Sarah Greening

I arrived in Northern Rhodesia in late 1962 as the young American bride of a district agricultural officer I had met while a student intern at the Foreign Training Division of the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. I was 22; he was ten years older. He had been working in NR already for eight years, whereas I was merely a recent graduate of a degree course at a New England women’s college with little experience of the world outside formal education. We were married near my home in Wilmington Delaware, and immediately flew from there to England, where we flew out again to Kenya, narrowly escaping being trapped by the first blizzard to grip the country that very bad winter.

After our honeymoon on the Kenyan coast, my adjustment to married life began in earnest. I did not find it particularly difficult as I had already seen Peter’s house in Mazabuka from my visit earlier in the year.   Being young I treated all that was to come as an adventure. Mazabuka was a very small town on the line of rail in the Southern Province, set in a landscape that was somewhat similar to the American southwest, which I knew a bit from family holidays. So it felt like I had landed in a movie set for an American Western. But my role as housewife and dona to Peter’s cook of some years was one with which I was totally unfamiliar. Perhaps that was an advantage. With no preconceptions I was able to acquire the allegiance of Jackie, a Muslim from Malawi, who had been trained well by a previous dona and knew much more of cooking and looking after house and home than I did. His English was minimal, but he soon did such things as pick up the carosses from the floor, wrap them around himself and dance around the room to show me something of his culture. He told me about being a picanin on his mother’s back crossing Tanganyika at the time the Germans were there (I don’t remember why, they may have been colonialists.)   He tried his best to translate his Nyanja into English, so I learned ‘Hey you’ as well as ‘Good morning, how are you, I’m fine thank you.’ He had to send one of his children to the servants quarters to ask the name of his wife and five children, which startled me, but he always smiled broadly and answered ‘yes’ even when he didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand him. I was privy to his opinions on Peter’s bad temper (infrequent and deliberate after standards had slipped too far), his work colleagues, and our negligence in not locking our doors, which Jackie did for us when we went away as there were certain ‘bad Africans’ around. He also told me the African names for various bwanas. Peter had two – the man with the maps, and ‘do not argue with him because you will lose’. I remember also Bwana Kalulu – Kalulu being the word for jackrabbit. Very apt it was too. This was the beginning of an easy relationship that lasted throughout my years in Zambia.

Shopping was a steep learning curve for me, who was used to supermarkets and early shopping malls, but I adapted quickly, gaining an embarrassing reputation on the way after shocking the Afrikaans butcher by asking for half a dozen chicken legs, and learning that chickens were bought whole, not cut up for the housewife’s convenience. Mazabuka had a short dusty street dominated by Indian dukas, or shops, that provided for the basics. There was even a periodic film show in the town, during which the audience had to keep shouting ‘focus Charlie’ at the woeful projector person at whose garage the shows took place, whose eyesight was somewhat deficient – to match the deficient projector probably.

Peter was famous for his garden, so we always had a supply of vegetables and fruit as well as flowers. Bananas, mangoes, papaya, avocados all came from the surrounding trees while passion fruit, guavas and strawberries grew copiously in his created beds along with beans, carrots, cucumbers, lettuces, onions, sweetcorn, tomatoes, etc. etc. One of my early contributions to garden maintenance was to accompany him in the evening stomping on the huge snails that had come out of the bush to feed on anything and everything. There were hundreds of them every night and I had to grit my teeth feeling them squash under my feet, while he gathered them into buckets and deposited them on the compost heap. Assigning this task to the garden boy meant that the squashing part of the job was bypassed and the captured snails were deposited live onto the compost heap, whereupon they were free to amble forth at their leisure for more munching destruction.

As there was a regular airplane that came to Mazabuka, Peter thought I might be more comfortable if I ordered our meat from Lusaka and had it delivered via this plane. It took me awhile to learn that in my ignorance I was ordering far too much for a week’s supply for two. I didn’t think to enlist Jackie’s help in deciding on quantities, or if I did he amiably agreed with all my estimates. Perhaps he quietly enjoyed the largesse that may have come indirectly to his large family, at least until I got the hang of it.

Being American and newly married to a confirmed bachelor, I was naturally an object of curiosity. Peter’s staff found reasons to come to district headquarters, which meant feeding and housing them for a night or two, and the women generously gave coffee mornings to introduce me around. I was never short of things to do or people to meet. After I acquired a cook book, a church fundraising effort that I fell upon with alacrity, I set about learning some rudimentary cake making. The instructions said ‘cream the butter and sugar together until smooth’. Fortunately a neighbour arrived at the perfect moment to show me exactly what that meant. I don’t remember the outcome of cooking this creation in the wood stove, however.

Our house in Mazabuka was a bungalow, as they all were, designed to catch any cross breezes and having cement floors to prevent termites. It had two bedrooms with a bathroom between, a living room, dining room, kitchen with a wood stove, and standard verandah. Jackie sometimes enlisted the help of one of his sons to polish these floors in the early hours of the morning, the two of them skating across the floors with polishing brushes attached to their feet. This always elicited a blast from Peter, though he too found it amusing.

Peter may have been a confirmed bachelor, but he was not a usual one; he had Persian rugs on the floor and oil paintings and Congo prints that he had acquired previously on the walls. The furniture was government-issue, but the cushions that made them comfortable and other soft furnishings were Peter’s doing. He also had a full set of crockery and cutlery. The wedding presents my parents generously sent out by air freight were surplus to requirements, adding only a little bit of unnecessary elegance, and certainly excess weight when we had to move house, which we did several times. (This was probably my first, and certainly the most expensive, example of my naivete. Peter had flown from NR all the way back to America in order to be married, which we were in the standard Anglican/Episcopal format with all the trimmings of parties and wedding presents, down to the hired morning suit that labelled Peter ‘portly stout’ from the measurements he sent. Poor Peter, my parents and I were the only people of around 100 guests that he had ever met before. I even had had to supply the best man and groomsmen. But Peter being Peter handled it with his usual aplomb. If I had had more sense or some kind of advice, I would have done the more normal thing of going to NR to be married instead of the other way around.)

Peter sometimes took me with him on his tours around the district. I relished these jaunts because they met my romantic notions of Africa – Land Rovers stuck in the mud, river crossings on rudimentary ferries, encounters with game and nomadic herdsmen, tales of life in the bush told by accomplished raconteurs, meals around campfires, being lulled to sleep by the sound of hippos snorting. I even experienced the glamour when I was a few months pregnant of washing the dust of the day off me while kneeling in a square canvas bath filled with a couple of inches of water. This was in the Gwembe Valley, very hot and humid. Peter’s colleague in charge, a man much older than Peter, was very good at telling his stories of his job, of which there were a number. His blood permanently had a high percentage of alcohol in it, which amazingly didn’t seem to interfere with his functioning. The Africans knew this too, and had a real affection for this man.

A few months after my arrival in Mazabuka, Peter was promoted to provincial agricultural officer, which meant a move further south to Choma, nearer to Livingstone, location of the famous Victoria Falls, known by the Tonga tribal name that translates as The Smoke that Thunders. I remember the provincial commissioner shedding light on some of the problems he had to deal with, particularly the woman who insisted on approaching elephants to feed them buns, and her retort when advised of the danger she was in that ‘Of course they are not wild; they wouldn’t be allowed so close if they were.’ (She was probably American.)

The house we were assigned in Choma was a rather grand one that had once belonged to a European tobacco farmer. Its verandah enveloped three sides of the house, and it had two bathrooms, a guest bedroom wing, plus all the other normal rooms. It was located six miles out of town via a dirt road that had to be graded regularly to minimise the washboard effect, and there were only two other houses nearby. There was no electricity during the day, but a generator came on at night for a few hours. Wood was plentiful, was delivered by the cord, and supplied the stove and the fireplace. Fires in the evening were necessary at some times of the year, when the temperature at night dropped low enough to make a skimming of ice on the water in buckets by morning. My way of warming myself up was to lean on the car sitting in the sun.

I often learned colonial ways through having to provide accommodation for Peter’s colleagues when they came for visits, which they did regularly. Sometimes I had to learn fast. I remember once early on being told about an hour beforehand that there would be nine coming home with Peter for lunch when the same night there would be twenty for dinner! We lived miles from any shops and the vegetable garden was reduced to a crop of runner beans that were way past their best. On that occasion Jackie and I took the beans out of the runner beans, did them up with tomatoes and onions, and served them with the main course. I felt complimented when guests came back for second helpings. American visitors almost always did; the European or African ones not so frequently. Were they more polite or less hungry? I never knew which.

We were in Choma when independence came to Northern Rhodesia and it became Zambia. There had been a great deal of planning for this eventuality, which had involved bringing many of the natives in from their villages to vote. In spite of all the planning, we all suspected there were numerous incidents of voting more than once, more from the pure pleasure of celebration than anything more political. The spirit of the day was definitely festive.

Peter and I had planned to spend part of our first long home leave going to India, where he was born, but pregnancy intervened. Unsurprisingly given our cavalier approach to primitive birth control. Keeping track of dates of my periods was also a bit random, which meant that when pregnancy was confirmed, I had only a vague idea of when the baby might be due. I did at least know how it had all happened, something my Irish neighbour couldn’t quite believe, as she sat me down with paper and pencil to illustrate the facts of life when I announced I was pregnant. She had four children, no servants, and a feckless husband who played too much golf, which may explain her being in the hospital with heart problems. Near the time of birth she had predicted I was in labour when I had visited her there earlier in the day, and was proud of herself when she popped into the delivery room at 3 am after Margaret had arrived. Elsie was an uncomplaining hard worker and sister of Paddy Hopkirk, a champion rally driver of the time. She explained to me once that her and her husband’s Roman Catholic form of birth control was to live with each other as brother and sister. Perhaps that is why he played a lot of golf. He certainly didn’t put more energy into his job as one of Peter’s agricultural assistants.

It was in Choma that I added sewing to my growing list of achievements. It was a necessity as clothing from shops was expensive and not very accessible. Ditto other forms of fabric necessities. We knew some American AID people, one of whom was a domestic science teacher of great resource. She directed me to a fabulous warehouse in Lusaka that sold everything from dress materials to sheeting and all necessary accessories. I decided to demote Peter’s curtains that didn’t fit the living room windows and replace them with ones made from material bought at this priceless emporium. This meant enlisting the houseboy to turn the handle on the borrowed portable singer sewing machine while I fed yards of new material into the mechanism. It was quite laborious though reasonably effective, but it would have taken us ages to finish the project, so I yielded to impatience and took it all to an Indian duka, whereupon the whole lot was done by the next day. Once I had our first baby, however, I became more proficient at lesser projects like cot bedding, and dresses for baby Margaret as well as myself. I even was taught smocking by a neighbour, a very absorbing pasttime.

Knowing the Americans in Lusaka was a mixed blessing. They had access to the diplomatic bag system of acquiring American goods, so when I became pregnant I was persuaded to order necessary baby clothes and equipment from the well known mail order company Sears Roebuck. Needless to say, the baby arrived before the order from Sears Roebuck. Dear Margaret started life in borrowed everything. I learned my lesson then: Don’t hanker after what you can get in America; it isn’t worth the hassle. At least we had bought a second hand carry cot cum push chair, so she didn’t have to sleep in a drawer.

(As an aside, one couple of these Americans were the Geithners. He was the American consul, and their son, slightly older than Margaret, was named Timothy. We didn’t keep up with the Geithners after they and we left NR, but the internet verified that they were the parents of Timothy Geithner, President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury. I have a photo of Margaret and me with Timothy and his baby sister and mother on the beach in Cape Cod.)

One of the advantages of being naïve may be that you don’t know enough to be worried. I reckoned that millions of women had had babies over the millennia, so there was no reason to think I wasn’t capable of surviving childbirth in good order. I had this belief reinforced by Peter telling me that African women routinely gave birth while tending their gardens, and returned to their hoeing shortly afterwards. I’m not sure I believed that even then, but it helped with my optimism.   Natural childbirth was not very common in western natal practise at the time, but there was no question of it being otherwise in Choma. I at least had the benefit of a book by Grantly Dick Read, an early advocate, lent to me which I read thoroughly. I didn’t much like my doctor– he was too smarmy and disinterested – but fortunately he was away when we decided I might be in labour and went to the hospital to be checked out. The nun who greeted us confirmed I was in labour – at least a month earlier than my badly estimated due date – and sent Peter home as ‘it would be hours yet’. She sent for the doctor at the mission hospital 40 miles away, but he arrived too late. Sister Margaret Joseph was the nun in charge of the whole hospital, which was largely for the African population but had twelve beds for European needs, two wards of six beds each for the men and women.   She was an excellent midwife for the speedy delivery on Peter’s birthday that followed, and we named our daughter Margaret in her honour.

Motherhood gave me a new area of learning. While still in hospital an Afrikaans farmer’s wife who had just delivered her third child gave me tips about breast feeding, and the nursing sisters showed me the rudiments of bathing and dressing a baby. Then I went home with Margaret dressed in borrowed baby clothes to fend for myself. Peter’s dictum was ‘you read Dr. Spock and I’ll tell you what to ignore.’ Which is basically what followed. I remember once being in tears over the carrycot because I had done everything I could think of and Margaret still was crying. Some of Peter’s gratuitous advice he admitted was taken straight from agricultural practises; I think he thought one animal is much like another. But I think it was no bad thing that I had no mother or other friendly someone telling me what to do. I was left to figure it out for myself. I will concede that I was helped by the fact that I had house servants taking the burden of domestic chores off my hands. For instance, all laundry, including bedding and nappies, had to be ironed to kill the eggs of the putzi fly that may have been laid in anything hung out to dry. When the eggs hatched, the larvae burrowed into the skin of the person wearing the infected garment, and a nasty sore resulted. We had an electric iron, but Jackie also used the charcoal one when electricity was not available.

Margaret was an easy baby, which made my own learning relatively smooth. I marvelled when I read that some researchers at great expense had concluded that babies ‘think’. My reaction was ‘Of course they think; the researchers needed only to ask a few mothers to find that out.’ Arrogance of ignorance, I guess.

I don’t remember much about the home leave that we had instead of India. It was a six month break, and we would have spent it divided between England and America, showing off Margaret and having her christened among other things. I do remember that a cultural divide was beginning to take place. When we were figuring out how to manage the things we needed in America to cope with a young baby, my friends suggested that we just buy what we needed and bin it when we left. I was shocked. I think we borrowed most of it, and improvised what we didn’t have. Same in England.

Returning to Zambia, Peter was assigned to the Luapula province, which meant transferring our goods and chattels to Fort Rosebery. We had to drive across a bit of the Congo in order to get there, a scary few miles because Africans frequently jumped out of the bush brandishing rifles left over from the Lumumba period of history and one never knew if they were friendly or not. Border posts were also a hazard. We did the trip as infrequently as possible. Driving around the pedicle via the Northern Province would have added about three hundred miles to the journey.

Fort Rosebery was a small boma but the other civil servants stationed there were compatible, and I made a lasting friendship with the policeman’s wife across the road. She was a hospital theatre sister. They also ended up in Lusaka and left Zambia around the time we did. He became a barrister after returning to England and afterward they emigrated to Australia where he became attorney general for the state of Victoria.

There weren’t too many distractions in Fort Rosebery, and many residents used the local club for social purposes, mainly drinking. But we never felt inclined that way. I administered the library system for awhile, which meant I could order new books. I quickly learned from the grumbles that ensued not to order the books I wanted to read, but to stick to the romances and thrillers that most people preferred.

Fort Rosebery features in my memory especially for one dramatic incident that occurred while we were there. One of Peter’s men was killed in an auto accident returning from Kitwe on the Copperbelt. Vic was a large, very nice man, married to an African woman. The drama that occurred as a result of this accident was that there was nearly a riot when Vic’s body was brought back to Fort Rosebery. This was because the body was put in the freezer locker of the no longer used butcher shop, the only place to put it while other decisions were being made. There was a long standing superstition among the Africans that humans, especially babies, were processed into tin cans. The name for this superstition escapes me at the moment, but the locals believed that putting Vic’s body into the freezer was precursor to him being victim to this mythical practise. Peter and the district commissioner had a tough time persuading the crowd that assembled that this was not going to happen.   This particular district commissioner sticks in my memory also because one of his sons, a teenager, subsequently was killed when he accidentally fell into the Victoria Falls in Livingstone.

Fort Rosebery was memorable too for other unhealthy reasons. Although we always boiled our drinking water, there was frequently a suspicion of tummy troubles in all of us, and after we left there was an outbreak of typhoid. We also once experienced soldier ants. Soldier ants are notorious because they occasionally migrate by their millions, eating anything in their path, including it was reputed chickens in their coops and babies in their cots. Our house was on the edge of town next to the bush and in the path of fringe elements of one such invasion. Although a number of the ants entered the house, no real damage occurred. But it gave us a sample of what it could be like if you were in the main path of their travels.

While in Fort Rosebery I became pregnant with child number two. There were no medical facilities at the boma, and it was the normal practise for women near to the time of confinement to go to Kitwe on the Copperbelt to wait until the baby was delivered. I was spared this inconvenience when Peter was recalled to Lusaka to take up a position there at head office. The hospital in Lusaka was quite big, and all us new mothers of varying ages and races – there must have been ten or so – were lined up in our beds on the verandah after delivery and it was quite jolly. Son Christopher was born without event, and joined the babies who were similarly lined up for viewing in their nearby nursery. These were the days when babies were kept separate from new mothers to allow them to recover and rest. When it came time for one lovely Indian baby girl to go home, the nurses displayed her to the rest of us by saying that soon she would be made even more beautiful in the eyes of her family by having kohl – charcoal – pencilled around her eyes.

Our house in Lusaka was an older one located just off the Ridgeway, one of the main roads into the centre and where the principal hotel of Lusaka was located.   It again had two bedrooms and a small area of the verandah that served as a child’s bedroom. The kitchen was infested with cockroaches that would audibly scurry away when the lights were turned on. We never succeeded in banishing them. As we had two house servants at this point we converted the garage into quarters for one of the families, supplementing the usual housing compound devoted to servants. The garden was quite big, but Lusaka had more shops than our other locations and Peter didn’t need to create his usual vegetable patch. We had several wonderful frangipani trees to compensate, as well as oleander, papayas, mangoes, and poinsettia. Because the mango trees were always plundered by the Africans before the fruit ripened, we had to compete by also picking the fruit early if we wanted any. But green mangoes are a fine substitute for apples, and we had many delicious pies as a result.

While in Lusaka, the youngest of Jackie’s children died from measles complicated by tuberculosis. He was a toddler like Margaret at the time, and had been one of her playmates along with older brothers and sisters. They would all stand in the drive some yards away from the house and call out, ‘Magaletty, panga mud-pies’ ‘Margaret, come and make mud-pies’, their favourite pastime. The sad death caused much wailing in the compound, not least because it confirmed that going to hospital, where he had been admitted, was where you went to die.   Because of the tuberculosis, we all had to be tested. Chris tested out positive and for many months had to be fed a prophylactic powder. I still have the tin in which these sachets came, some 45 plus years later.

We lived across the road from the primary school, which was mixed race by then. One story I remember circulating concerned a European child being asked about her first day at this school. She had made a new friend, and when asked whether her friend was an African or European, couldn’t answer the question. We assumed it was because laudably she was blind to racial colour, but looking back it seems more likely that she didn’t know what the question meant.

Life in Lusaka proceeded normally, and my only noteworthy recollection was UDI, unilateral declaration of independence, by Ian Smith for Southern Rhodesia. Others may recall it more vividly, but as far as I was concerned it didn’t impact us very much. We were not affected by goods not being allowed to be traded with Rhodesia, and other sanctions that were being treated dramatically by the world’s press. Thus, I don’t remember whether a holiday we had near Cape Town in South Africa occurred before or after UDI.

We had planned to take the train from Lusaka to Cape Town, but typically we forgot about the need for me to have a visa to enter South Africa. So we had to drive, stopping off in Salisbury Southern Rhodesia, to get the necessary visa. The whole journey took five days, but we experienced more of SA that way – the Karoo, Orange Free State, Transkei – on the way. And apartheid. In one hotel in Blomfontein, the African who had dared to enter the lift with me and the two children plus luggage was ignominiously ejected and told off, so had to climb the stairs and meet us at the top. That was my first incidence of dilemmas presented by apartheid. Do you fight it at every turn, or accept it and feel ashamed? Mandela had not long before been incarcerated on Robben Island, pass laws were still in place, and Cape Town’s district six had been ethnically cleansed of the coloured population shortly before, a political issue still festering. The landlady of our rented apartment was an example of the sort of person who supported apartheid. She was quite abusive to the Africans, and the maid who cooked for us often shook her fist at her, suppressing anything more overt. I concluded that in order to live in South Africa one had to either wear blinkers for the whole of one’s life, or become totally involved in abolishing apartheid. The country was like the wicked witch of a fairy tale – beautiful on the outside, but evil underneath.

The biggest decision that we had to make by now was when to leave Zambia and where to go. Peter was already training his successor, an educated African he had encouraged and promoted, who I believe ultimately became permanent secretary to the Minister of Agriculture after taking over Peter’s job. Most of our friends were returning to England but there were occasional ones who were considering Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, or Australia or New Zealand. We reasoned that going to Southern Rhodesia or South African merely put off the day when we would have to leave Africa permanently, while Australia/New Zealand were too far away. So it was back to England for us.

One thought on “Sarah Greening

  1. I find your account of your time in northern rhodesia very interesting. I now live in Choma. Iam the provincial Permanent Secretary. Choma is now the provincial capital of Southern Province. Fort Rosebery is now called Mansa.

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