Life in 1920s Rhodesia


To the newcomer from northern climes, life in Rhodesia is, at first, a very strange thing. It blinds him with the glare of unbelievable sunlight, stuns him with the shock of incredible distances, and bewilders him with the problems of his attitude towards the native, with a new kind of living and social life, democracy where there was none at Home, and again, social barriers which had no part in his private existence of three short weeks ago, before the boat sailed from Tilbury or Southampton.  There is this speed of transport from one world to another, entirely different, to increase the first shock, which may come pleasantly with the thrill of adventure, or distastefully until Rhodesia has opened her arms of sunshine and good fellowship.  When the shock subsides, there come with custom, travel, and knowledge, a readjustment of values and a capacity to look round and form an opinion. And then present-day Rhodesia appears as a land of contrasts – those contrasts of great spaciousness and great narrowness which are the “awkward age” of all young countries.  There is the spaciousness of romance, the material spaciousness of distance and area – men think (in the most matter-of-fact way) in 4,000 acre farms, 40,000 acre cattle ranches. and 1,000 mile car and railway journeys; there is the material spaciousness of “thinking big” when a man remarks, quite casually, “Oh, yes, I opened the —– Mine there” ; – and one sees, by the mind’s eye, the difficulties of organisation, the work of thousands of natives, and the the transport of thousands of pounds worth of heavy machinery to some far-off place in the infinite loneliness of the veld; and one remembers also the days when great companies took over, for the mineral wealth, tracks of country the size of an English county, and thinks of that wealth which may yet lie hidden in bare, unpeopled, mountain ranges where towns may spring up and railways run in coming days – for it is said that Rhodesia has only been “scratched” so far as her minerals are concerned.

So much for the spaciousness. And the narrowness? – lies at present in the “awkward age” in the distance from the large centres of South Africa, in the distance of Rhodesian towns from one another, all of which result in a rather “Main Street” town atmosphere, a certain parochialism, and a lack of that side of life (though in the towns this state of affairs is improving) which lies in books, pictures and good music.  A great deal of this last is due to the climate, which would draw the most rabid bookworm, the most ardent music lover, to the outdoor life of games and shooting and motoring.   In Rhodesia books are apt to pale before that world outside the window where beckon vivid sunlight, the lure of blue distances and hills purple-cut against the dying flush of day; where moonlight calls to the world’s end over roads softly white to a far horizon and black pools of tree-shadow, changed to haunts of potential tingling adventure with the coming night.

Herein is the heart of Rhodesia, the root of that saying, so often heard, that the ideal Rhodesian life is “on a farm, about twenty miles from Town” – so that Rhodesia, outdoor Rhodesia, may be tasted to the full, yet leavened by occasional contact with “civilisation” that Rhodesia will reveal, however coyly, a little of that very self of hers which calls back to her old Rhodesians from the farthest corners of the earth.

Let us take a day with outdoor Rhodesia. Farm life opens with the loud clanging of a gong, not the distant, carefully modulated hall gong which awakens the town man to the realisation of bacon and eggs, but a strictly utilitarian, log-range gong, designed to render sleep anywhere within half a mile or so – and certainly in the native compound – an utter impossibility.  It is a rusty plough disc, suspended from a tree, and beaten with energy and a spanner, by a native in khaki shorts and white singlet.  It is extremely effective.  The farmer is immediately and painfully aware that dawn is at hand.

“Morni, Baas”  (Good morning, sir) – a very small, black piccanin looms vaguely through the bed mosquito net with a cup of tea.

“Morni, Sixpence” (for so the White Man has christened him) and one drinks, dresses, and goes out into the chill of early morning on a kopje-side, where the sun, as yet hidden, throws his advance guards of gold up into the eastern sky. (There is a vast amount of sky here, almost terrifying, sometimes, to the newcomer). Far below, there is a chatter among mushroom-topped huts seen through the trees, blue smoke wisps rise and feather; and, presently, a long file of reluctant, dark figures, little and far away, pass out on to a great expanse of red soil which could be the father of several British farms. (And this is but one of the “lands”!)  Then Afrikander oxen with horns like great half-moons (if they could be distinguished in the distance) go out in three blocks over other parts of the expanse, shepherded by shrill piccanin shrieks of direction, form orderly into platoons and, after a while, move almost imperceptibly, slow black slugs across the scene. Weird shouts, savouring of Hell at its worst, and whip cracks (surprisingly near-sounding despite the distance) come from their directions . . . . The oxen have been inspanned, the ploughs are going, and the “m’chaili” (driver) is “talking” to them.


Breaking up the stubborn but remarkably fertile soil of Rhodesia.

And now, a far granite kopje gives first coral greeting to the sun, a whole blue range takes up the salutation to the horizon, many miles away, then a great tree-studded hill flank nearby, and long bars of mist fade and vanish one by one. The day has begun.  One descends one’s kopje (hill), takes the names of the native gang (now weeding, in a long black-backed line, with native hoes) and encourages them to further efforts, quaintly and in kitchen Kaffir which (being translated) is as follows:  “Mashumba, fat one! See the grass you have left behind you.  Perhaps I give you money to make loafer always? Perhaps you want to lose 6d on your ticket? . . . Ah!”  (A quick, most expressive sound, this, ranging in meaning and inflection from humour, or wonder, to reproach).

Then: “Shoniwa, your trousers are dying quickly there behind.  Now I know what you do when I am not looking after you! You sit down and make holiday – that is the indaba.”

Shoniwa grins with a gash of white teeth and moans in extravagant sorrow: “A-a-a h, Baas, I do not make loafer. My trousers are very old now.  I have not money to buy ‘new-one’ trousers.”  Craftily – “Give me ‘squellet’ (advance on pay), Baas, to buy ‘new-one’ trousers.” The request falls on stony ground.  One knows something of social events in the native compound.  One asks sarcastically: “Perhaps one has not just given £15 ‘lobola’ (marriage fee) for the female child of you? Perhaps you have not put it all on ‘doro’ (native beer)?  Perhaps that is not why the white there in your eyes is brown and your legs go, go, go like an old man, the morning now?” (Here one gives a humourous pantomime illustration of extreme decrepitude.) There is a howl of laughter from the native gang (he is a great and cheery laugher, the Bantu) and one departs up the kopje for breakfast after explaining that, on returning, the gang must be as far progressed as a certain ant-hill, 200 yards ahead.

Tobacco Planting on the Marandellas Estate was first undetaken in 1904, – British South Africa Co.

Breakfast, a return to the gang who (needless to say) have not reached that ant-hill, a walk round the ploughs, tinkering with broken plough parts in the workshop, and back to the gang. One stands and moves slowly forward with them in the heat, while the mind wanders over many matters, and the eye drinks in the day, the exquisite curve of a far hill- shoulder, stately-distant in a scorched, 40-mile-off range; a blue jay swaying gracefully on a mealie stalk; an eagle, its wings sun-filtered, pinned far overhead against the azure sky, and a plume of dust from an unseen car (one wonders whose it is).

A pot of tea arrives – and returns empty to the house.  Later a gong sounds and works stops for an hour.  It is 12 o’clock and lunch-time. The afternoon is the same until the sun sinks to a dull red gold-fish bowl, and the hills gather purple shades. The day is done.  In the last shafts of the sun piccanins skip back to a tune less whistle, almost lost in clouds of thick dust touched golden by the light; there is yodelling from all round; fires wink up in the compound; and after a while, the “kaya” (house) at last; clank of heavy boots on the floor, dropping of tired sun-helmet on the table.  Then an easy chair, “sundowner,” and a quiet pipe, watching the day going to rest in deepening shadow, and star-lamps flung up one by one into the high vault of deepening blue.

It has been a good day, an active day, a healthy day. One is tired and content and ready for bath and bed.

So life goes on, varying, of course, according to circumstances and produce (cotton, tobacco, mealies, or cattle etc.) – but fundamentally it is always the same on a weekday.  On Sunday, perhaps there is a visit to a neighbouring farm where tennis and a religious service by a parson from possibly 100 miles away, are delightfully sandwiched, and the men all stand together (watching the tennis) and talk farming, while the women, also together – for most of them have been divorced from feminine society since last Sunday – talk hungrily of dresses and other refreshing matters. There are social events , augmented once a month or so by a farmers’ meeting at a village hall or neighbouring estate, where there is much discussion of things agricultural, the drafting of resolutions, and afterwards, friendly discussion, over beer and whisky, of the latest type of baboon trap and so forth.

Thus through the seasons, through the blazing heat of October and November, with anxious eyes ever watching for rain, ploughs forging slowly, day after day, through the parched tracts of the “lands” tempers getting a little short, clouds banking up thicker and thicker of an evening in great bergs of crimson and grey.  Then the rains break, the “lands” are peopled with little, two-wheeled, ox-drawn “planters”; the first green shoots appear; growth; anxious discussion when rains seem to have gone for ever; more rain; crop speculations; harvest and the selling of crops – and then, the Great Event of the year – the agricultural show at Salisbury, or Bulawayo, Umtali, Gwelo or Fort Victoria.  Here all the farming world assembles and discusses the the carefully selected exhibits, the pick of tobacco barns, mealie and cotton crops, cattle kraals, and pig pens, all over the Colony. And the farming world dances , and goes to theatre and cinema, and forgets the farm for a few days in places where hotels seem things of great wonder and lounge suits sit tightly upon unaccustomed shoulders.

And so it goes on.  Hard times or “Dam’ fine crop old man,” lonely or full times, it goes on almost always with energy and optimism, and, above all, the feeling, which is a habit in time, though men starve from the lack of it, that here, at least, out under the open sky with his own land beneath him, a man is his own master.  He possesses himself.

The town Rhodesia is a life apart from this, not so much because the Rhodesian townsman sees nothing of his country (streams of cars go out into the veld for picnics or farm visits each week-end), but because the feeling of great spaces, the knowledge of cloud and wind and veld, which become almost an instinct with the farmer, are not with the townsman. And the average townsman is not to the same extent his own master.  But he has his compensations, fuller social life, and closer contact with the outside from which the average farm is of necessity isolated except for short visits to “Town” and the weekly arrival of the newspapers.  The most comprehensive view of Rhodesian urban life can be seen in Salisbury and Bulawayo, the seat of government and the head of the railway organisation respectively, with, naturally, the respective flavours of Civil Service and railways in their makeup.

Let us take a town day in Salisbury, which opens not as the farm day does with hideous clamour of gong, but with the shuffling, barefooted arrival of a “house boy” with tea.  Salisbury wakes up and looks around, always to see sun-gold filtering through curtains, but, taking things generally, in two distinct types of rooms – the comfortable British-looking, homely bedroom, and, in a large number of cases, the small neat, sparsely furnished bedroom of a boarding house, for Salisbury and Bulawayo are regular boarding house “reserves” and their populations, the young and unattached in particular, have a habit of drifting from one “home from home” to the next.  So the family man opens his windows to a grass lawn with gum and fir trees behind and the sparkle  from the garden boy’s watering can upon bright beds of flowers, while the young and unattached (and some others) open theirs upon a boarding house quadrangle or a road.

Breakfast – and the day’s work begins with a stream of cars, motor cycles and cycles (very many of these) over long macadamised roads, tree lined and glistening, with a mirage ahead under cloudless sky and low morning sun.  The stream divides; its tributaries flow into one-storey and two-storey Government buildings, sprawling haphazardly round squares, and rather homely with their red-brick, non-official look; and they flow into many little two-roomed offices and wide fronted shops. It is a very comprehensive stream, for few do not work in Salisbury – and it stops at 9 a.m. What does it do?

In Government offices things happen which, in a few days’ time, will move a native commissioner or mining commissioner from one part of “the blue” to another 300 miles away, or send a young Customs official from the comparative cool of Bulawayo to the broiling heat and strange tongues of the Rhodesian Customs Office at the Portuguese port of Beira; or they may send a very new settler, the pink of England still on his cheeks, to some far off farm.  Then a bronzed, young Government land surveyor drops into his office from somewhere at least 100 miles from sun-scorched anywhere, and speaks, quite truthfully, over 11 o’clock tea, of that lion he missed, one water-side evening, by the skin of his teeth, or the kudu which (after five well-placed bullets) suddenly came to life and vanished in elephant-high grass.  And all this time, Government typewriters are clicking incessantly and prettily-dressed typists wonder aloud “when the Chief’s going to stop being so appallingly energetic.”

In the streets, meantime, housewives or their houseboys are shopping industriously; there is tea chatter in cafes and on cool stoeps and in drawing rooms of private houses; and throughout the town quite uneventful, everyday things are going on.

There are girls buying silk stockings and new hats in quite up-to-date shops with long plate-glass windows.  perhaps, of course, there are white tropical suits about and a few sun-helmets hanging on office doors; but such things have long lost the flavour of romance with which they come to the new arrival.  Yet, the atmosphere is different, more free and easy and “shirt-sleevy” (up to a point) than it is at Home. And there is romance for the man who seeks it.  Just come to the white-washed High Court where the criminal sessions are being held and see. Outside there is a crowd of seated natives – grizzled, blanketed old men, wearing dignity and the copper half-moon insignium of chiefdom, native women, attired in their favourite blue calico, with little, shiny-headed, babies on their backs, a whole horde of black skinned, chattering humanity, with tribal marks and age-long superstitions ranging from the Limpopo to the land of the Barozwes, a thousand miles up the Zambezi.  In time they will, one by one, enter the witness box, before a white-wigged judge and a bewildering array of white men in black gowns and white ties, and give some account or other (many tings depend upon what kind of account it will be) of what they saw in a certain place at such and such a time.  Inside the cool court room, under the electric fans, one Mokaza, a native from Mount Darwin, said by some old chroniclers to be the Land of Ophir, is explaining why, in accordance with the law of his fathers, he has taken the perfectly natural course of indicating Tengapasi, “a certain native woman there residing” as a witch and, thereby (though he cannot, for the life of him, understand why he should not) contravene the Witchcraft Suppression Ordnance.

Yes, there is a little romance here but – it is 1 o’clock already; blue uniformed constables in white helmets are shepherding the remaining prisoners back to gaol.  The Court rises and joins the stream’s lunchward ebb back to another world – where there are no witches.

Salisbury’s work stops at 4 p.m. and any time after; white movement of tennis parties filters through garden shrubbery; small schoolboys in khaki shirts and shorts cycle past with their sisters to the swimming baths; and then to setting sun and bad tennis light succeed peacock green fusing, illimitable worlds up, into deep blue of star-bed, and hint of rising moon. Comes friendly, flannelled, talk to the clink of glasses on may stoeps and then dinner. And afterwards? – the “pictures” with great craning of necks in the intervals to see who is there, for many people know many other people, and to discuss them is one of the spices of life; and there are bridge parties, “talk” parties, and there float though the clear night air the notes of a distant piano, sounds of gramophone and young laughter . . . .

. . . . While, just over a mile away, native drums throb to thrill the blood and a certain space is full of wild shrieks and yodellings, the whirl of naked, clay-daubed bodies dimly seen; weird grass effigies of snake, giraffe, and elephant twirl like teetotums in deafening uproar of shouts and handclapping, and there is a frenzy and a strange excitement (which is yet familiar in an odd, very far-off fashion) and a feeling of Very Old Things come alive again. It is the the Zinyao dance of some Nyasaland people in the native location, and there, perhaps, sweating and yelling Old Words, as he capers in an ecstacy of excitement with his moon-thrown shadow, is perhaps, the silent, shuffling person who brought you your tea this morning. It is quite all right. He will bring your tea to-morrow morning, too, and with equal silence and efficiency.  At the present moment, however, he is (from the Rhodesian point of view) performing the very healthy operation of “letting off steam.”

And what else happens in these Rhodesian towns? There are visits of well-known theatrical companies, visits of well-known lecturers, of scientists interested in the Old Things of the land, annual visits of Royal Air Force and South African Air Force on the Cape to Cairo flight, and many other events which draw the crowd. But these are passing things.  More lasting is, for instance, the habit of “watching the mail train go” which calls many people to stations all along the line, as much in larger towns as in lonely sidings in the veld, to see their friends go off on “Home leave” or “down to the coast.” Then there is the going Home oneself, at varying periods from two to five years, according to health, finance, and inclination;  and there is the feeling, on arriving at the goal of several years’ desire, as one slips back into the life of England, that Rhodesia was rather brighter and free-er and better to live in than one previously thought – and it was at least sunny and warm.

Yes, the sun’s the greatest thing, life’s the second, and, in foggy London, comes the conviction that, though Rhodesian life may have seemed like a curate’s egg, the good patches were well worth the bad.

 . . . And one returns to the sun because one can’t help it.



The above article was written by Mr. N.S. Ferris of the Rhodesia Herald and was edited by Allister Macmillan.

Photos from the Rhodesia Annual 1926 and the British South Africa Annual 1926/27.