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Lions in our Garden…Wonders of an African Childhood

Lions in our Garden. Wonders of an African Childhood… A kaleidoscope of memories tumble through my mind; a brick house with a thatch roof overlooking a a mighty river; a flood plain reaching to the horizon; white water lilies in ponds of azure blue, like jewels studding folds of green velvet; the call of the majestic Fish Eagle; ducks in formation winging their way across a sinking sun; the twittering of birds in leafy trees; a little village named Senanga in Barotseland, Northern Rhodesia where, in the 1950’s, my memories begin….at that time, a British colony, known today as the Western Province of Zambia.

Chapter 1

At Home in Senanga.

Our garden in Senanga, Barotseland, overlooking the Zambezi floodplain. Oil painting by Steve Morgan, District Commissioner, Senanga; painted for my parents.

I skipped down the verandah closely followed by my sister, Vivienne, aware of the view through the gauze that ran the length of it, a panorama of wide blue sky arching above the Zambezi River which lying central to the scene, was a vibrant blue, sparkling in the early morning sunshine; the far bank of the river opened onto the flat flood plain which stretched as far as the eye could see to merge with the horizon; the river took a lazy curve to the left, winding past the Boma homestead, just visible through the trees bordering the river bank. A brick pathway ran across the lawned garden to a little gate which opened onto a grassy area on the rise above the river, hiding the near river bank from our view. Huge trees were dotted here and there in the garden and beyond, while small woodlands on either side framed the scene. It was indeed a perfect panorama, forming part of the kaleidoscope of memories that tumble through my mind whenever I think of Senanga in Barotseland, Northern Rhodesia, known today as the Western Province of Zambia.

My father Clinton Woodworth Brent, known as Tim, arrived in Northern Rhodesia from South Africa in 1939 with his parents and his younger brother, Trevor. My father began his career in the Colonial Veterinary Services as a Livestock Officer, while the rest of the family settled on Kilima, a farm in the Siaisi district of Abercorn which today is known as Mbale. It would appear, from Trevor’s letters written before and during the war years, that this was their own farm, but I have not been able to verify this from documents or records.

The intention was to remain on the farm for good, but the Second World War changed all their plans. Trevor records in a letter that Clinton arrived at Kilima on his way to Nairobi to enlist in the Kenya Regiment and he, the younger brother, was not going to be left behind! A letter dated 23/6/1940 : “Clinton and I are leaving for Kenya training camp on Friday. We had a very pleasant surprise when he turned up here on Tuesday.” Tim would have been nineteen years old, and Trevor even younger. As a matter of interest, Trevor wrote that in May: “We had a huge lion through the vegetable garden 30 yards from the house but lost his spoor on hard ground…”

The brothers travelled together in a convoy to Nairobi. Meanwhile my grandfather Victor Brent, who had seen action as an officer in the RAF in the First World War, decided that he was joining his boys in Kenya; by August 1940 he was back in the RAF, this time in an office job in Nairobi; my grandmother Doris accompanied him. On 17/8/40 Trevor wrote in a letter… “somehow I knew that he wouldn’t see Clinton and I off without him. I had really hoped that Dad & Mom would settle down on Kilima and stay there. Nevertheless in spite of it all I’m jolly proud of them.” Victor was eventually posted to Cairo!

Tim served throughout the war years, seeing action in Ethiopia and North Africa. By the end of the war he was in India, maybe in preparation to enter Burma; thankfully the war ended before that took place. Trevor joined the RAF; he was killed in action over Gibraltar in May 1942. Having gleaned from Trevor’s letters that the family was a close knit one, I have come to the conclusion this was so devastating that my grandfather sold Kilima and returned to South Africa. From descriptions in Trevor’s letters Kilima was in a beautiful area.

A photograph of Trevor in uniform smiled down at us from his position in the row of family portraits. When I was old enough to ask who that young man was, Mummy told me his story, adding “We never talk about Trevor, it’s too sad;” and we never did. There was an exception to that remark, the one story Mummy told me; that she, my father and Trevor were boarders at the same secondary school in Potchefstroom, South Africa; Trevor and Moira had been sweethearts during their schooldays, after Tim left to start his career in Northern Rhodesia; she met Tim after the war on one of her visits to the Brent home in Kuruman. Vivienne and I loved the story and thought it so romantic; Daddy never spoke of Trevor, nor of his family life except to occasionally give us little glimpses into his boyhood. So it was we discovered there had been a farm called Kilima and had some idea of our father’s life long after his and Mummy’s deaths, when we found among their possessions the letters Trevor had written to Moira during the war years.

Tim and Moira Walsh were married in July 1946. The newly weds travelled to Northern Rhodesia, where Tim’s career, interrupted by the war years, continued in the Veterinary Department, his first post being at the Research Station in Mazabuka. The agricultural and veterinary departments had set up the Research Station in 1925 on 265 acres of land. It functions today, and appears from Google Earth to be as we knew it all that time ago, as Daddy was stationed there many years later, and it was here that my brother Jim was born in 1963.

However, in 1947 the hospital facilities were inadequate, and Moira had to be rushed to the Lusaka hospital 125 kms away for my birth as I decided to arrive before my due date; so despite the carefully arranged plans, her departure for the hospital was, of a necessity, a race against time. It was John Hobday the senior veterinarian at the station, who came to the rescue. Mummy loved to tell how she was bundled into John’s rather flimsy two-seater plane and before she knew it they were bumping along the rough sandy airstrip in clouds of dust, leaving an anxious Tim to make the trip by road which was as rough as travelling on the airfield! The Hobdays’ were well known in the territory and Betty, John’s wife, eventually became head of veterinary services; Mummy had many stories of the good times they shared with John and Betty.

An entry in my baby album in my father’s handwriting reads, under the heading ‘Long Journeys,’ that we travelled from Mazabuka to Sesheke, Barotseland, when I was five months old, which would have been in August 1947. My sister Vivienne put in her appearance in 1949; she was born in Livingstone, not far from the site of the famous Victoria Falls. We arrived in Senanga, upstream from Sesheke in 1950. I do not remember anything of Sesheke, though we have many photographs to enliven Mummy’s stories about our lives there.

At last, we are back in Senanga, skipping down the verandah, intent on being outdoors! The house, separated from the garden beds by a wide sandy driveway, was the only government house to have a thatch roof. To my mind, it was the prettiest house in Senanga, and had an optimal position; a wise person, I thought, had chosen this site for the veterinary compound many years before; built on a slight rise above the Zambezi, cool breezes from the river wafted through to the lounge and dining room, which opened directly onto the verandah; the fine mesh gauze along the length of the verandah provided a barrier to insects, and as there were no blinds or windows the magnificent view lay ever before us.

The thatch roof ensured a cool house in the hot summer months, a warm house in the cool winter evenings, and provided shelter in heavy rainstorms. From the vantage point of the verandah, we were aware of any movement and sound in the garden and beyond; it became our living space, and there we did everything; Mummy spent her day on the verandah, her sewing machine at our bedroom end, for from the verandah she was aware of our whereabouts, and we could see her from outdoors. A group of large comfortable chairs typical of colonial days arranged at one end provided a comfortable gathering place.

Birds called to one another, flying from tree to tree, or hopping around on the ground searching for insects and seeds. The friendly grey lizards, silvery in the sunlight, scampered around the rocky birdbath, and little creatures in the garden waited to be discovered by two little girls to whom every day was an adventure. Out we went through the reed curtain hanging in the front doorway, which swished softly against our backs as we passed through. This curtain was made of little pieces of dried reed threaded through long strings, and attached in a criss-cross fashion to a frame that hung in the doorway. The purpose was to brush the flies off your back as you entered the house and the reed curtain was efficient and attractive as well as making a soft reed-tinkle-sound as the strands fell across your body.

Notes:

  1. Boma: British Office of Military Administration, so named in the early days of the British Empire. It became the administrative centre of government for local areas, and minor court cases were held here. The D.C’s and D.O’s, District Commissioners and District Officers respectively, were stationed throughout the colonies and their headquarters were at the local Boma.
  2. DC : District Commissioner.

Lynette Clements.

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