AFRICA - I LOVE IT
What a risk it is, asking someone like me to come and speak to you.
Simply to look at me!
A desiccated specimen of humanity if ever there was one,
a late middle-aged, bald, bearded, passionless, dry, cynical looking sort of fellow,
but even worse a parson,
that is, a druid, a God-botherer, a sky-pilot.....
so, almost by definition, there can be little juice in my veins,
a worn out priest, done with, all but finished,
doubtless a wearer of rose tinted spectacles
or rather, pallidly pink political tinted spectacles, like so many of the clergy.
Surely tonight you are destined for a less than memorable performance,
a sort of secular sermon,
with God squeezed in wherever possible,
pious platitudes, relieved by God commercials.
O dear! Prepare for the worst!
But looks can be deceiving,
for if nothing else I am a man of passion.
I have fire in my belly,
blood not water courses through my veins.
I love my loves, I hate my hates.
I can’t abide what is luke-warm,
what is Laodicean.
I am indeed a man of passion.
And one of my passions is Africa.
The dark continent.
The sad continent.
The miserable, ruined, buggered continent.
Teeming with humanity, disease, misery.
Africa, I love it!
To recall the smell of its wood smoke,
the ringing call of the barbet
the dry rattle of termite wings on window gauze,
the scent of the modest, unobtrusive flowers of the lovely msasa tree,
the sound of African drums and harmony,
and of African peasants voices
fills me with an aching nostalgia.
I first set foot in Africa when I was not quite seven years old.
A mere two weeks were spent in Capetown with my family,
en route to the Island of Tristan da Cunha.
One of the world's loveliest cities, Capetown,
though in many ways not truly Africa,
it has a feel and atmosphere as much or Europe as Africa.
It was settled by the Dutch way back in the early 17th Century,
French Huguenot, Malayan and English stratas
were added later to enrich its history and culture.
I fell into a swimming pool and very nearly drowned in those two weeks,
I fell too in love with the place.
Capetown has always been a gateway to paradise for me.
The gateway to a wonderful three and a half years on Tristan da Cunha,
the gateway to many, many years in the interior of Africa,
the gateway to three years on the island of St Helena,
the gateway several times to long leave in England
and in someways it was the gateway too to marriage
because my wife-to-be studied near Cape Town for a while
in a beautiful place called Paarl
and I had a memorable holiday down there with her.
So in talking to you a little bit about Africa today
don't expect me to be either rational or dispassionate.
You are going to get a biassed, autobiographical,
very personal view.
Few statistics, facts and figures,
I’m hazy about all that sort of thing.
Just impressions, memories, nostalgia.
Indeed it is about twenty four years
since we left Bob Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for good
to live on the Island of St Helena,
so everything I say is dated.
Though we did go to South Africa for a short visit five years ago.
I went to Africa actually to live when I was eleven.
We had spent three and a half wonderful years on the Island of Tristan da Cunha,
and then returned to England,
via Cape Town once more.
After nine months in England,
My father took us off yet again
by sea from Southampton to Cape Town,
and then by train for three days, to a place then called Marandellas
in what used to be Rhodesia but which now is Zimbabwe.
One of the world’s great train trips.
In those days the engines were steam,
and the carriages had a little verandah at each end
upon which you could stand and watch the magnificent African sunsets
and the baboon inhabited kopjes
rising like lovely islands from early morning mist.
On arriving in Marandellas
we were crammed into a bashed in Studebaker ute
and driven wildly and fast by a cockney mission station headmaster
over corrugated dirt roads to St Bernard’s mission,
thirteen miles outside of Marandellas,
set among great granite bouldered kopjes and hills,
teeming with baboons and wild pig
and with an occasional leopard or two
to be seen in early evening headlights.
St Bernard's Mission comprised a boarding school for African boys,
a farm of about 2000 acres,
a thatch roofed, termite-ridden but beautiful church,
and a huge mission district,
which was a fifty mile wide swathe
of wild and beautiful country, 300 miles long.
This mission district consisted of 35 centres,
each comprising a school and a church.
Nearly all of these centres were situated
at the very end of the most appalling roads and tracks,
and all were to be administered and managed by my priest father,
with the help of one African priest.
Almost all education for blacks in the country areas of Rhodesia, in those days,
was provided by the churches, with government assistance.
Education was a privilege, not a right.
Competition for places was stiff.
This was the era before African nationalism really got into its stride,
Rhodesia was Southern Rhodesia
and a part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland,
and white rule was benignly paternalistic
and more or less benevolently racist,
excepting which, it was fundamentally just and wholesome,
or so it seems to me.
I loved the Mission and mission life.
The Marandellas area is over 5000 feet above sea level,
and has a marvellous climate.
Dry, crisply cold winters, sometimes misty,
but more usually day after day of sun,
and temperatures rising to about twenty two or three degrees celsius,
but with ground frosts at night.
The summers were hotter,
especially as they approached the suicide month, November,
and the humidity built up,
but summer was also the wet season
and once the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone
moved south and began to drop its 35 inches or more of heavy tropical rain,
with spectacular thunder and lightning, between late November and April
the climate was more than tolerable.
The Marandellas area comprises savanna bushland,
treed predominantly by the beautiful Msasa tree,
which come into brilliant, colourful and soft new leaf
at the end of the bone dry winter.
The bird life is spectacular.
And the sandy soils
derived from the great granite boulders of beautiful kopjes,
are ideal for the growing of tobacco.
Where the soils are heavier,
wonderful crops of maize can be grown.
The Mission station was unusual in being surrounded by white farm land,
but it wasn't far from the vast tracts of land
known then as Tribal Trust Lands,
where the African people, already beginning to be overcrowded,
managed to live a not too harsh life of subsistence farming
supplemented by income sent home by relatives working in the cities.
Each weekend, overcrowded buses,
roof racks piled high with cases, bicycles,
live chickens in homemade coops and everything else imaginable,
would bring men back to party
over beer cooked and made in 44 gallon drums,
a nasty grey colour and very sour
but enough to bring on delirium if drunk in sufficient quantity.
I only tried it once, and found it foul.
The drums at the beer drinks
would beat insistently most of Friday and Saturday nights,
a thrilling sound to go to sleep to as a child.
It was at St Bernard's Mission
that I first began to appreciate African worship.
I loved the church which was made of home made bricks,
and thatched with local grass,
the eaves were deep and supported by spindly msasa poles,
and the windows were glassless,
looking out over the swept sand
which peppered with Australian bottle brush trees,
up and down the trunks of which scuttled large blue-headed geckos.
The African, certainly in those days,
was a natural for worship.
Unlike us, he lived in a completely un-demytholgised world,
a world peopled by ancestral spirits, witches, and God.
There was therefore no need for pretence and posturing in religion,
no need for pious behaviour,
as so often seems to be with us.
God was simply part of the furniture of life,
no one doubted him.
So you could be natural with him.
People would come into church right through the long services,
some arriving only for the last hymn.
If they were bored they unashamedly looked bored,
if they rarely saw a white child,
they would turn round and stare at him for the whole service.
If they wanted to pick their nose, scratch their ear, or rub their eyes, they did so.
They knelt without complaint,
bare kneed on cement or on dried, polished, cow dung floors.
T hey were odoriferous, that is, on the nose,
for there were no baths or showers in the villages.
On a hot summer’s day the acrid stench of packed humanity
was enough to bring tears to your eyes.
The church services could be tedious to a lad like me,
indeed, I’ve been bored witless for hours and hours and hours in church,
which has helped to develop my imagination
and so is thoroughly to be recommended,
so much more healthy educationally speaking,
than constant stimulation and entertainment at the push of a button.
Tediousness fled, however, when the singing started,
The cow hide drums, would begin to thud,
exciting, mysterious, relentless,
and away they would go,
marvellous rhythm, moving harmony,
and if it got really exciting,
the old women would begin to shuffle away from their bench,
and do a little dance, ululating at the tops of their voices.
There is no pleasure without pain.
The tediousness of much of the service,
made the singing seem all the more glorious.
After a few years at St Bernard's,
we moved some fifty or so miles away,
to build a new house and establish a new Mission centre
and eventually an orphanage as well,
this time actually in one of the Tribal Trust Lands.
St John the Baptist's Mission, Chikwaka.
It was set on a well treed and rocky hill above a little river
in which African otters played.
My father and an African builder designed and built us a house,
then an assistant priest’s house,
and they also extended the already existing church.
Our house was built of homemade and home-fired bricks,
harsh to handle, but a lovely rose colour.
The assistant’s house we built of local stone.
My parents had no medical expertise at all,
but because hospitals and clinics were distant
they were called upon to perform basic medical duties.
One Sunday a woman came to see them,
and when asked what the matter was,
exposed her breasts to reveal beneath both of them,
two very nasty burns.
"How did you do that?" asked my Father,
"I fell into the fire, Baba?" she replied.
"Oh no," said my Father,
"You were leaning too far over the beer barrel weren't you?"
So with my mother's help he smeared the wounds with some unguent or other,
and then bound bandages right round her, over the breasts.
When he had finished, she said:
But what about the baby?
Consternation. What to do?
A pen was brought, two circles drawn on the bandage, and cut out,
And so the nipples were allowed to protrude.
So pleased was she with this arrangement,
she left her blouse off
to show all her neighbours and friends as she walked home.
The African people of these parts were of the Mashona tribe.
the numerically predominant people in Zimbabwe.
I suppose it is racist
even to say nice things about a people as a race,
but certainly there is much that was very attractive about the Shona people.
For a start they aree so jovial, so happy on so little.
The peasants among whom we worked had very little,
they lived in small, round, thatched huts,
and they tilled land, which, because they didn't really fertilise it,
produced very poor crops of maize for their staple food
pumpkins for vegetables,
and millet for their beer.
They kept scrawny cattle on common ground,
scraggy chickens, little else,
and yet they were always smiling.
They had a marvellous, if very basic sense of humour.
If one of their number slipped and fell hard to the ground,
the roar of laughter at his misfortune,
so long as it wasn't quite fatal, was deafening.
All the hundreds of teachers my Father used to manage and pay each month,
aspired in those days, above all else, to a bicycle.
My father had to help them save for it,
and used to organise bulk orders at competitive prices for them.
If they bought a nice new felt hat,
they would wear it for ages still wrapped in it's plastic to protect it.
Everywhere you went in Rhodesia,
there were people walking along the road.
The husband usually in the lead,
the wife behind with a bundle or suitcase on her head,
children in hand, a baby on her back.
No matter how far you were from anywhere there were always people about.
This is one of the most immediately obvious differences
between Africa and Australia.
If you stopped your car for a picnic lunch,
in ten minutes there would be a group of wide-eyed piccanins,
watching your every movement.
The extended family was very important.
If a relative called, no matter how distant a relative,
he was eligible for hospitality.
In times of famine this was particularly hard on children,
because they always ate last.
Their staple food was sadza,
that is, ground maize, boiled and eaten either as porridge
or more usually as a thick dough,
portions of which were pulled off in lumps,
rolled and dipped into any relish there might be
before being popped into the mouth.
They loved meat, particularly the tougher and therefore tastier parts,
and they liked to leave it to go slightly high before cooking it.
Many years later when I was in my first parish of my own,
I had a church cleaner and worker called Everest.
I once went into the church hall
and smelt one of the foulest smells I can remember,
similar to the whiff of a five day dead kangaroo
by the side of the road in summer.
I tracked it down to its source:
the fridge in the kitchen had its door ajar,
and on a plate inside it, was a disgusting, unappetising, stinking,
yellow-grey, semi-liquescent splodge of animal origin.
I called for Everest.
"What is this?" I asked.
"It is my nyama, my meat" replied Everest, smacking his lips.
"Why is the fridge door open?" I asked.
"Because the nyama smells." said Everest, as if I was a simpleton.
"Get rid of it please," I said.
Which he duly did, by cooking it and eating it.
The Shona were very affectionate.
If they hadn't seen each other for a long time,
they would shake hands, and then not let go as they talked and laughed.
I remember finding this a little embarrassing at university,
when one of the old mission boys turned up as a student too.
There, in the middle of the crowded Students Union Building,
he would shake my hand and not let it go!
The University was one of the very few educational establishments
that wasn't segregated.
All the while that we were on mission stations,
the political situation in Rhodesia became more fraught.
When we first arrived the Federal experiment was still going strong.
The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
This eventually fell apart, due as much, if I remember rightly,
to growing black nationalist pressures,
and to British sympathy with them, as to anything else.
So Nyasaland broke away to become, eventually, Malawi,
under the fairly benign if egomanic Dr Banda,
Northern Rhodesia broke off to become, eventually, Zambia,
under the rather less than competent, lachrymose,
but certainly not malign Kenneth Kaunda.
But Southern Rhodesia,
with a much larger white population,
became simply Rhodesia,
and with a very, very limited franchise,
restricted almost totally to whites,
eventually elected Ian Smith's conservative Rhodesian Front to power.
Ian Smith declared UDI in 1965, I think it was,
and so began a long and impossible attempt
to stem the inexorable tide of black nationalism.
As a result Rhodesia became for the next fifteen years
the world's whipping boy, a pariah.
Sanctions were applied,
Obloquy and opprobrium were heaped upon the nation.
In those years Rhodesia was to the world
what South Africa later became
Somewhere for the likes of western politicians, not least Malcolm Fraser
to feel supercilious and self-righteous indignation over.
To castigate, punish and deride.
It has always puzzled me that the world,
especially the Western world at this time,
should have so selectively and thoroughly hated Rhodesia and South Africa
while being so much less hateful towards, for example,
the appalling Idi Amin of Uganda,
or much later to the perpetrators of the terrible genocide in Rwanda and Burundi,
or to the horrors of Mengistu in Ethiopia and so on and so on.
That Ian Smith was wrong, goes without saying,
that apartheid was evil goes without saying,
but the misery caused by both was far, far less
than the misery caused by black tyrants further to the north.
So why such selective condemnation?
It was, I think, a form of inverted racism.
It is not so bad for blacks to oppress and kill blacks,
because the killers and the killed are, after all, only black,
but if whites oppress or kill blacks,
how disgusting, awful, unacceptable.
Whites shouldn't behave like that.
It is letting the side down!
It just won't do, it’s the worst of crimes.
The rabid, anti-racist then,
could well be motivated by unacknowledged racism within himself!
When I was in my last year at school,
we left mission work and my father became a parish priest
in a suburb of what was then Salisbury.
I went to university there, where I was when Smith declared UDI.
His infamous unilateral declaration of independence from the United Kingdom.
The situation in the multi racial university was very tense.
Lecturers were deported, arrested, convicted of possessing weapons.
There were riots.
The University was closed for some periods of time.
I played little part in the drama,
being more interested in girls than politics,
Though even then I was never fashionably left wing,
and so was, I suppose,
disgracefully complicit with the majority of the whites
in the whole racist debacle.
I was never, however, racist at a personal level.
Because of my background on the missions,
I had African friends.
Many of the university Africans, with their chipped shoulders,
no matter how justified those chips, were harder to like.
And so the country slowly inched towards civil war.
I was four years at University,
then I taught for two years in Salisbury,
after which I left the country for five and a half years,
returning as a deacon and priest in about 1974.
I then spent three years in Salisbury,
and four and a half in a country town 80 miles south west of Salisbury.
During these years I lived through the worst of the civil war,
leaving for the Island of St Helena only a year or so after it all finished
and Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe under Bob Mugabe.
The strangest thing about the war
was how good everyday relations between black and white seemed.
I used to travel to distant parts of my parish in convoy
with a sub machine gun on the car seat beside me.
And yet relationships with black workers, servants, clergy, people,
almost every single one of whom supported the nationalists,
were, for the most part, amiable and good.
There was very very little of what happened in Kenya with the Mau Mau,
the murdering by servants of their bosses.
The Shona person in those days
was very circumlocutory and evasive in conversation with whites.
He has a great desire to please
and so tended to tell you what he thought you wanted to hear
in preference to the truth.
If you looked tired and asked how far it was to the next village,
he would say, ‘Not far, just a few minutes away’
simply to please you, even if it was miles.
Thus many whites were unaware of to what extent their servants
supported the nationalists and their guerrillas.
They would ask their servants what they thought
and be told what the servants thought they wanted to hear.
I could never get our delightful servant to admit
that he supported Mugabe’s guerrillas,
but when, at the end of it all,
Mugabe was arriving by plane for the election that put him in power
Raymond said to me:
‘Freedom arrives at 9.00 o clock this morning.’
His true feelings at last.
The freedom that has come to nearly all of Africa with independence
has for the most part
proved to be a thousand times worse
than the supposed tyranny that preceded it.
Zimbabwe, because Mugabe turned out to be more a pragmatist than an ideologue
and because he inherited a dynamic and going concern,
did not do at all badly for a long time,
but it has now gone thoroughly to the dogs.
Like so many, many other post colonial African countries.
We all wonder why.
It has nothing to do with innate ability.
The African peoples, for the most part
are very talented and able.
A lot of it is to do with tribalism
and cultural factors arising from tribalism,
for example, obligations to family and tribe are binding and strong
and are often seen to come before obligations to country
and even to the judiciary, nepotism is therefore endemic,
and of course, national boundaries drawn up by colonial powers
paid little attention to tribal boundaries,
so all sorts of anomalies and problems were left behind at the time of Independence.
But that is not the whole picture.
Another contributing factor, perhaps,
is that the nationalist leaders and figureheads,
were educated at universities during the cold war,
in the fifties and sixties,
and so nearly all were infected
by the extreme and fashionable leftist ideologies of the time.
They believed, excusably really, in revolution,
but the brutality of revolution
tends to corrupt and poison the ideals that the revolution stands for.
Many leaders, unlike Mandela,
were brutalised by the struggle
and they brought with them into power
little regard for human rights and dignity,
and also the half-baked, fashionable socialistic or communistic ideologies
of the universities of the sixties they attended in Europe or America or Russia,
applying them disastrously to the countries they inherited.
African socialism, one party statism, and so on....
The reason that Ian Smith and his government
were supported so blindly by the whites in Rhodesia for so long,
was not so much racist, though racism was undoubtedly a part of it,
as fear, fear that if power was handed to the majority
disaster would ensue,
and the country would inevitably fall apart
and the livelihood of the whites,
and everyone else would be lost.
These fears, as we now know, were well justified.
In the face of such real fears
would Australians have acted any differently, I wonder.
In the face of terrorism
we are prepared to forego civil liberties
that in less threatening circumstances we wouldn’t countenance.
With the advantages of hindsight
Ian Smith and we whites generally
were more stupidly myopic than evil.
Not least because one of life’s most necessary requirements
is learning to compromise with the inevitable.
Once the Ian Smith friendly Portuguese regime in Mocambique came to an end
the forces working for black majority rule in Rhodesia were bound to win,
and so blind resistance was stupid.
There should have been an immediate and serious attempt at compromise.
Had the whites dropped racism, for example,
and embraced the black middle class,
welcomed them into their suburbs and schools and clubs,
then, in alliance with the them,
they might have been able to forge a ruling elite that was not racist
and responsible government might have ensued, who knows?
But it is all academic,
Smith and the whites only attempted half baked compromises,
that no one could take seriously and so the chance was lost.
The war, in Zimbabwe which I lived through,
like all wars, particularly civil wars,
was thoroughly brutal and nasty,
it is hard to keep one's sense of balance
when one is burying friends and parishioners.
But it is not the politics or the war or the major events
that make me so love Africa,
rather it is the memory of the yeasty smell
of the first summer rain on hot, hot earth.
It’s the spectacular summer thunderstorms.
It’s the rattle of large termite wings against wet evening fly screens.
The smell of moths charcoaling themselves to death
on the tilly lamps on the mission.
It’s the smell of wood-smoke filtering through hut thatch in the early morning
It’s the insistent summer calling of the Piet me Vrou Cuckoo,
and the plaintive song of the Black Capped Bush Shrike.
It's the wide eyed beauty of shiny little black African babies.
It’s the orange or pale-grey lichened, great granite boulders and kopjes.
It’s the spindly trunked msasa trees,
miraculously coming into beautiful bright soft new leaf
after six months with no rain.
It’s termite mounds and baby chameleons.
It’s the unexpected sight
of a delicate little duiker or bush buck in the road.
It’s early morning chilled paw paw and fresh guava juice,
it’s a profusion of avocado pears.
It’s cheerfulness and laughter in the face of deprivation,
it's simplicity of life and basic values.
It’s the singing in churches, rich harmony, primitive drum beats.
It’s the orangey-yellow tall elephant grass alongside dusty rutted roads,
the fruit of the mahobohobo tree.
The flaming flamboyant trees,
the sweet smelling bauhinia and syringa trees.
It's little round-thatched-roof-hutted villages,
scattered throughout tribal areas,
perfectly at one with their environment.
One day, I will have to go back,
and it is not just nostalgia that makes me say so.
There’s something elemental about black Africa,
its despair tests the mettle of hope
revealing most of our hope shallow,
all the poverty likewise,
tests the mettle of our abundance and finds it wanting.
The place challenges our values and priorities,
points us, in fact to some of the elemental truths
of Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount,
and reminds us that if there is ever to be resurrection in our lives,
there has first to be death to so much of what we cling to.