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U3A Writing: Rhodesian Journey

John Ricketts goes driving in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), on his way to take up a post as the headmaster of a school.

We had to go down to QueQue before going up north because I had left a lot of things in the school hostel while I had been on leave and I had to collect them and also to collect my car a Ford V8. It was an old car which had been at least once round the clock but which went like a bomb. I introduced Elizabeth to a few of my friends while we packed all my stuff into the car and as early as we could we set off for Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

The rainy season was over and everywhere was green. Elizabeth who was new to Africa was enchanted. She had expected a more or less barren landscape of brown grasslands but she saw green tracts of maize and tobacco with villages and farmhouses dotted about. Further away from the road was forest with hills and strange rock shapes sticking up. The rivers were full of brown or red stained water with children playing on the banks.

We had to press on because I had to report to headquarters on 1st May. We stopped the first night in a hotel on the top of the escarpment overlooking the Zambezi Valley. There were marvellous views down into the valley and across to the High Veldt on the other side of the river. We started at first light the next morning on the new tarmac road into the valley and up the other side. Previously we had been driving on the strips. During the depression, to stop people from starving, the government had organised work on the roads. These men had laid two strips of tarmac about eighteen inched wide. They were about three feet apart. The idea was that a car or truck should drive with its wheel on each of the strips. When one met an oncoming vehicle one pulled over until only the drivers-side wheel was on the strips, and so you passed each other. When I knew them they had been down twenty odd years and had done sterling service in that period. They were slowly being replaced by full tarmac roads.

It was mid afternoon before we pulled up outside the Education Headquarters in Lusaka and it was the first of May. I went in with Elizabeth, introduced myself and asked whom I should see about the school in Kansanshi. In spite of Elizabeth’s reluctance we were ushered into the office of the Deputy Director of Education (The one who does all the work, the Director just being a figurehead) who greeted us warmly,

“Oh Mr. Ricketts, I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you” he said. “I’ve got some bad news for you !”. My heart sank into my boots. What could have happened ? “Mrs …………. who was to be your assistant teacher has been taken ill and she and her husband have just this week been moved from Kansanshi to Chingola so that she can be near to medical help. At such short notice I have not been able to get a replacement . You’ll have to see what you can find locally” He turned to Elizabeth “Unless your charming wife just happens to be a teacher ?”

Within a couple of minutes, Elizabeth found herself appointed as my assistant teacher at Kansanshi Primary School. We were told that the mine authorities had provided a house which the previous head teacher had been occupying and that we could obtain the keys from the mine manager. We were given a chit to enable us to stay at a Government rest house on the way. About a hundred miles up the road, and hurried on our way.

We were lucky that it was not quite dark when we arrived at the Rest House because it was off the road and the signpost to it was partially obscured by greenery. We drove along the path to stop in front of a square bungalow. I have no idea if this was a typical Government Rest House because we never stayed at one again. They had been built in the early years of the century when hotels were virtually none existent as somewhere the government officers could stay on their journeys.

As we climbed out of the car an old man came round the side of the building and greeted us. As we locked our car he carried our overnight bag up the stairs and into the house. We entered a room which contained a big dining table and some chairs and a couple of cane easy chairs and very little else. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust.

There were five doors leading off the main room; one to a veranda at the back and four into bedrooms which looked as if they had not been used for years. The earth toilet was at one end of the veranda. The old man took us into one of the bedrooms where there was an unmade bed and a table with a jug and wash basin on it. We looked at each other in dismay but it was too late to go anywhere else. The old man told us that he would bring us hot water so that we could wash and asked us if we would like a hot meal. Doubtfully we agreed and he suggested that we have chicken.

While we were waiting for the hot water to wash, we used the toilet which was a plank with a hole in it over a deep pit. By the side of it was a bucket containing a white powder which we assumed to be lime and a scoop. I presumed that after use instead of flushing, one threw a scoopful of lime, which we did.

In the dining room were two young girls. Probably the old man’s grandchildren who were busy dusting and in the bedroom their mother(?) had brought in hot water and was busy making up the bed. We noticed how spotlessly clean the sheets and pillow cases were, though obviously far from new. We watched until she had finished, given a little curtsey and left. It was wonderful then to be able to strip off and wash away the dust of the dirt roads over which we had been travelling, though we would have preferred a bath or a shower.

Feeling a lot better we went in to try the cane armchairs which proved to be quite comfortable and talked about the journey and about Elizabeth’s sudden appointment to the teaching staff. We wondered what we would find the next day.

While we were talking the young woman appeared with a tray on which was a teapot, cups and saucers and milk jug and sugar basin. She put it on the table, smiled and left. We were grateful for the tea though both of us would have preferred coffee. We drank the tea, in fact we each drank several cups while we were waiting for our meal to arrive.

After a long while the old man appeared. But what a transformation. Previously he had been dressed in ragged shorts and a torn shirt, now he had on a white drill jacket and white trousers. With him was one of the young girls obviously dressed in her Sunday best. He signalled her to remove the tea things and spread the table with a white table cloth. From his pocket he took out cutlery and laid a place at each end of the table and invited us to sit.

He served us each with half a pawpaw as the first course. This was followed by chicken served with sadza, (the African staple diet, a kind of mealy porridge served dry) and some greens. Though the chicken was tough it was well cooked and there was enough sadza to last us for a month. To finish he brought some fruit, mango and prickly pear. We had eaten surprisingly well.

After we had eaten we went to sit on the veranda which was wire mesh to keep out the mosquitoes. As we sat and enjoyed the vast array of stars in the African sky, the old man came up to us with his pièce de résistance. He inquired if we would like a beer to finish with. But that it would cost us some small amount. He produce two bottles of beer and two glasses and opened them with a flourish and expertly poured them out.

I asked him how long he’d been there and found that he’d been in charge of the rest house for more than thirty years. He lamented the fact that no-one ever used them any more and told of times when there had been so many visitors that they had to sleep on the floors because all the beds were full. It seemed that we were his first visitors for over a year and he was full of apologies for not being ready for us.

We were served tea in bed the next morning and were shown where the shower was. It was outside the back door in the garden. There was a square enclosure about 5 feet high. A kind of bucket was suspended from a post. This had been filled with hot water. A chain tipped the tank and allowed the water to fall on the one underneath who washed and then swilled off the soap with another tug of the chain. Elizabeth said she’d give it a miss but I had a go.

After breakfast of tea and pawpaw we were presented with a bill on a form which must have been decades old. The chit covered the cost of the accommodation but our dinner and breakfast cost about ten shillings. We paid up and when he had carried out our bag to the car I gave him a pound note and some coins for the children. He seemed sorry to see us go. I think that he’d given up on the job but that our stay had given him back his pride. He had felt useful again.

Shortly afterwards, except for very remote areas the rest houses were all closed down.

We left in the cool of the morning and travelled northwest along a nearly deserted dirt road. I have mentioned the strip roads of Southern Rhodesia but have not said anything about the roads of the north. Most of the roads were made by earth moving equipment which raised them slightly higher than the surrounding land to allow drainage and then they were flattened and levelled by graders. In the wet season they were ribbons of mud and in the dry season they were dust tracks. The wheels of modern vehicles tend to corrugate them. Every four or five feet along the track there would be a ridge about six inches high. Driving at a speed less than thirty miles an hour one tended to hit every bump and the cars were shaken to bits. A speed above thirty tended to level out the bumps and one did not feel them as much. This meant that everyone drove fast no matter what the conditions were like.

The roads towards Kansanshi were red dust and we arrived at our destination looking like red Indians. What was Kansanshi going to be like?

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