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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 6 - The Zambesi Valley


Again Livingstone set out on his weary way, untrodden by white man's foot before, to pass through unknown tribes, whose savage temper might give him his quietus at any turn of the road. There were various routes to the sea open to him. He chose the route along the Zambesi--though the most difficult, and through hostile tribes--because it seemed the most likely to answer his desire to find a commercial highway to the coast. Not far to the east of Linyanti, he beheld for the first time those wonderful falls of which he had only heard before, (the local Bantu name was Mosi oa Tunya, meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’).* Livingstone gave them an English name, -- the first he had ever given in all his African journeys, -- the Victoria Falls.  This discovery was the one that took most hold on the popular imagination, for the Victoria Falls are like a second Niagara, but grander and more astonishing; but except as illustrating his views of the structure of Africa, and the distribution of its waters, it had not much influence, and led to no very remarkable results. Right across the channel of the river was a deep fissure only eighty feet wide, into which the whole volume of the river, a thousand yards broad, tumbled to the depth of a hundred feet, the fissure being continued in zigzag form for thirty miles, so that the stream had to change its course from right to left and left to right, and went through the hills boiling and roaring, sending up columns of steam, formed by the compression of the water falling into its narrow wedge-shaped receptacle.”

                                                The Personal Life of David Livingstone,  William Garden Blaikie

 

I flew to Northern Rhodesia in 1962 on a Boeing 707 jet that stopped at Rome, Benghazi Libya, Brazzaville Congo, and Salisbury Southern Rhodesia.  Before departing London, I had tasted my first hamburger, and at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport I drank my first coca cola.  (I haven’t cared much for either since).  I was sat beside a young man of my age who was going out to learn how to manage a tobacco farm.  I have often wondered since what became of him.  During the stop-over in Salisbury, a Scottish schools inspector, Campbell Duthie, nephew of the MP referred to earlier, kindly showed me around the city and gave a brief overview of the country and its history.  His wife had been a friend of Miss Boyne, the school-teacher I referred to in the account of my primary school memories.  Africa was like that.  Scots especially kept running into acquaintances or friends of acquaintances.  I was surprised that the Duthie’s had a log fire burning in their large living room.  In the UK we sometimes forget that many parts of Africa can be cold or chilly at times.  I was later to encounter snow and sub-zero temperatures in Johannesburg and Windhoek.

At Lusaka airport I was met by two fine men who worked then in the Northern Rhodesian Game and Fisheries Department.  Jim Soulsby, Fishery Officer South, was an excellent technical officer, and was later head of a London company, Fisheries Development Ltd.  Colin Tait, a young South African of Scottish parentage, was a Ranger on Lake Kariba. Colin was marvelous company to have in the long dark nights in the bush, with his love of jokes, and his fund of songs and stories.  After a couple of days at the Fisheries Offices in Chilanga, I headed down the valley with Colin.  Weather on the plateau was sunny and pleasant.  The temperature rose and the atmosphere got dustier as we drove down the 2,000 foot escarpment to the Zambesi valley. 

 At Sinazongwe, now a research station, the fishery training centre was nearing completion.  Dick Heath, a master boat-builder from Sussex was then in charge.  The centre had sheds for assembling nets, building boats and repairing motors. There was a kitchen, a dormitory, and a few dozen staff houses.  A South African builder, Tommy Thompson had a team of semi-skilled workers putting up the buildings. Concrete blocks were made on the spot, and the corrugated tin roofs were supported by light pre-fabricated steel frames.

The expatriate officers had larger houses of the same construction, with either 2 or 3 bedrooms and a screened verandah. They were originally built to accommodate the operators of bush-clearing bulldozers who were hired to clear fishing pitches in level areas covered by mopani trees, before the lake water rose.  One of the drivers was run over by his own bulldozer that jumped unexpectedly into reverse.  He was buried on the spot, and his grave marked by a black wooden cross on a lump of concrete.  I came upon it one day in the bush behind my house when exploring the area, and thought, “what a place to die; and what a lonely grave to have”.

A 45 gallon oil drum set long-ways on bricks above an outside fire box, served as a hot water tank.  It was filled by a hose, and had a pipe leading from its base into the bathroom nearby.  The houses also had air-conditioners of sorts. These were metal boxes stuffed with straw, behind which a fan blew air through the straw into the room.  The same fan drove a small pump that drew water from a tray below the straw, and let it trickle back down from above.  The resulting effect was not as poor as might seem, although one got hit by drops of water, as well as experiencing a slight fall in the room temperature. Water came from a station tank fed by a borehole pump.  This often broke down, especially towards the end of the dry season.  The station generator was stopped at 10pm each evening, so one had electricity and light, only till then.  On the numerous evenings when the engine operator Cosam had a social engagement, the generator and the electricity ceased functioning earlier.


Kariba Dam

Kariba-generated electricity never reached remote outposts like Sinazongwe.  It was conveyed by power cables, south to Salisbury (now Harare), and north to Lusaka and the copperbelt towns of Kitwe, Ndola and Mufulira.  The dam had been proposed partly as a Federation project, - an enormous investment in energy generation that would be seen as both a benefit and a symbol of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  As things transpired, the much-vaunted central African federation disintegrated within three years of the dam’s completion.  Apart from the loss of their ancestral homes from the formation of the lake, and the subsequent development of a fishery in the lake waters, the dam had little other effect on the valley Tonga peoples.

The Africans of the Gwembe valley were mostly Ba-Tonga people.  Father north, north-east and north-west were Bemba, Lozi, Nyanja, Kaonde, Lunda and Luvale tribes.  The Batonga were then as a poor and as primitive a people as could be found in the country.  The women wore beads on their heads, arms and tummies, and sometimes had sticks inserted through their ears and noses for decoration. They also had their front teeth removed, or the older generation did, for reasons which were obscure.  The men invariably carried an axe made of a club-like piece of mopani wood, with an iron axe-head, pointed at the back, inserted through the stouter end.  They were a friendly, simple people, who enjoyed a joke, and who never failed to greet passers by, which was done in a very   respectful and time-consuming manner. 

So many times when driving through the bush, I was saluted by a Batonga gentleman whose clothes were in rags, but who looked me in the eye and proudly gave his greeting, and expected a similar respectful salutation in return.  “Mwapona”  (you are seen, or hullo), “mwapona Mwami” (chief or sir), “mwapona kabotu”  (it is good you are seen, - or are you well), … and so on.  Those poor people were all that I had heard “bush” Africans could be.  They were polite, sincere and honest.


Batonga village

In three years in that valley, no-one ever showed me the slightest hostility, and no-one stole a thing from me (apart from the little bit of sugar, etc, that my cook would take, but that was one of the perks of his job).

In his book, “The Shadow of the Dam”, David Howarth describes the Gwembe people as seen through the eyes of District Commissioners and District Officers of the late 1950’s.  “With the Tonga, nobody needed to be tough.  Each District Commissioner who took over the Gwembe Valley grew fond of the Tonga, because they were charmingly cheerful and happy-go-lucky when times were good, and courageous when times were bad, and because they were courteous, kind and friendly but never servile; in short, because on the whole they were lovable people.”


Bush clearing : large areas of Mopani trees were cleared to make room for fishing grounds where nets could be set without fear of entanglement.  However that still left substantial areas of flooded forest where fish could breed and grow protected from both fishing nets and predator fish.

Naturally, I could hardly wait to get my first sight of the lake, the boats and the fish.  There was a natural harbour and a concrete sloping pier 3 miles up the lakeside from our station.  An ice plant had been erected there by a South African firm, and was operated by a cheerful Johnny Young.  Fish traders came down from the copperbelt towns in a motley assortment of trucks and half-trucks.  They packed the fish they purchased (at 4 old pence per pound), in the ice, with straw for insulation.  The fishing boats themselves landed at a number of places along the lake side, and the traders would drive to one of these spots after purchasing his ice.  Invariably at the landing site there would be weighing-scales operated by a fishguard in a boy-scout like uniform, with two other fishguards noting the amounts and the species in pre-printed log books, in compliance with the Colonial fixation for recording everything.

There were four boat types in operation, - dug-out canoes as used before on the river Zambesi, flat bottomed planked boats of local construction, and clinker-built ‘banana’ boats built at our centre on the lines of the Irish curragh. The fourth type were metal boats built by a fabrication yard in Lusaka to specifications determined by an ex-naval District Officer.  They looked like matchboxes with a pointed end!   The dug-out canoes were suitable for use on calm days only.  The flat-bottomed canoe was also more suited to river conditions.  The curragh-based ‘banana’- boat canoe was excellent in all respects, - it was seaworthy, manoeuvrable, had good capacity, and could be either paddled with ease, or power-driven.  Of the ‘metal-box’ boat, - the less said the better.  It was so unsafe, it had  buoyancy tanks welded in fore and aft, and these left little room for men, nets or fish.  Also the bottoms rusted through within a year, which annoyed the owners who had purchased them on a 3-year loan.  But such monstrosities were often inflicted on native populations by Colonial rulers.  I used to think the rondarvel ‘tin’ huts were a similar disgrace.  They had been designed as a fast and easy answer to native housing, and could be assembled quickly from galvanized metal sheets.  In shape they resembled native pole-and-mud huts, but that was the only concession to traditional design.  They made excellent solar ovens, but as human dwellings, they were an abomination.


Myself surveying our little fleet on the lake

The lake itself was filling up and nearing its highest point when I arrived.  I believe that point was attained during the November – February rainy season which was just 3 months away.  Most days the water was fairly calm, but a regular breeze came up the valley from the Kariba gorge to the Victoria falls, and at times it made the exposed parts of the lake quite rough, with short choppy seas that would have presented no problem to marine vessels, but which could make conditions uncomfortable for the small open boats in use on Kariba.  At times the breeze could create small whirlwinds and waterspouts.


With a copperbelt trader, examining dry fish

The range of fish species was intriguing.  I had no idea tropical freshwater fish came in so many different shapes and sizes.  There were mud-sucking labeos, slimy catfish, razor-toothed tiger fish, huge tilapia bream, spiny synodontus and long-nosed myropsis, as well as numerous smaller species.   Later, the Lake Tanganyika sardine, “kapenta” or ”ndaaga” (Limnothrissa) were introduced to Kariba, and quickly filled an environmental niche in the deeper parts of the lake, and became the basis of a large light-attraction fishery.  But that was just after my time there, though the matter was then under consideration. 


Above : Handing over a new boat to local fisherman Gray Madyenkuku and his wife


Kapenta fish, limnothrissa, the small anchovy-like species introduced from Lake Tanganyika to the benefit of Kariba fishers.  On the right, tiger fish, hydrocyon vitattus, the fierce game fish in lake Kariba

Of wild-life there was plenty then, though my first impression of the bush was that it was devoid of life apart from ants and termites, lizards, flies and hornets.  The rising lake had moved animals up from the valley, and for a while the shore was replete with animals, mainly snakes, but also monitor lizards, chameleons, baboons, warthogs, small antelope, kudu and elephant.  There had been an “operation Noah” mounted to rescue some of the animals from the rising waters, and a film was made of those activities.  In my time there, in addition to those mentioned above, I encountered hyenas, wild dogs, hippopotamus, crocodile, aardvark ant-eaters, bush babies, civet cats and genet cats, and one leopard. There were hardly any lion in the valley. 

 It was the snakes I disliked.  My first year there, I think I saw one every day.  There were large pythons, boemslangs, sand snakes, spitting cobras and puff-adders, long mambas, and smaller tree snakes and grass snakes.  One of my cats was spat on in the eyes by a cobra, but survived, and my dog died from snake bite after I had left.  Today I see naturalists on television handling such snakes with seeming ease. I never had any inclination to get close to them.  Below are examples of the wild life I saw regularly in the valley: elephant, hippo, wild dog, kuu, baboon, monitor lizards, and a mamba snake – I saw a great of variety of snakes around the lake, encountering them every week if not every day. Bottom – a large monitor lizard, common in the Zambesi valley and sometimes mistaken for crocodiles.

Below :  Elephants and hippos in Lake Kariba and Babboon and wild dogs were abundant in the valley

Mosquitoes came out in force every night, and it was next to impossible to avoid getting bitten regularly.  I took my daily chloroquin pill, and never succumbed to malaria or to denghi fever.  Apart from mosquitoes, there were tiny lake flies that hatched out and appeared in hordes for a few days.  They were so small they went through the mosquito screens with ease, so it was “lights out” on those nights.  The infection my colleagues feared more was bilharzia, or schistosomiosis, from a parasite that moved from water snails to humans and animals, and could kill if not treated.  I escaped that infection also, but fell foul of amoeba, and had at least one bout of amoebic dysentery. The single cell parasites were to remain lodged in my system for 15 years by which time they had developed abscesses in my liver.  By 1977 – 78 I was weak and debilitated but no doctor could diagnose the problem till I underwent a liver scan in the Makati Medical Centre in Manila.  When they detected the abscesses, they cheerfully informed me I had about three months to live if they were not eliminated from my system.  A cocktail of drugs was prescribed and within a few weeks they were gone.  I was then very thin, but 2 years after the cure I put on weight and have not been able to lose it since.

My first bout of amoebic dysentery occurred in a remote village in the upper Gwembe valley where I and a colleague Peter Cocker, were both afflicted suddenly one night after eating local food.  We took turns to use the temporary ‘PK’ (pikaniny kayak, or ‘little house’) down the path from our camp.  At the the first light of dawn a line of local women came by heading towards the river with their water drums on their heads.  Poor Peter was unable to wait for me coming out of the bush toilet, and he had squatted down by the side of the path.  I could not help laughing through my discomfort as I heard him exclaim to the passing women, “I’m sorry ladies, - but I just can’t help it” !


A magnificent kudu antelope.  They were plentiful in the valley when I was there.

 It was not long before I had the opportunity to visit the magnificent Victoria Falls near the town of Livingstone.  Later I was to travel north to the huge inland sea of Lake Tanganyika, and north-west to Mweru and Bangwelu lakes.  I sailed over lake Mweru with the local fishery officer Dermott Beattie, who hailed from Northern Ireland, and visited the Katanga part of the Congo.  That was when Moise Tshombe was still in charge, but when the UN troops were advancing to destroy the secession.  We visited a local Catholic mission, hospital and a fishery school where the houses were painted like ships and named after French vessels like the Lusitania.  The students wore sailor uniforms and spoke both Bemba and French.  To honour us, they linked arms and sung “My bonnie lies over the ocean”, swaying from side to side as they did.  I often wondered what became of them when the Congolese troops crushed the Katanga secession shortly after our visit.

Africa then still had its share of adventurers and maverick characters.  The white settlers and whites born in Africa, have included some rugged individuals who would perhaps have been more suited to frontier life in America in the early 19th century.  There are still a few around today as could be seen in the bizarre attempt to mount a coup in the tiny (but oil-rich) state of Equatorial Guinea.  When I came to Northern Rhodesia there was a man of such reputation around, by the name of James Finlay Bisset.  It was alleged that he and a band of fellows had “invaded” Tanganyika during World War 2, to keep it from the Germans.  Around 1960 he was reputed to have punched a visiting US Secretary of State for pronouncing an anti-colonial policy – “Africa for the Africans”. Bisset arrived on lake Kariba in 1962 with a fleet of small boats and some miles of nylon gill nets, claiming that as a national of the country he had a right to fish there.   The District Commissioner John St. John Sugg, eventually got him to abandon the venture, not that I suppose it bothered Finlay-Bisset.  (A grand neice of his wrote

 to me after seeing Reflections on the internet, and asked me further about her redoubtable relative.)


Victoria Falls

 
Admiring the statue of David Livingstone beside the Falls, 1962.   Above :  David Livingstone, the Scots missionary and explorer

David Livingstone and the Gwembe Valley

The Scottish missionary–explorer trekked around the south, east, and centre-east of Africa for over thirty years in the middle of the nineteenth century.  His journeys extended from the regions of the modern states of South Africa to Zambia, to Tanzania and Uganda.  I arrived in the Zambesi valley just over a hundred years after he had visited the Kariba gorge, (in 1860, after discovering and naming the Victoria Falls in 1855).  When Livingstone met Tonga tribesmen, he described them as “very degraded”, and from his Victorian and Scots Calvinistic background, was particularly disturbed by their near-nakedness.  Even their kindness and friendliness were strange to him.  “They always brought presents of maize and mazuka.  Their mode of salutation is quite singular.  They throw themselves on their backs on the ground, and, rolling from side to side, slap the outside of their thighs as expressions of thankfulness and welcome ..  This … was to me very disagreeable.” 

Despite his Victorian and Scottish Presbyterian hang-ups, Livingstone came to love the people, and sought to free from the raids of Arab slave traders.  He spent some time at the main village of Chief Mwemba, 50 miles to the south of the Falls.  Jobo Michello, the politician, a descendant of the Chief’s, told me a story from that period that does not appear in any published records.  When the missionary came to leave the village and move on north, he called the Chief and his headmen together.  Livingstone held out a cob of corn in one hand, and some bullets in the other, and asked the Chief which he wanted for his people.   Chief Mwemba chose the cob of maize corn. Livingstone told him he had well chosen, but informed him that other white men would follow in years to come, and some of them would bring bullets.  “When they come, - give them this letter”, said Livingstone, handing him a hand-written letter in an oilskin pouch.

Michello said that the Chief and his family kept the letter for years, till it was suggested that perhaps it contained some black magic, so then it was buried in an anthill just outside the village.  “My grandmother knew where it was buried”, said Michello, “but, no matter how often I pressed her, - she would never reveal the location to me.  I often wondered what was written in that letter.” 

Travelling around the country was a pleasant experience for a colonial employee.  The administration had its strict codes which were designed to maintain standards and to ensure smooth operations. There were guest houses at most locations, or if not, you stayed in the guest room of a local officer. There was a strict protocol on behaviour. You had to dress for dinner.  You had to tip the domestic staff, and to write a letter of thanks to the host and hostess.  And when making the travel claim, there was an obligatory amount to be sent to the hosts for the hospitality provided.  The PA or Provincial Administration kept a careful eye on the public and social behaviour of the expatriate officers. Any officer posted to a remote field station who was suspected of lowered standards or “going bush” and adopting a rough lifestyle, was quickly recalled to the central office or station for a dose of exposure to civilized conduct.

The Kariba valley was not beautiful, though the lake could be pleasant when the weather was clear and calm.  The high plateau was much more impressive.  What sunsets and sunrises !   There is nothing to compare with the freshness of an early morning on the east-central African plateau, or the evening chorus of gnats and grasshoppers as a deep red sun sinks over the horizon.  The month of October was extremely hot and dusty in the Zambesi valley.  It was a bit like India before the monsoon, only less humid. The fine dust hung in the air and penetrated one’s clothes, eyes, nostrils and lungs, often carrying an assortment of infections. Then the rains came in November, and for the next three months or longer, there was one heavy shower after another.  The bush seemed to blossom and flower and become verdant overnight.  Catfish emerged miraculously from almost dried-up muddy holes, and made their way across land to the rivers and streams.  There were no bridges in the local rivers which were dry for half the year, only concrete drive-throughs.  During the heavy rains the rivers became raging torrents, and driving through the fast flowing water could be exciting.

A water engineer from Bo’ness in Scotland, John Brooks, was driving a truck up the valley to pay his large team of labourers. With him in the cab was John Arnold-Edwards, newly arrived assistant to the District Officer.  They came to a swollen river.  “Ach”, said John Brooks in his broad Scots accent, “I’m afraid it is just too deep to cross”.  “Not really John”, said Arnold-Edwards, “Let’s have a go”.  Against his better judgement the older man drove on.  The water caught the truck half-way across, lifted it up, and swept it down-stream and into the bank.  The money-box was washed out of the lorry, and the last they saw of it’s contents was hundreds of pound notes and ten shilling notes, floating down the stream.  Some astonished fisherman got an unexpected windfall that day!

John’s younger brother Joe McGregor Brooks, was a game and tsetse control officer based near our centre.  He was married to a Thai wife, Sena, and they had two young sons.  Joe was a colourful character who had a little kingdom of his own there. He was one of the few Europeans I met who was fluent in the Chitonga language.  His station was well equipped and he had both fruit and flowers in the garden.  He even had a work-boat motor yacht for visiting places inaccessible by road.  There is a book about Joe’s early life and work in Northern Rhodesia, “Elephant Valley”, written by Elizabeth Balneaves, which I was able to obtain before leaving Scotland. (Balneaves, from Shetland, lived into her nineties and died in 2006, in Elgin near my home).    When my father saw the pictures of Joe, living a rough frontier life, and standing over elephants he had shot, his hairy chest exposed, he said with his typical dry tongue-in-cheek Scots humour, “David, I think that Joe Brooks would be a member of the exclusive brethren”.  Surprisingly, when I later came to know him, I discovered that Joe had indeed been brought up in that strict sectarian group!


Joe McGregor Brooks with a rogue bull elephant he had just shot.

Talking of religion, the staff at our centre represented a number of denominations.  There were Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, Church of Christ and Jehovah Witness members.  Methodist missions predominated in the valley, and an English Methodist missionary was stationed nearby.  A lovely elderly Irish Jesuit priest came down about once a month to say mass with the Catholic members of the staff.  He was a typical Jesuit, - serious, well-read, and observant.  I provided lunch for him on his monthly visits, and enjoyed our conversations on the country, on its people, on the politics, and on theology.

The colonial government had a series of local district stations or outposts throughout the country. These “Boma’s” housed the office of the District Officer and his assistant if he had one.  Their staff would include a number of local policemen or boma guards who wore fez type hats.  Colonial law was concerned chiefly with serious criminal or political offences and left all small issues to be dealt with by local chiefs under native law.  The old chiefs received a small stipend for their services.  They dealt with cases of theft, bride abduction or non-payment of lobola or “bride-price”, and other lesser crimes like common assault.  The chiefs performed largely like wise magistrates. They needed to possess good local understanding and wisdom to determine cases as Africans take forever and relate all kinds of extraneous information before getting to the point of their case.  At times the chiefs displayed a wry sense of humour.  Tommy Thompson’s cook “Cement”, was up before our chief one day on a charge of non-repayment of a borrowed sum of ten pounds.  Chief Sinazongwe found him guilty and fined him fifteen pounds. Cement started to shout with anger, and protested at length that this was most unjust as he had borrowed only ten pounds.  He demanded that the fine be changed. “All right, all right”, said the chief after the accused had been quieted down, “I will change the sentence”.  Turning to the court clerk he said, “Fine him, - twenty pounds” !

During my first year in the country, we were joined by two fine young officers who were to become lifelong friends.  Brian Mutton was a marine mechanic who did an excellent job training fishermen to operate outboard motors, and organizing their maintenance and repair.  Sandy MacDonald was an assistant district officer who had been a navigating officer during brief naval service. Brian had also served in a branch of the navy, on Fleet Air Arm patrol vessels.  During his period in Zambia, Sandy built a lovely 23 foot yacht based on a design of one that sailed across the Atlantic.  Brian was a skilled photographer and a fan of jazz music.  Both men went on to work in marine development projects in other parts of the world.  Brian has now retired in Queensland, Australia, and Sandy runs a farm estate and boatyard on the most westerly point of the Scottish mainland.


Two good friends and colleagues of Zambesi days: Brian Mutton and Sandy MacDonald.

Zambia was then preparing for self-government and independence.  The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was still in place when I arrived in Africa, but it was doomed to disappear as each of the countries sought an independent future.  Cold war politicians saw the Federation as a bulwark against communism, but as it had no grass roots support, that could never have been effective in the long term. So, Nyasaland became Malawi, Northern Rhodesia became Zambia, and Southern Rhodesia eventually got recognition as the independent state of Zimbabwe.  But more of it later.

I was co-opted by the Provincial Administration to assist with voter registration in the Gwembe valley, and was sent to a poor remote village a sixty mile journey from our station on very rough roads.  Over a one-week period I registered 1500 voters.  That may not seem like much, but this was the first time there was universal suffrage for all persons over 21 years of age.  Nobody in the village possessed a birth certificate, and few could recall with accuracy the date of their birth.  Only two dozen persons could sign their names, all others simply made a thumb mark on the papers.  Some candidates looked far too young to me, and I would discuss their ages through an interpreter, with the local chief.  One young lady I was reluctant to register, went outside and brought in her three children.  I gave in.  “All right, my dear, - you may not be 21, but you have earned the right to a vote!   One crazy fellow arrived brandishing a spear, and performing a war dance in front of my hut.  As diplomatically as possible, I told him through the interpreter that as he was insane, he could not be permitted a vote.  He glared at me for a minute, then threw his head back and laughed raucously, falling down to the ground and shouting that he did not care if he did not get the vote, since the District Commissioner had declared him exempt from the annual native tax, because of his insanity.  Then he grabbed his spear and ran off up the hill and out of sight shouting all the way, “no tax ! no tax ! no tax ! ”. 

A strange episode of bloodshed occurred in 1964 when Kenneth Kaunda’s party hacks tried to pressure members of a sect to register and vote for the UNIP party.  This was contrary to the beliefs and practices of the group which eventually turned violent.  The sect was an off-shoot from a Church of Scotland mission, and became known as the Lumpa church.  It was led by a prophetess, Alice Lenshina, who convinced her followers that bullets would not hurt them if they had faith and shouted the rallying cry, - “Jericho!”.  In the end, scores of Lumpa church followers would die, and Alice herself was imprisoned.  Negotiations to avoid bloodshed were led by District Commissioner John Hannah who I knew well as he previously had a monitoring role over our Gwembe valley project.

There were two main political parties which as in most of Africa, were based largely on tribal support.  UNIP, the United National Independence party was led by Kenneth Kaunda and his more leftist and radical deputy, Simon Kapepwe who was later to form a party of his own.  UNIP was supported mainly by the northern Bemba tribe. The ANC or African National Congress was led by Harry Nkumbula whose support lay mostly with the southern Batonga tribe. Kaunda had been in the ANC before, but broke with Nkumbula to form his own party.  Harry Nkumbula’s deputy was Jobo Michello who was also to leave Nkumbula to form a third party, the PDP, People’s Democratic Party.  Nkumbula had been a good leader in his day, but like rather many African politicians, in his later years there was a loss of integrity and control as he over-indulged in alcohol and womanizing.

The British Colonial government was making (in my view) an honest attempt to prepare the way for handing over the reigns of power.  This varied from provision of training, and promotion of indigenous civil servants, to gradual integration of formerly segregated establishments like government guest houses.  They were actually segregated by rank.  You had to be of a certain status to stay in the upper class government accommodation.  But for all practical purposes, that was also racial segregation.  The transition, when it came, must have been as peaceful as any in the continent.  We went from colonial rule to self government to full independence, within the three years I was in the country, with hardly a hiccup in how things were run.  Few civil servants were dismissed, and many Brits continued to work in the country for many years.  Admittedly some were appalled to be working under a ‘black’ government, and magnified each little failure or immature word of the new administration.  Over in Southern Rhodesia, Roy Welensky, bereft of his Central African Federation, blustered and bellowed, and threatened to seek power again till Ian Smith became Prime Minister, and went on the declare independence unilaterally. That was in the year after I left Zambia.

Four parties contested the self-government elections in Northern Rhodesia, - UNIP, ANC, PDP and NPP the National Progress Party (which contested the ten seats reserved for Europeans).  PDP, the People’s Democratic Party, was formed by Jobo Michello, the former ANC deputy.  It surprised most pundits by coming a close second to UNIP in several constituencies.  After the self-government vote, an interim government was formed, led by Kenneth Kaunda as Prime Minister.  Michello was consigned to the political wilderness, and was sent down the Gwembe Valley to assist me in running a revolving loans scheme for the Kariba fishermen, that had been set up through a donation by the City of Nottingham through the Freedom From Hunger Campaign.  I visited the dynamic fund-raiser twice in Nottingham.  Mrs Charlotte Loewenthal was an intelligent highly motivated lady of Jewish origin.  Her husband, a medical doctor, was a keen student of global politics, and a believer in an eventual world government.  Sadly, Mrs Loewenthal was killed in a car accident two years after I left Zambia, and a few months before she was to visit Zambia at the invitation of the Government.

The first day Michello arrived at the station, I had not long got him accommodated in the house formerly occupied by the boat-builder who had been moved to Chilanga near Lusaka.  I was then visited by the local leader of the ANC who asked me what Michello was doing at our station, and how long he would be staying.  It was only then I realized that my new colleague was Michello the politician.  My staff regarded him with some awe.

Later, over occasional dinners in my house, Jobo reminisced on his life in politics, and told me things that had my hair stand on end to use that hackneyed phrase.  Till then I knew little about the dirty side of politics, but Michello’s stories were an education to me.  I was to check some of his facts later, and found them all to be quite correct.  He had been active all his life in the politics of the emerging nations of East and South Africa, and was on first name terms with most of the black leaders of that time.  He mentioned meetings with senior British and American government ministers and foreign office personnel.  He also described approaches from other power blocks that his then ANC leader rejected, but which were readily adopted by Kaunda and Kapepwe.  The financing of political parties by foreign powers, and how that finance was used, was a revelation to me.


The flag of independent Zambia

Independence came in 1964, and Kenneth Kaunda was duly sworn in as Zambia’s first President.  The occasion was marked with great celebrations all over the country, and our little community had its own festive events with all the people dressed in their finery and sporting paper copies of the new national flag.   I think I enjoyed the day as much as the native people did.   A few months later, Kaunda paid an official visit to our centre.  I showed him and his party around, and while he was talking to the staff, one of his black bodyguards approached me.  “Your name is Thomson – right?  You have a brother in the Metropolitan Police – yes?  Well, - I did my training with him in London”.  Another of those odd coincidences in Africa.  


With President Kaunda (and my wee terrier dog)


Showing Kenneth Kaunda examples of fish species from Kariba.  The smiling man in the top left corner was one of the President’s bodyguards who informed me he had trained in London with my brother James.

The President went off to an island in the lake for a picnic lunch, accompanied by his entourage, and by my colleague Michello, and escorted offshore by scores of powered canoes from our fishing fleet.  I went back to the station to dismiss the staff, still arranged in formation on the parade ground.   stepped out of the Landrover and gave the UNIP vibrating hand wave that Kaunda had been displaying throughout the visit.  The staff (mostly Tonga) sheepishly returned the wave.  Then as I dismissed them and turned to go away, I gave the ANC two thumbs wave over my head, signifying - “one man, - one vote”.   The tension broke and the whole assembled body burst into laughter.  Africans liked it when you saw the funny side of things, or appreciated their mixed feelings or embarrassment.

My experience of life in Zambia during the tail end of the colonial regime, through the brief transitional self-government period, and on into full independence, was a thoroughly pleasant one.  I cannot say that any part of it was difficult or unhappy.  The local Africans treated me with respect regardless of the government.  I was once asked by the local ANC representative to join that party, but this was done in a half-hearted way, and when I pointed out that as a foreign citizen, I could not vote in Zambia’s elections, he accepted my position without complaint.  But one post-independence incident might serve to illustrate the general atmosphere of that time:

There was a man in the neighbourhood who had a vendetta with one of my staff (the cause of which was unknown to me – and in Africa, foreigners are well advised to stay out of such feuds).  But he caused a disturbance once too often, so I took him to the local Boma office and told the guards that I did not want to see him again near our compound.  As far as I know, they put him on a truck to the plateau.  At that time I was about to start training scores of applicants for government jobs, - in my case for fish guard positions, - a kind of low level fishery department worker, who wore a uniform rather like a boy scout. The first truck load of trainees arrived in a few weeks, and I assembled them for an initial briefing, and to explain the rules of their stay as far as dormitory, food and training went.

There, in the midst of the crowd of trainees, one rather guilty face stood out.  It was the troublesome fellow I had removed from the area.  Later that day I got an eloquent letter (as only Africans can write them), to say that fate had been so cruel to him all his life, and now, when he finally had the chance of a permanent job, he had been placed in the hands of the one person who had reason to think ill of him. I called him to my office, and puting on a stern face, told him that what happened before was in the past. He would be judged on his merits in the course.  If he passed, he passed.  If he failed, he failed. But I would not hold his earlier behaviour against him provided it was not repeated.  Well, from that moment on, he became a star pupil, and gave me no trouble whatsoever.

Perhaps rather unfairly, the government sent me trainees in batches of 50, for whom there were only about 40 jobs at the most.  So the bottom ten were destined to be rejected, and this fact was not lost on the whole group.  The training programme was quite basic.  After being issued with a simple uniform, the candidates spent the first two weeks in labouring work, to assess their fitness and their willingness to undertake any duties, which was really what a fish guard had to do.  That was followed by a week of square bashing with lots of marching and saluting, and regimentation.  Only in weeks four to six did they get to learn boat handling, engine maintenance, net repair, and fish identification.  My senior fish guard examined them at all stages and presented me with the results at the end of the course, - so I had no part in the final selection other than to endorse his findings.

The class referred to above contained some surly characters from the copperbelt who I suspect were chosen for their political loyalties rather than their potential as civil servants.  They rebelled at having to do labouring work, and I guess, surmised that their chances of failing the course were quite high since the other candidates were much more enthusiastic.  Anyhow, they walked out of the course and off to the capital.  I would not have known what action they then took, except that my friend Jobo Michello happened to visit the Minister of Natural Resources at that time.  Also, I had sent a truck to Lusaka to collect timber for boat buiding and cement for making bricks, and had allocated two of the labouring trainees to go with the driver to help load and guard the vehicle.  One of them, I believe the character who had caused me trouble before, had gone off to relieve himself before the truck left the city, but it departed while he was away, and he found himself without transport, and facing a possible charge of dereliction of duty.  In desperation he went to appeal for help at the Ministry offices.

Apparently the disgruntled group had asked to see the Minister, and proceeded to complain that they were being treated like labourers by a white foreigner, instead of being assured of a government job. The Minister asked Michello who happened to be around if the complaints against Thomson were justified. He replied that there was nothing demeaning in the course, but that those fellows were really not willing to work.  Just then the trainee who had missed his place on the lorry, arrived to ask for help to return to the Sinazongwe centre to continue his course.  The Minister called him in and demanded to know if the conditions were bad, and if Thomson was mistreating them.  The trainee assured him that all was well, he had no complaints, but he desperately did not want to lose his place on the course.  The Minister directed his staff to arrange for the man’s transport, then turned to the striking group and ordered them out, telling them that they were just downright lazy!  As I indicated above, I would have known nothing about the incident had Michello not been present, and recounted it to me later.

I departed Zambia in August 1965, never to return, although I was to visit over a dozen more African States.  Zambia was one of the last of the former British colonies in Africa to obtain independence.  All over the continent, MacMillan’s “wind of change” was blowing, and it was bringing as much fear as hope in its wake.  Sadly the experience of many of these newly independent nations has been tragic to say the least.  All the cold war rhetoric about the evils of colonialism has evaporated as those countries have suffered worse mis-rule, injustice, and greater exploitation under their own home-grown governments. 


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