One feature of my blog that I’m quite proud of but which gets the least attention is its Africa Bookshelf. I love reading, and I love telling others about the books I’ve read. While my passion for reading covers a wide range of topics, I particularly love to return time and time again to the Africa Bookshelf and add more works into the “read and reviewed” column.
The most recent such addition is The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream by Christina Lamb. Pour yourself some tea and sit back – this one turned out fairly long as I had bent over so many page corners to later quote from.
Africa House is an exquisite book. Reading it gives you perhaps one of the best descriptions of British colonial life in Africa in the early 20th Century that you will come across. And so much of what you find in Africa today is determined by its colonial past. In that sense the observations in Africa House are highly relevant for anyone with an interest in Africa.
The story of an extraordinary man
But it’s more than a story about life in Africa. It is the life story of an extraordinary man, most likely one you’ve never heard of, but one who you’ll come to love on these pages. His name is Stewart Gore-Browne, an English gentleman in the truest sense. He first came to Africa in 1914 as a young army lieutenant, on some sort of surveying commission with the British army, and when he went off to explore the land on his own at the end of his stay, he came across an enchanted piece of land in what today is Zambia but in those early days was called Northern Rhodesia. It was all part of the empire envisioned and relentlessly pursued by Cecil Rhodes in the late 1800s. When he first set eyes on the area on the banks of Lake Shiwa Ngandu that he had stumbled upon (a giant sapphire nestling in a bed of green hills), he knew with absolute certainty that he was going to come back and settle precisely on that spot by building a grand estate, even though he had no prior experience that might have qualified him for such a venture, nor an income giving him the financial means. World War I intervened and so it wasn’t until 1920 that he came back and was able to realize his dream. It would take many years to come to full fruition (and, it can be argued, never achieved financial success).
What I love about Africa House is the way the author manages to tell a more or less ordinary person’s life and makes it interesting. She leans heavily on Gore-Browne’s diary and the many (thousands?) letters he wrote, most of those to his beloved Aunt Ethel back in England. In fact, even though she was some 15 years his senior, she was in many ways the love of his life, and the fact that he could not have her a great tragedy. Passages from his letters are seamlessly fed into the narrative so that it moves at a fast pace, yet gives the reader a distinct feel for the time and place and especially Gore-Browne’s complicated personality.
On the one hand Gore-Brown was a hopeless snob, which most often shines through in his correspondence with his aunt, who of course was of similar upper-class breeding. For instance: My gear looks so nice, the table with the clean white cloth, shining silver knives and the cockioly bird china cups, plates and teapot. They look like they belong to a person of substance. I loathe the kind of Englishman who travels with folding tables and enamel mugs as if he’d purchased all his things in a general store. At some point, he had to host impromptu visitors to the estate, Sir and Lady Vyvyan, who improbably stepped out of one of the early Imperial Air service planes when it was forced to land in the bush due to bad weather (Lady Vyvyan was very relieved to see white people. She told us that when they started hurtling down through the jungle, she and her husband had been imagining cannibals and witch doctors and all sorts.). Even though he had chosen a life far from everything and everyone he grew up with, he was always elated to have guests of his own background, even if it meant mobilizing his entire estate without any warning to put on a good show of hospitality. In this case, it meant putting hundreds of his men to work around the clock to straighten out a piece of land near the lake to use as an airstrip for the plane to take off from again.
But he also held a deep love of the natives, or Bantu as they were called then. He felt himself responsible for everybody he employed (in the heyday of the estate, those numbered in the thousands) or who was otherwise connected to Shiwa Ngandu, to the point of treating them like his children (Sometimes it is like dealing with children, even the most basic instructions go unheeded.) He was even reported to beat them when misbehaving, a fact that seems impossible to reconcile from today’s vantage point. But as time passed, his view grew more nuanced (I used to have ideas of conferring patriarchal benefits on the Bantu but that’s I’m afraid all moonshine. The natives don’t want to e patriarched.). He eventually decided to enter politics (I know the problems of this place by now and would like to be involved in some kind of system where black and white can work together, he writes to Ethel). His views were quite progressive for the time: Hope for Africa lies not in segregation, repression by a dominant race or even some form of benevolent white autocracy though of course this is the tradition we were brought up in, but in a kind of partnership between the white and black races, however long that might take. There is a beautiful anecdote from 1946 of an incident in an African pub on the outskirts of Lusaka, where his manservant Henry had taken Gore-Browne one evening. White police officers entered the bar in a raid, and surprised to find “a gentleman” there, accused him of being a “bit of a kaffir lover are we?” for hanging out “in a nigger bar.” Gore-Browne, who by then was a well-known politician in good standing, later recounts that he told him these people here have worked all day for a few pence. Their wives work and their children work. They probably haven’t eaten meat since Christmas. While you are stuffing your fat faces with beer and chicken and slurping your whisky sodas, they are surviving on one bowl of watery porridge. And you begrudge them one bowl of millet beer you wouldn’t even let your dog drink! A young native protege of his, Harry Nkumbula, who had witnessed the scene, said of what happened: Tonight is the first time that I have ever seen a white man defend one of us against one of his own. My shame is that we cannot stand up for ourselves. But one day we shall have all the fine white words at our command and then you will be proud of us.
The drive for equality and Zambia’s independence
Ironically, it was his upper-class snobbism that left him so offended when common courtesies weren’t extended to all people equally. If an African is in my house at teatime, I would naturally ask him to tea. It is a simple question of manners, he wrote to Ethel. And seeing the colour bar enforced, particularly by uncouth whites of no breeding, so infuriates me. As a member of the Northern Rhodesian Legislative Council or LegCo, he tirelessly fought to end the color bar, to allow offices to employ African clerks, and to permit Africans to form trade unions. In a speech he gave, prompted by an incident where a shop owner was urged not to sell “European goods to these stinking kaffirs and what not,” he said to the assembled Council: “All I would ask, as I have half a dozen times before, is the recognition of our common humanity with the African.” Recalling how blacks had fought for the Allies alongside whites in World War II, he addressed the Governor directly: “I would ask whether those men back from Burma who marched past you, Sir, the other day, I would ask whether they are stinking kaffirs?”
When Zambia finally became independent, with Kenneth Kaunda as its first president (who it is not surprising to learn was also a former protege of Gore-Browne’s – I’ve always liked the fellow and he’s got a big job before him) Gore-Browne was the first white man to renounce his British citizenship to become a Zambian citizen. The Independence celebration was one of the greatest days of my life, he writes, and he remained an influential advisor to the young new government until his death in 1967. Kenneth Kaunda himself said of him: “Stewart Gore-Browne was one of the most visionary people in Africa – he was born an English gentleman and died a Zambian gentleman.” Gore-Browne remains the only white man in Central Africa to have received both a state funeral and a chief’s burial. His grave is on a hill overlooking his beloved estate.
What I most love about Africa House are the vivid descriptions of Africa that still hold true today. It was good too, to breathe the air of Africa again, that smell of virgin land, of nature in full-force, of ancient earth and beasts that have passe through, and just a slight hint of threat, reads one passage early on. The women carrying loads on their heads, he wrote, were making a jolly sight, walking with that classic grace which English women seem to have lost. Behind them follow the old chief and his wife, rounding them up, everyone singing all the while. By mid-morning the whole place is resonant with harmony as different work-gangs go back and forth in various directions, all singing. There is a passage describing how remote indeed the location of his estate was, that it was so rare to see another vehicle on the final stretch of road “that if one did, one usually puller over and made tea.” That’s not unlike you still feel in some parts of Africa today.
All the things of which Stewart Gore-Browne writes concerning his daily life are so vivid to me that they make a yearning for Africa come screaming back through my veins. Sure, his account is rose-colored through the colonial lens and a part of his Africa is forever gone, and yet he seems to have grasped the essence of it as few white men have been able to do.
Note: Even though the book, to me, was more about the man than the house, the fate of the house does indeed become important to the reader, as it is such a central part of the story. Like I mentioned, the estate almost never made any money from the many ventures Gore-Browne concocted, and after his death fell into disrepair. I remember reading a passage early on, where he describes the custom of lining up all the house servants and foremen in uniform on the front lawn and welcoming new visitors with song and dance, and thinking that is just how they did it for us at game lodges! His real strength was playing host and giving visitors an unforgettable experience. Had he lived today, he would have made a very profitable existence out of the house as a luxury safari destination. I fact, that is what one of his descendants eventually did with Shiwa Ngandu. It is comforting to know that it has found a place that Stewart Gore-Browne would have approved of.