Housekeeping in Rhodesia

DEAR A. L. —
You say you would be interested to know what life is like in such a place. Well, it is ninety-eight per cent petty imitation, and two per cent sheer beauty, consisting of dawn through a haze of gold and the still coolness that is Africa’s gift at sundown.
Two per cent loveliness seems small compensation. At four o’clock this afternoon I would have agreed that it was a full return, but now it is well past sundown. I am sitting on the stoop and can feel the soft coolness on my burning skin. Deep shadows that but a little while ago were a vast expanse of dry brown stunted bush rest tired eyes. The ‘boys’ have gone to their compound and with their going I have forgotten the imitation that is their contribution to our daily life.
One must begin with the ‘Munt’ (native), because in a way he plays the chief note in our daily existence.
In an outside place such as this it is especially difficult to obtain welltrained, respectful ‘boys’ who might help one to forget the many drawbacks of a spot where modern conveniences are unknown. It is too near Bulawayo, the Mecca of every Munt who has heard of its delights from his brothers. Our choice of servants, therefore, lies between a completely raw Munt who will drive one to murderous distraction until he is sufficiently trained to seek work in town, or else a trained boy, who, having been completely corrupted by those same ‘delights,’ has become such a generally unreliable creature that he can no longer find work in town. So he drifts back to the big native reserve near here, and when he requires money for his Hut Tax we have the privilege of his services.
It is an important question to us who live outside the cities. For climatic reasons we must be dependent on the Munt. We have no sanitation, electric light, or water that would enable one to say, ‘Very well, I ’ll make my own cup of tea.’ Oh yes, we have Avater and taps in the house that will produce the water: river water, medically condemned as unfit for domestic use— baths included. It is an artistic brown and has an aroma all its own that, if you should wash in it, would cling to you for the rest of the day.
It is because of this that you need the Munt for your early-morning tea. Water must be carried from the tank sent out periodically from Bulawayo. The tank is placed on the triangle, one quarter of a mile away, and we Europeans were not taught the art of carrying a paraffin tin full of water on our heads.
While the weather is warm we can count on tea at six-thirty, but if it is cold one lies fuming until seven o’clock, only to get up and, wrapped up like an Eskimo, run over to the compound and practise voice production. A man’s voice may have instant effect, but the poor woman is usually allowed to get to the screaming if not to the ultimate pathetic croaking stage before black heads appear.
Tea — and the most restful ten minutes of the day. Only it does not last — at least not for the woman. Out of bed she gets to dole out the bacon and such things to the cook boy, because if you gave him a free run of the supplies he would either cook a whole pound of bacon at one go or gracefully abstract a few rashers now and again (that’s the trained boy from town), so that by Wednesday there would be no more bacon.
That done, a glimpse at the breakfast table is advisable. Our present cook boy is very temperamental in that direction. Sometimes it is bare, sometimes you can’t see the table for the cutlery — rows of jars, pickles, jams, spoons, salt, and even an empty beer bottle. The latter may be a hint of an ornament.
Meantime the ‘Pikani’ is getting ready for his journey for the milk — distance one mile. Getting ready means collecting odd cigarette ends lying around to help him on his journey. That’s when I pounce on the milk bottle. To his constant surprise, I insist on having it cleaned. It is just as well to watch for his return to see if the bottle is still full or if the bright lad has found it necessary to refresh himself on the way home.
The houseboy has started cleaning the rooms. The week before pay day you could not find any fault with him at all except maybe that, in his eagerness to show you what a grand worker he is, he rubs the dusters to tatters, polishes the ornaments until they snap, and uses one tin of polish per room. After pay day, however, he loses interest in life and shows this by silently fading away into the bush. You strain your lungs to call him back and spend the morning hopping mad over dirty corners, sticky furniture, and fingerprints perfectly reproduced on the walls.
The dishes are being washed up. Here again the cook boy and I have different ideas — he likes the water really greasy — I don’t. Sometimes he humors me, more often not. The ‘Pikani’ should be cleaning up the back yard and removing the rubbish to a big hole you have had dug in the bush. Sometimes he is removing it — only not far enough. He loves a little spot just outside the garden, so that if the wind blows you have the fun of seeing it all come back again, which is especially funny on washing day.
You have a brain wave — have the hens been fed and watered? ‘Yes,’ says he, and if you ask, ‘When?’ he will probably tell you, ‘Yesterday.’
A breathing space at eleven — tea. You have time to sit on the stoop and admire your garden, or maybe you ’ll be lamenting as the white ant has destroyed a labor of months — that little bit of ground that you fight to hold against the bush, ever encroaching, the white ant continually destroying, the ‘Pikani’ invariably digging up your pet seedlings instead of weeds. Only this morning a glorious giant geranium, sporting a mass of gay red blooms, was destroyed. A snake saw fit to sit on my front step to bask in the sun; badly scared, it dived into the geranium for protection. My houseboy seized the biggest rock he could find and hurled it with all his might. Now the poor geranium is dead, but not the snake.
It is time to dole out food for lunch. Food! The vegetables from town are limp; the meat has to be cooked on arrival because it won’t keep in the heat. You keep disguising it in various forms to encourage the jaded appetite. The butter has become oily even in the water cooler. You lose interest, but pull yourself together because the cook boy is asking about lunch. He has been taught to make salads, so you can leave that to him, but anything else but roast, and stew he does not understand. The kitchen is an inferno. The flies sit on your nose, on your eyes, and tickle your ears. Your face swells and perspiration is trickling down your back and legs. The wretched cook boy is hot, too, — that’s only too obvious, — and you feel slightly sick. Meantime your eye has caught sight of a pothandle protruding from under the stove. You have it pulled out to find a few more things hidden there. No wonder the washing up was swiftly done!
So we go through the day, watching carefully over those minor details which, neglected, spell ill health — colic, dysentery from unclean food. Cleanliness in the house to obviate as far as possible the introduction of vermin or worse. Cleanliness in the garden — sanitary questions, painful but none the less necessary. Stagnant water in the rainy season breeds mosquitoes — crawling things. Nerves stretched taut all the time. We must not forget that we are expected to keep up a certain standard, whatever the odds.
It is not really a white man’s country, and certainly not a woman’s. I am speaking only about this part of Rhodesia where there is no life in the real sense of the word — no civilization, no entertainment, no possibility of meeting new people and forming new ideas to keep one’s brains alive. The woman especially is bound down by the petty things.
Life in a small place like this is not cheap. We have not the advantage of being able to choose from various shops, but are at their mercy. One’s children must go to boarding school and generally we in the country need a number of small things that one can do without in town. Also the doctors’ bills are higher in such a tiny district.
I am afraid I have said a lot without really giving you a clear picture. But as most of my conversation consists of that bastard language ‘kitchen Kaffir,’ which can hardly be called conversation since it must remain one-sided, I will ask you to forgive me. One has little opportunity to talk in such a place. My husband either sleeps all day when he is on night duty or else he is working. A weekly call by the rest of the village is for the most part a travesty of sociability, since both sides have long since exhausted every conceivable topic of conversation and are, despite mutual liking, inclined to become irritated with each other. Also, if one half of the village is Dutch and the other English, as here, a gulf remains. The two nationalities do not make a friendly contact — or, friendly yes, but not intimate. The Germans have a very apt word for that — unsympathisch.
I have enjoyed writing you this long cool evening and thank you for the opportunity. To-night I have hardly been aware of the maniacal screams of the hyenas that have been haunting this district of late or bothered about the hundreds of unknown mutterings of the bush which may be this or only that. Every other week of nights alone in the house, as is the lot of a foreman’s wife, is not too good for the nerves. At the end of this month I shall be leaving all of this for a while. A little more than my share of malaria and a dose of blackwater fever has made a trip home imperative.
Am I glad? Well, yes. Glad to escape the further trials of the rainy season, but quite miserable at the thought of missing the revelation of the bush that comes with the first rains.
Can you picture it? This vast expanse that for months has been but a barren baked brown — almost desert — springs into life overnight, into a mass of emerald green. Flowers of rare beauty will be your gift from the bush (if you care enough to wander through it) and the sweet pungent scent of moist earth that is the breath of Africa. I should need to write a series of books to give any clear idea of this irritating, maddening, and glorious country. Possibly, though, this will give you some idea of our kind of life.
With kindest regards,