the sake of impartiality they did not want anybody that had had any connection with the alarm industry.

I had to say that I had arranged to return to Africa at the beginning of January and that I would go if my application was unsuccessful.

As I had given a London address on my application the Director asked me if I would be averse to working in London and the Home Counties. I balked at this and said I would really prefer the north-west region where I was born and brought up. On this note the interview came to an end.

The following day we motored up to Liverpool to spend Christmas with my parents. We tried our best to make it a happy time for everyone although the gloom of my pending departure for Africa, with no job, for the second time hung over the festivities. We all made a great effort, especially for the children’s sakes. My parents seemed to be philosophical about our return to Africa.

The New Year was fast approaching and we were still awaiting the invoice and the confirmation of the passages from the Union Castle Line. We were expecting a phone call from them any day. On the morning of 31st December, a cold, dreary day, we were about to go out when the phone rang. Straightaway I assumed it was the Union Castle so I was taken aback to hear the voice of Rear Admiral Callaghan. After a preamble he told me that my application had been successful and he offered me the post of Senior Inspector, based in London and paying a higher salary. Naturally I accepted and he invited me to join him for lunch in early January in Victoria. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard, especially as there had been no mention of a senior post at the interview. How to succeed without even trying!

Within moments our whole lives had been turned round and we were now all going in a different direction. But it had been a ‘damn close-run thing.’

Now came the most intractable task, searching for accommodation within the south-east. Our funds were frozen in Zambia and housing prices were escalating literally week by week. Our only option was to rent. I returned to the Expatriate Resettlement Bureau, which just happened to be a short distance from the office where I had so recently been interviewed. They suggested I try a Housing Association in Hans Place, just behind Harrods, so we went there and were given a list of all their properties.

We studied the list, looking for areas that we thought would have good schools and were in reasonable commuting distance of central London. There were two; one in Beckenham and one in Walton-on-Thames. We applied to both and were offered a three bedroom flat on the second floor of a small block in Walton on Thames which we accepted. This was a good move as there was plenty of green space for the children to play in safely and the nearby primary school was excellent. In fact it was there that Connie was able to resume her teaching career. After a year or so we were offered a house in the same complex.

Each year some of our money was released from the bank in Zambia until finally, in 1975, we had enough for a healthy deposit. After a protracted search for a suitable house and frequent gazumpings we were able to buy the pile of bricks we now own.

The job with NSCIA was well within my capabilities and to some extent I enjoyed the work. The Admiral proved to be the best boss I ever had. We were a great team and we became good friends. I retired, aged 68, after 22 years. But in all that time I never adjusted to the constant travelling. Driving a car each day in London and the south-east is a nightmare. Every day I had to locate and visit a different office, facing horrendous problems with traffic jams, hold-ups and parking. It got worse year by year. I covered thousands of miles, wore out nine cars but never had an accident. The sheer hard work was in the travelling, to such an extent that I eventually had a serious stroke. Fortunately I made a good recovery and was soon back at work.

But in all this traipsing we have never lost our love for Africa. Right up to 1975 I was still, from time to time, applying for jobs there and it took us ten years before we completely unpacked our trunks. We met and married there and our children were born there. We left part of ourselves there and are proud to be connected with its history and development.
Northern Rhodesia had been a Colony for a mere 70 years, a relatively brief episode, but during that period the Colonists pioneered the railway and the mines from scratch while the British Colonial Service established Law and Order, developed Education and Health, encouraged agriculture and opened the way for the building of hydro-electric schemes and power generation where before there was nothing. But above all we introduced the power of the English language, which became the lingua-franca for a primitive people.

We have never been able to free ourselves from our yearning to return to Africa where part of us still remains. We recall with nostalgia the perfect climate, the vast open spaces, the clear starlit night skies, the magnificent thunder storms and the Africans’ laughter and sense of humour. We loved it all.


Robert McChesney died in 2014 and this has been published with the permission of Connie McChesney

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