SOME HUMOURS OF HOUSEKEEPING IN RHODESIA
By Ethel Colquhoun Jollie – November 1916
A CANADIAN friend of mine, who was much interested in promoting the emigration of educated women to the Dominions, used to say that they suffered chiefly from the lack of a sense of proportion. The fact of the matter is, that when one changes one’s continent one must also be prepared for a wholesale revaluation of the things of daily life. Fortunately for me, I took up a household which had already been run for some years by another Englishwoman, and found many comforts which would otherwise have been lacking; but no amount of ingenuity can surmount the fact that one has no water laid on it must be fetched in buckets about half a mile no kitchen sink, no store-room, no cupboards, no larder none of the conveniences which the most “general” of cooks at home would think indispensable, while our domestics are but one remove from primitive savages. Yet it is possible to evolve a scheme of existence which, while providing comfort, does not leave out the amenities. It is possible that one’s meals should not only be eatable (modesty, as I am chief cook, prevents me from saying more than that!) but decently served. The first thing is to decide what are essentials, and here comes in the need for a sense of proportion.
Woman, I discover, is not indispensable to a man’s comfort in Rhodesia. With the intelligent and adaptable native to minister to his wants, the bachelor can achieve a considerable degree of comfort of a rude kind, and is able to indulge to the full in all sorts of slack habits specially induced by the African climate. Shaving at long intervals, pyjamas all Sunday, smoking ad lib. in bed, with breakfast at all hours these are some of the indulgences which a wife may be expected to interfere with, and which must be balanced against the delights of matrimony. The African bachelor is never driven into marriage by the monotony of having to do his own washing up! The more necessary is a sense of proportion for the new and reforming wife. The worst of it is that a sense of proportion which worked infallibly in Kensington or Mayfair may be hopelessly at fault in mid- Africa. One needs a sort of graduated scale for every mile that takes one away from what is politely called “civilisation.” Perhaps a sense of humour is a good substitute, and this one certainly wants in ratio as one gets farther and farther from the ready-made world and deeper and deeper into the world where one must make everything for oneself food, drink, amusements, comforts, all the things that seem to be laid on like the electric light at home.
Now, I don’t want to be impolite to this neighbourhood, so I will leave the readers to decide for themselves where to place us in the scale of civilisation. We are 165 miles from a railway, an English church, a bank, or a public-house. Our nearest telephone (which, through the telegraph, links us with the outside world) is twenty miles away. We get a post once a week, rather well cooked, from having come a day’s journey on the head of a native runner. We have no golf links. We have no racecourse indeed (owing to the prevalence of horse – sickness) only plutocrats and police have horses. The rest of us travel slowly and laboriously on donkeys. A few have mules. The best one can say for a mule is that it is not a donkey.
It would be misleading to say that all these things only dawned on me by degrees – they had been described before, but things seen and felt are much more actual than things heard. Withal I had heard for months past the praises of my predecessor in this particular cook-housekeeper job, and when I expressed any misgivings as to my own qualifications, I was reassuringly told (for instance) that “no woman ever could make bread properly.” Evidently a high standard is expected. Thus I took the reins with much trepidation. In the first place, I did not understand a word of the language spoken in the kitchen. This is an abominable bastard between Zulu, English, and Dutch, known all over South Africa as “Kitchen Kafir.” It consists of a number of words strung together without any attempt at grammar, inflection, or syntax. Zulu itself is one of the most thoroughly inflected languages existing. The governing noun in a sentence affects the form of practically every other part in it, and the eight classes of nouns have each their particular pronouns both for singular and plural.
In Kitchen Kafir, on the contrary, we talk like children about “Me go,” or “Him have.” “Me,” “You,” and “him” or “it” being our only pronouns. Other words, rich in Zulu synonyms, are worked to death; as for instance the verb kukisa, which means “to boil.” We use this shamelessly for every kind and degree of cooking, although there are twelve native words for different kinds of boiling alone; I even tell my boy to get me “kukile” fruit, when I mean ripe fruit, and he understands, though he might well pity the poverty of my vocabulary. The classic story, however, is of a lady who addressed the following order to the servant in charge of her child. (The word “kumkum,” it must be mentioned, means “rain.”) “Take the picanin baby out, and if the kumkum comes, come back ! ” As a matter of fact Kitchen Kafir is evidently regarded by natives as the language of the upper ten, probably because it is learnt at the mines, whence the younger generation returns with all sorts of iconoclastic ideas and some money. I have heard boys addressed in fluent Zulu reply in Kitchen Kafir. Of course Zulu is not their original native tongue, which varies slightly, and is called in this district Chindau. But the grown men always seem to understand Zulu, and only the women and picanins talk Chindau.
With all these tongues humming round me I could not understand a word, and the hopelessness of the feeling has to be experienced to be believed, because, besides the house servants, there is a constant coming and going of farm boys, and one longed to know what was going on and what all the talk was about. A boy would come up and ask for the “Inkoos” (master). Thus much I could understand. Then he would plunge into a long history, evidently of the most absorbing interest. Probably Inkoos would fly into a royal rage, and deliver an ultimatum of some sort in a dramatic manner, but what it was all about I could tell no more than the man in the moon. It was intensely aggravating.
But even more humiliating was my position in the kitchen nominally my own domain, but really owned by various small black people, who did what seemed right in their own eyes, and carried on conversations and made jokes in my presence with an all too evident assumption that as I was unable to communicate with them they need not bother about me. Not that they were rude; their natural manners are good, and they stand too much in awe of the “Inkoos,” but they could not be expected to be more tolerant than the historic old gentleman who complained that the natives of France didn’t understand their own language!
I remember one day at this stage of my experiences how my husband brought a neighbour to the verandah at about eleven o’clock, the hour at which all South Africans drink tea or coffee, and said, with the diffidence of the newly married, “Can we have some tea?” To which I replied, “Of course,” with well-assumed confidence. We do not permit ourselves this pernicious indulgence, thinking that tea twice and coffee twice a day are quite enough. I hurried to the kitchen. The fire was dead out, of course I had expected that, Ben and Pungewa were conspicuous by their absence, and the water-barrel was empty. This appeared to me to be a suitable problem for those ladies’ papers which have a column for questions on social behaviour. Would Lady Clara Vere de Vere under similar circumstances return gracefully to the verandah with a bland non possumus, or would she, by brilliant conversation, distract her guest’s attention from his tealess condition? For the first I had not the pluck; the second, alas! was debarred for the simple reason that the visitor was Dutch and did not speak a word of any language known to me. A third, and very attractive alternative, was to go out for a long walk. I forget what I actually did, but the proper course, as I know now, was to shout for Ben with all the power of my lungs, and to lay upon him the onus of producing fire and water, remembering that this is Africa, and the chance of our guest being in any hurry is remote.
But these were the days before I had established an understanding with Ben, when we were still groping in the dark as to each other’s meaning. Ben is a full-grown “boy,” aged about twenty, but he is very small and neatly made, whereas the natives round here are usually tall and often heavily built. Ben is a Christian, and sings hymns as he turns the handle of the cream separator every morning. They are very dismal hymns, and he sings them alternately in a high falsetto or a nasal tenor. Sometimes he sings “God save the King.” I listened the other day, for some time, thinking “I know that tune. What is it ?” He wears a shirt and knickers, instead of the heathen costume of a vest (locally known as “sokkis”) reaching to the waist, and leaving the stomach bare, and a “foya,” or gaily-coloured cloth, fastened round the loins with the two ends hanging in points on either side. I do not think, however, that there is any bigotry about the question of dress. There is a pair of some one’s old riding breeches on the farm, of ultra-sporting cut, and they appear to be communal property; every boy has a turn at them. Trousers are evidently “coming in.” On Sunday the village bucks may turn out in a tight white suit, puttees and brown boots, with a green “Trilby” hat on top. Ben is a smart little chap in his workaday clothes, but when he is on leave he wears a pair of dark trousers much too long for him, large brown boots, and a “silver”-handled umbrella. It has taken me many months to convince Ben that I provide him with neat clothes, and soap to wash them with, in order that I may see him clean and tidy. His idea was to save up these things until he went on “fagash” (“holiday” or “visit”).
Ben, in this country where boys usually only work for six months at a time, is an old retainer. He came to my husband more than a year ago, stayed with the S.’s while he went home, and met us when we arrived at the riding stage of our journey here. He says he wants to stay, and he gets 12s. per month. Last month he asked for a rise. Thank goodness the Inkoos deals with such matters! I should never have dared to refuse, but the Inkoos knows better. Ben is to advance, but “festina lente!” we will talk about the rise in another three months’ time.
But if Ben is an old retainer, his assistants are the reverse. In engaging a housemaid here one is almost as much at a disadvantage as in a London registry office, where the housemaid engages you, and may stay if you suit her. Here the term of service is settled, and is never more than six months. There is a village on this farm, whose inhabitants pay no rent, and enjoy all the rights of occupation in return for the obligation to supply a certain amount of labour not free, but for the current wages. Two girls to wash and iron, and one or two for the house, are part of the bargain, and it is amusing to note that they come as a sort of favour, and often very unwillingly. At first, when Pungewa, the ” housemaid ” I inherited, finished her time and left, no girl was forthcoming for me, and it was only by the threat of wholesale eviction that a very sulky little damsel was at length produced. Her father is the village oracle, jester, and orator. One has often met his counterpart in what I was going to call “real life,” the kind of man who loves greetings in the market-place. George, for that is his name, will walk ever so far out of his way in order to give one a salute and say, with the raised hand which younger natives are ceasing to use, “Morrow, ‘Nkosikas!” In the fields George entertains with a flow of jocular conversation, and when the Inkoos maliciously sent him to work all by himself, he bore it for one day only and then came to complain. The occasion of the impressment of his child was a unique opportunity for George, and he harangued us by the yard on the disobedience of the younger generation, for, according to him, it was the little girl herself who refused to come. “Beat her,” suggested the Inkoos, knowing well that they never beat their children, even for serious faults. “If I beat her, ‘Nkoos,” says George, “she will run away.”
The second day of her service she said she had “a snake in her stomach” and asked to go home. If a black person says they are sick, one cannot safely contradict them, and as they enjoy the most nauseous medicine there is no means of detecting malingering. After three days we ordered Mashua’s return. George came up and said she was nursing her sick mother. We were adamant; so George washed his hands of the matter, and the sick mother, forgetting her rôle, appeared in person and said Mashua was nursing a sick baby. She sat on the ground and did the pathetic for quite a long time; but we were still adamant Mashua must work, or the whole family must leave the farm. Next day she came back, accompanied by her fond papa, who delivered a harangue to the effect that he had demonstrated his loyalty and devotion by bringing me his child, and then (turning to her, and speaking in Kitchen Kafir so that I should understand) he gave her a lecture on the duties of small girls who work for kind ladies! As a matter of fact, parents put every obstacle in the way of their picanins going out to work, for they lose their labour, and the small people keep their own earnings. The work is light and the food abundant, and they invariably improve in appearance. Mashua is bursting on every side out of the frock that was big when she came.
Mashua sulked for a fortnight, and then I lost my patience and boxed her ears! I never recollect boxing any one’s ears in my life before. It relieved my feelings mightily. She ran outside the kitchen and stood with her face to the wall for quite a long time, twisting her fingers together, her funny black face working. She is about eleven years old, and well-grown and fat, with perfectly shaped arms and legs like gateposts. There are many shades of colour round here, and some natives are copper-brown and have straight noses and well-shaped skulls. But Mashua is black, and when she is cross or sleepy she gets blacker. She wears a horrid little blue cotton frock which I made her, and in which she is the ugliest little girl imaginable. In her own dress of a kilted petticoat striped with red and sewn all over with pearl buttons, a gaily patterned cloth draped under one bare shoulder and over the other, and a perfect regalia of bead necklaces and copper anklets and bracelets, Mashua is really far from plain, and she is actually beloved of a most eligible parti the waggon-driver of a neighbour. She is, as a matter of fact, sold to this man, and will be his wife as soon as she is old enough, and as soon as he completes the lobola, or wife price. It is customary to pay something down in advance while the girl is a baby, and this constitutes a hold on her father. But he really courts her all the same, bringing her gifts whenever he takes the waggon into town, and coming to see her every Sunday. He has even asked me to do a photograph of her for him ! But, of course, I did not know all this when I boxed her ears. When she recovered from the surprise she was as meek as possible, and she steadily improved from that time, until now she is really an infant prodigy. What English child of that age could make a double bed or lay a table, or be trusted to carry trays of china and wash them?
It will be observed that I had passed beyond the deaf and dumb stage before the advent of Mashua. It lasted less than a month after I was thrown on my own resources. I “swotted” up Kitchen Kafir, and no sooner had I done so than I was sorry, for now I am trying to learn Zulu, and with this horrid jargon on the tip of my tongue I am no longer spurred by the necessity which is the best of all language teachers. I have also a Chindau vocabulary, and every now and then I trot out a word or two, with the result that Ben and Mashua are not at all sure that I could not talk their lingo if I liked! They never talk to each other in my presence now, or if they do, it is in the lowest tones. Nor do they swiftly and suddenly vanish away, as was their wont, since they have learnt that there are certain tasks which come in regular rotation, and that it is the better part of wisdom to do them at once. We have our conventions, of course. In London my maids used to call going out for a gossip “Taking the dog for a run.” Here Mashua goes to “look for eggs.” The hens roam all over the garden and round the pig- and cattle-kraals, and they lay their eggs anywhere except in the nice nests provided for them. I found one in the guest-room bed recently, and two in our dressing-room this morning!
With a small enamel basin on her head, and her hands clasped behind her back, Mashua wanders out of sight every afternoon about four o’clock, and returns only when the sun has set and the brief twilight is dwindling to darkness. It is contrary to etiquette for her to run when I can see her, or if I call her. She moves her thick legs as if they were stiff. But once or twice I have caught a glimpse of her running like a hare, and when I am not in the kitchen I hear her quick eager voice and gurgles of laughter. I never saw her smile at first, but one day Ben upset a whole panful of hot water on the floor, and I called to her to mind her feet. She took one spring into the wood-box and burst into the merriest, childish laugh, and ever since then she has forgotten to be solemn and slow, in order to keep up her protest against being made to work. She would probably have to do much harder work at home, and when pay-day comes no drunken parent collects her shillings. She is free to spend them at the store, and does so spend them, buying white limbo, gay foyas, and beads of every colour. Last month she bought an umbrella, spurred to emulate Ben. During a heavy shower I saw her returning from the wood pile, a bundle of wood on her head, and the umbrella held as much higher than the wood as her arms would reach.
To appreciate one’s real inferiority in the things that matter out here one has only to watch the dealings of the native with fire. We have only partially tamed Fire, and he is always getting out of hand with us. But the black man has him in thrall. A little heap of wood, a few white ashes the fire is dead, we say. But the black man pulls the wood together, sticks a wisp of dry grass into it, blows and behold, a crackling, blazing fire. Fire does not burn the black skin as it does ours at least, Mashua, bidden to make a fire in another room, just picks a flaming brand from the kitchen stove, places it on a flat bit of wood, and walks calmly off with them. She arranges the blazing logs with her bare hands, and should she happen to tread on a live spark with her bare feet, is apparently quite unconscious.
Nor do poisons affect the stomachs inside the black skins in the same way that they do our own more delicate organs. There is a kind of native marrow which the women bring, and which are usually quite nice eating. On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, however, the first mouthful I took had such a bitter taste that to swallow it was impossible. It was like concentrated essence of quinine. Even the small quantity of juice that went down proved a poison so strong that I was ill for twenty-four hours. My husband swallowed one small piece, which acted as such a powerful emetic that he got rid of the poison immediately; but Ben, summoned to account for having served a vegetable which he ought to have recognised as poisonous, chewed a bit of it meditatively, remarked that it was like “muti” (medicine), and that some marrows were bad, some good, and apparently felt no evil effects!
It is part of the duties of a housewife to dispense “muti” to the sick, and I used to wonder at first how I should diagnose their complaints. I need not have worried. Our pharmacopoeia does not permit of very varied treatment. There are two recognised kinds of illness pain in the head, usually indicated by tying a string tightly round the affected part, and “inyorka” (a snake) in the stomach. It is etiquette to locate the disease, but the treatment is identical a whacking big dose of Epsom salts, in warm water, drunk on the premises. Occasionally a sort of tucked-up appearance suggests fever, and then we give quinine; and I had one picanin who had to be regularly dosed with calomel and quinine. I gave orders that he was to have no solids (his temperature being over 100), and sent him milk and broth ; but this treatment seems to a native like putting him to death without solid food he is sure he will dwindle and die. So the little boy’s father removed him from my jurisdiction.
“Muti,” by the way, is the Kitchen Kafir word for all sorts of things. My boots are cleaned with “muti,” and so is the kitchen stove. Bicarbonate of soda, as used in cooking, is “muti,” furniture polish is “muti,” and when Mashua’s young man was trying to explain that he wanted me to take a photograph of her, he said (with appropriate gestures) that he wanted me to look, look, look, and then put it on a little piece of paper with “muti.” I may mention that, as far as cleaning materials are concerned, Ben shares with European servants of my acquaintances a profound belief in the efficacy of “muti,” and lays it on with a trowel, regardless that the nearest source of supply is several days’ journey away. I am for ever telling him “Bitjaan! Bitjaan!” (a little) another hard-worked word. Recently we asked one of the boys who had asked for leave to go and see about a new wife whether he were married yet, and he replied, “Bitjaan, ‘Nkosikas !”
Speaking of our distance from supplies brings me to a side of the housekeeping here which is far less difficult than I had supposed. I, who had never kept house more than a few minutes’ walk from Kensington High Street, or without a telephone, must now think for months ahead, for it is only when a neighbouring waggon is going in to Umtali, 165 miles away, that anything weighing more than a pound or two can be got. But we are self-supporting to no ordinary degree. Our bread is made from wheat grown and ground on the farm, with a percentage only of fine flour; we have our own butter, eggs, bacon, ham, sausages, and brawn. The garden supplies vegetables, and for fruit we have in their due seasons oranges, lemons (all the year round), guavas, bananas, passion fruit, pineapples, and paw-paws. Apples, plums, and other temperate fruits are a chancy crop, but the first-named are plentiful. For meat we have several kinds of buck, which are excellent eating, also guinea-fowl, and a small pheasant. Every now and then some one kills a fat beast, and part of a sheep can often be bought. The only difficulty is that these things cannot be had in small quantities. To get a mutton chop one must kill a sheep, and the beef we all enjoy once or twice palls terribly as piece after piece comes out of the salt-barrel, and we eat, like the old Scots family who ate, “Up one side and down the other from chine to rump and from rump to chine,” during the long winter when fresh meat was unprocurable. There is always, of course, the indispensable fowl, and the native variety (much modified by interbreeding with imported stock) is a tender and tooth-some little bird. We drink locally-grown coffee, or a beverage known as “honey-beer.” Commercially we have not advanced much beyond the barter stage, and the man who has some spare cartridges (very rare just now) will exchange them for a ham, and will get coffee in exchange for two small pigs.
Having inherited a well-filled store cupboard I have not had many contretemps, but on one occasion, when our “county family” came on a visit, the worst happened. “The worst” is to run out of bread. They upset my calculations by arriving either too soon or too early I forget which. The bread which ought to have seen us through vanished too quickly, and when I dived into the kitchen to improvise a substitute in the shape of a baking-powder loaf, I found that the tin which I had so confidently expected to hold baking powder was empty! Somewhere I knew that I had a recipe for scones made with carbonate of soda and cream of tartar, but could I find that recipe? It hid itself from me for some agitating moments then Eureka! I was saved.
Most people in these parts have a simple way of meeting all such deficiencies. The principal crop here is the mealie, and mealie porridge is the staple food. When in doubt – play mealie porridge; that is the golden rule for the housewife. It tastes rather like a very insipid milk pudding, and they cover it with coarse white sugar, and eat it with milk ugh! It is cheap, wholesome, and nourishing, and to disparage it is a species of high treason, but I could not preserve my self-respect as a craftsman cook if I permitted myself to lapse into the porridge habit. Besides I don’t like it!
There are many animals to be fed besides humans. Trumps, our half-bred Zanzibar donkey, walks boldly on to the verandah for his mealies; his three wives (for he is a Mormon) and their foals merely content themselves with eating my garden borders. Fowls and chickens come fluttering round every evening when they see me with a certain basket, but no sooner have they started than “Gobble, gobble” come the turkeys, driving the smaller birds before them. A portion of porridge is served out to each of the four dogs at this hour, and the cats get what is left of that and the skim-milk. A frieze of cats and kittens sit all along the end of the verandah, and my Irish terrier has a game with them. He lies some distance off his plate and waits till they have crept up to steal, and then he suddenly dashes into their midst. The puppy, on the contrary (she is going to be as big as a leopard), gulps down as much as she can of her own food, and then wallops clumsily round trying to get a bit out of every one else’s share, getting her nose well scratched in consequence. It is a more amusing dinner party than many I have attended, although the table manners of some of the family might be improved. Still, they have their standards. It is not the correct thing to interfere with a buck which another dog has helped to bring in. My little Irishman came in last week, with the boy who was carrying the dead buck, and the big pointer, who had not been out, met them. Instantly the terrier growled and stiffened, and Dick, after a sniff or too, acquiesced, and contented himself with watching the disembowelling from afar off, although he could easily have disputed the terrier’s right. Judy, the puppy, not being properly educated yet, was not so complaisant, and when growled at she simply said, “Silly old thing, do you think I mind that? Come off the roof !” Or words to that effect. And the terrier, who would not hurt his little friend, gave in in a sort of indulgent way, allowing her to lie beside him and lick the warm blood, a privilege no grown dog would have been accorded.
You see, we have no theatre to go to, so we must make our own little dramas, with black people and dogs and cats for dramatis personae. There are human dramas going on, but not much comedy, for these big new countries are not a good setting for comedy; one needs a mellower atmosphere, a more mature philosophy. But I long ago came to the conclusion that dogs and cats have a strongly marked sense of humour, and now I know that donkeys possess it also. Last month we were starting off on a little round of visits an expedition which had involved much preparation and planning. And when I came out, ready to start, with all my domestic affairs in order, I found that Trumps had chosen that day to pay a visit to a lady friend at a distance. Suppose you were going out of town for a lovely week-end visit, and the railway people announced that all the trains had struck. Would you laugh? Well, I did. In Rhodesia, you see, there is no hurry, and nothing is more fatal to an appreciation of other people’s humour than to be in a hurry.
And so, in Arcady, we cultivate a sense of proportion. We are amused at trifles, but we know they are trifles, and if we are annoyed why, we know our annoyances are trifles too; and once a week, when we make contact once more with that far-off world where men are fighting and working and suffering, we plunge again into the world of big things. Then the lamp burns dim as we devour page after page of printed matter, the wood-fire flickers low it is brighter outside in the broad sheet of moonlight. And so we come back to Rhodesia, and begin to plan tomorrow’s tasks, and, as Walt Whitman says –
“I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any.”
ETHEL COLQUHOUN JOLLIE.
I have transcribed the above from my own original copy of Blackwood’s Magagaze in which it first appeared.
Mrs Jollie remarried following the death of her first husband, A.R. Colquhoun, and here still used his name by which she had been known. She later used only new husband’s name, Tawse Jollie, and became better known as Ethel Tawse Jollie.