Memories of Rhodesia


For those who enjoyed Tom Hogg's Life in the Lowveld, here is another one of his essays.


Simpler, more humane times! "The lame, the halt and the blind"

At first glance, it is not really that common for the fortunes of any country to be altered dramatically and very quickly by an agricultural commodity. Food production generally goes up or down, I would imagine, in  tandem with the population of a country, or as export markets are grown slowly but surely, to absorb excesses of production.

However, the introduction of tobacco growing in Rhodesia just after the end of The Second World War, heralded the beginning of a brand new and really exciting era for the whole land. (And, the use of the word, "exciting" generally just spells "trouble" in one form or another, I have discovered!) It is probably safe to say that it was a "defining moment" every bit as important as any of the other more easily recognizable and carefully recorded events, such as the arrival of the Pioneer Column, The Matabele and Mashona Rebellions, the First World War, Self Rule (I think) in 1923, the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties, The Second World War, Federation, U. D. I. and those long, sad War years that still haunt many of us, in different ways, to this day.

The main "drivers" of this "nicotine revolution" can probably be found in the hundreds of young men who were fortunate enough to have survived the horrors of The Second World War. They would have left Rhodesia to fight for "king and country", many of them young farmers, clerks or unemployed and glad of the opportunity of a grand adventure. Some of them just boys out of school. But when they returned bringing with them the self confidence and experience that only four or five years at the very "coal face" of man's most destructiveness can produce, they would have been game for anything.

It is in any case, wise for a country to have something productive for returning soldiers to do. Men who have been killing other men professionally, on and off for a while, need something else to focus on and the quicker the better, I would imagine. A country, proud and above all, grateful to its warriors needs to reward them for the sacrifices and deprivations it has obliged them to endure.

What better way to do this than by making farming land available to exercise the energy and ingenuity of those men. Land was readily available in Rhodesia and presumably it was not that expensive to allocate a farm to a man, give him a small grant to get going with and let him get on with it. I know that the "returning soldiers" were assisted in going farming but I have to admit to not knowing much else about the scheme, except that the farms in the Tokwe Valley where my father and grandfather had farmed since 1913, suddenly filled up with new faces.

Those farms had been surveyed in 1911 by an American surveyor, strangely enough. The names he gave to the farms as he went about his work reflected his home land, with such names as Missouri, Havana, Nebraska and Kentucky featuring. The outbreak of the First World War, followed not long afterwards by the Great Depression stifled any attempts to settle the other farms. The result of this was that my "ancestors" had the use of vast tracts of land for their cattle for about thirty five years. At first glance this looks like an excellent situation to be in but in reality, my father told me, there was no "market" for cattle for many years. The same applied to maize and if you had a good year, so did everyone else and the price would quickly plunge to very uneconomical levels.

I suppose the population was relatively small, with many sections of the country's inhabitants not yet really involved in the sort of "mainstream economy" which we take for granted in this day and age...export markets were probably almost non existent for agricultural commodities. For many years the early farmers in Rhodesia had been somewhat preoccupied with getting some of the original population of the country off their newly acquired land. Many of the locals, in any case, shunned working on commercial farms in the early years and my father used to employ "Bureau Boys" who came all the way from Barotse Land in Northern Rhodesia. (now modern day Zambia). They were "contracted" for a certain period and then went home or possibly blended into the local population if that suited them better.

Jack was a laborer who came from Barotseland and who worked for the Hoggs in those early farming days. At that time a train ran from Gwelo to Fort Victoria once a week. It would wait in Fort Vic for a couple of days and then make the return journey to Gwelo so completing the cycle in one week. It was Jack's job to carry a small cream can (full of cream, of course!) every week, up to Iron Mine Hill to catch the train on its return journey from Fort Victoria to Gwelo. He would then collect the now "empty" can from last week. This was a distance of 25 miles from home to the rail siding and my father used to tell how Jack had a special "shuffle", a bit faster than normal walking but not quite running, with the can held up on his shoulder. He was certainly good at it because as we all know, the "souring" of cream waits for no man in the tropics but as soon as the loan taken out to buy the "separator" was paid off, from the proceeds of the cream sales, Jack's "shuffle" was over and he presumably resumed more normal activities.

The tale of an 'nDebele man, whose name is now lost in the mists of time, and who worked for the family in the very earliest years is possibly also of interest. He had been "one of Chief Lobengula's hunters", by reputation anyway and was more than a little deaf as well. He claimed that he and some other Matabele warriors had been chased into a cave during the Matabele Rebellion and that the Troopers who were in pursuit had "dynamited" the cave, resulting in hearing problems for the rest of his life, presumably. We will never know if his story was true but Dad said he told it with great animation and excitement to any willing audience. To this man fell the task of shooting one buck every Friday. He was given just one cartridge and the shotgun and never failed to return without an animal for the pot, either a duiker or a reed buck. Eventually a Model T Ford was purchased which made access to town easier and fridges were invented to keep meat safe for longer and Dad refused to ever eat venison again!

Any way the scene is set whereby, up to the late Nineteen forties, not too much was happening in the world of agriculture, and then suddenly TOBACCO growing started to catch on and all sorts of new forces started to kick in! At last a new product that the rest of the world wanted badly, from a country with the ideal climate, skills and initiatives needed to make the plan come together.

As any one who has lived on, visited or grown up on a tobacco farm will testify, it is a place of hyper-activity for much of the year. I have added the"visited" bit because just the other day while I was at work at the local hardware shop in Buckingham (England) were I now "earn my crust", my peculiar accent gave rise to some discussion "about one's origins." I am afforded the "luxury" of being able to proudly tell people that I am an "Old Rhodesian"...not a Zimbabwean, especially as I am now denied the "citizenship," for various reasons, of the land of my birth. This reminded the fellow with whom I was chatting, that he had at some time in the past visited family who farmed tobacco in Raffingora and he remembered above all the happy, diligence of the workers on that farm and the absolute "hive of activity" that went on there!

The need for large amounts of labour was paramount in those early years. Later years gave rise to a greater degree of mechanization but at the start and in subsequent years a huge migration of labour took place back onto the farms as rising wages brought on by "supply and demand" made working on those farms much more attractive. The locals failed to meet the demand and many workers now came in from neighboring countries like Mozambique and Nyasaland to fill the gaps.

Workers from across the whole "spectrum" of society began offering their services to the new tobacco growers...young and old, male and female, strong and weak both of mind and body. An opportunity presented itself on a really big scale to earn "real" money and to enjoy the new social life which was developing all across the tobacco growing areas of the country. The work was hard and dirty for tobacco plants have rather sticky leaves, which left a layer of "gummy" stuff on you as you worked your way through the tight rows of plants. In addition, when reaping began for the next barn to be filled, nothing was allowed to stop that process...not rain, no matter how heavy, nor "darkness" at the end of the day when daylight ran out before the job was finished!

The end product was much more valuable than any commodity that had ever gone before and great care was needed at all stages of production to achieve the best possible end results. Seed beds were prepared and planted in winter and had to be watered daily, then the seedlings were planted out with a "cup" full of water to see each plant through the next week or two, the timing being carefully calculated to precede the start of the rainy season. Weed control, pest control to keep caterpillars and crickets at bay, animal control because kudu enjoyed eating the growing points out of tobacco plants, were all required at various levels. The "suckers" and flower on the top of the plant had to be removed during the growing period. Various applications of fertilizer along the way and eventually it was time to start reaping the crop

"Strength and manual dexterity" quickly became basic requirements and the less able bodied, no matter how optimistic they might have been, were shunted off to one side, in a manner of speaking. In other words, they were "signed off" and told to move on! Business was business, even in those days!

And now, at last, this is where the story of "simpler, more humane times" mentioned by Jennifer a little while ago begins, for she has the "honor" of having shaken up the old "memory banks" this time. If I was asked to describe my father in a few words, I suppose "kind and patient" would pretty much do it, although in reality there was much more to him than that. His labor force had a fair number of able bodied men in it, for one could not succeed without their input, but the lame, the halt and, in fact, the blind were also given jobs (or found refuge) according to their capabilities on the farm. Visitors to the farm would look around in wonderment or disbelief as these unfortunate fellows went about their tasks. I doubt that there was much that any "critic" could have said about my old Dad or his strange workforce that would have disturbed him in the slightest...he just did things his way, and didn't really give a "damn" otherwise. This characteristic presented me with something of a challenge when I went to work for him after leaving Chiredzi.

Dad had an aversion to "change" partly brought on I guess, by a perpetual shortage of ready cash for expansion, and while the newly arrived "return-soldiers" were busy buying Fordson and Ferguson tractors to carry out the heaviest work, on their new farms, he still did it with oxen and an ox-wagon. I have to admit that after his first year's tobacco crop he was obliged by both the need for greater "speed" and a bit of spare cash to buy a little gray Ferguson. The time of "the pace of the ox" was over as far as heavy work was concerned. As the "span" died out from natural causes, they were not replaced but until the last ones grew too old to work, they still continued to pull the hay rake when grass was being cut and stored for winter time.

I can still remember riding on the wagon when I was about five or six. Old experienced oxen were obviously good to use since they "knew" what was going on at any given time. Once they discovered that it was time to "work" one in the group, who was proficient at opening "concertina" gates using his horns, would lead his team mates to the furthest corner of the farm overnight. This naturally caused a slow start to the day's work resulting in a fair bit of cursing and shouting as the "Umfaans" were dispatched to find them and bring them home again. The great lumbering wagon was pulled by sixteen oxen and could carry thirty bags of mealies. There were three important workers involved in the success of a wagon journey of any sort. At the very front of the slow, creaking "caravan", was a "leader" usually chosen from the young "umfaans" who hovered around the edge of the work force waiting for an opportunity to get employed. I seem to remember the leader or "mKokelo" getting crapped on for anything that went wrong with the journey as is probably the way with any apprenticeship. In addition to that problem he always faced the real risk of a cantankerous ox taking a "stab" at him with a long sharp horn now and then if he got a bit casual. It was the leader's job to literally pull on a "rheim" tied to the horns of the two front oxen and to guide everything around corners, between trees and through the river crossings that punctuated any journey.

The "driver" of the wagon carried a long plaited whip and walking along side the oxen and was responsible for keeping the "show on the road". The whip was "cracked" periodically making a noise not unlike a rifle shot going off. This cracking whip would give the oxen a small fright and remind them of their requirements and the whole wagon would give a temporary lurch as it briefly picked up speed.

On the couple of rides which I can remember, the whip was purely symbolic and I doubt was ever really applied to any of the oxen, although it could well have been when an emergency called for "greater" effort than was normal. The driver was also given a sort of "divine" right to whatever poetic license took his fancy and I suppose a good driver would keep up a running commentary both on the progress made so far and on society in general. The language used was certainly descriptive and occasionally crude, to say the least, but this must have given some relief from the tedious journey taking place at only about two miles per hour, if you were lucky. All the oxen had names derived from their looks or individual characteristics and they would be praised or roundly cursed according to the whim of the driver.

The third "operator" was the fellow whose responsibility it was to run to the back of the wagon and turn a big metal "crank" to apply the wooden brake blocks to the back wheels as soon as a steep descent was encountered. As is the way of Africa, forward planning and "anticipation" have never been strong points and when the wagon started to gather momentum on a downhill, a good deal of shouting and cursing could be expected, to "wind up" the individual concerned, before disaster could happen.

The following, then, are some "thumb-nail" sketches of some of the characters that you might have encountered if you chanced to drive into the yard at Rio, from the nineteen-fifties when I was a small boy, to nineteen seventy nine when our family eventually moved off the farm after enjoying its use for some sixty-six years.

Alphabetically, the first would be a man by the name of Biya. Biya was what was rather unkindly termed "deaf and dumb" in those days and I remember him helping with the milking of the so called "dairy" cows and chopping the endless supply of firewood that the old, black stove in the kitchen "gobbled" up in barrow loads every day. He might not have been able to hear or speak but when he got excited he was capable of at least a hundred "decibels". Something like finding a "boom-slang" in the wood-pile would trigger unintelligible alarm signals of note, the likes of which a visitor to the farm would remember for a long time! He had a "wife" who was quite blind and "wife" is in italics because neither of them had any known family. They therefore literally had no worldly possessions to pay for, or relatives to carry out negotiations, as required by custom, so it was a "marriage" of convenience and survival. A handful of children followed their blind mother when they came to collect their rations, with the oldest one in front, leading its mother along to keep her safe.

Then there was Dzimbanete, who was known affectionately as "Njovera". If you just happen to have a Shona Language Dictionary handy, you will find that the nickname is the word for that "unfortunate social disease", "syphilis" so that one speaks for itself. Dzimbanete wandered through the paddocks day after day, week after week, year after year, etc. etc. with his "shanu" or axe over his shoulder and searched for cattle in distress of one sort or another. He undoubtedly also checked his snares while doing the rounds.

Kwatayi was reputedly a descendent of the royal family of Chilimanzi. As a youngster he had been riding on an ox and had fallen off so dislocating his hip joint. (or breaking his pelvis, perhaps?) There was no one available with the knowledge, of what I gather is a relatively simple, if very painful procedure to put this problem right. As a result he spent the rest of his life with a permanently dislocated hip somehow learning to "walk" again in spite of his injury. It gave the effect of his having one short leg and one long one and he used a knobkerrie as a stick where ever he went and sort of "dotted one and carried one" as he went about his day. It is difficult to believe that one could ever walk upright again with this sort of disability and one cannot even begin to guess at the incredible pain he must have suffered during his lifetime. I do remember that he was very bad tempered all the time and that he always had a "dagga cigarette" hanging from his lip. I would imagine there was a certain amount of "pain-killer" involved in his smoking habits but he had the rheumiest red eyes I have ever seen! Kwatayi milked those so called dairy cows as well and looking after the chickens, where he was responsible for beheading them all eventually, one at a time, for the "Sunday" roast!

Matemera was a short, old man, probably only about five feet tall and not too bright. He cut the tall thatching grass that grew around the yard and all the way up the avenue of gum trees that lead one the last five hundred yards to the homestead. When he reached the end of the avenue he worked his way down the other side, a task which took a good six months to complete, using only a sickle.

Mabodho too was somewhat different. Nobody could remember when he arrived on Rio and no-one including the old man himself had any idea where he came from in the first place. He suffered from what I believe is called in medical terms, an "inguinal" hernia resulting in what certainly looked like a large portion of his intestines being outside the place where they should have been properly kept. The discomfit caused by this problem caused him to hunch over terribly as he shuffled along and over the many years I knew him he got lower and lower to the ground, but he never complained and insisted on coming to work where he too cut grass, sitting down, and using a sickle. Dad once took him to the hospital in Umvuma to see if there was anything that could be done to relieve his condition. When the doctor discovered that he had in fact suffered that way for many years, he suggested that those sorts of things were best left alone and that was that.

These characters then were some of the workforce that my father had at his command when he started growing tobacco in 1950.

At that time he would have been sixty one years old and deep in debt, to the tune of £3000, having had to buy his deceased father's half share of the farm from his brother and sisters. In this day and age £3000 represents a respectable monthly wage, here in England, but it was easily as big as a king's ransom nearly sixty years ago. He grew no more than about twenty acres of tobacco each year, preferring to concentrate on quality rather than quantity, and used to tell of the excitement and trepidation of attending the auction sale of his first crop of tobacco in Salisbury. Although a man who was literally frightened of nothing he admitted that he was "shaking" as he collected that first cheque shortly after the sale ended, and so profitable was tobacco growing that within the space of a few years he had paid off all his debts, buying back the half of the farm that he had already spent most of his lifetime paying off!

The country's Tobacco grew steadily into a huge industry over the years to the point where Rhodesia was a world class player in the field at one time. No other agricultural crop ever had the same impact on the economy in so short a time!

In 1979, by which time the war had beaten us into submission, we were in full retreat from our old home farm. Our useful, able bodied labor had been driven off, I suppose by circumstances beyond their control. My "Boss-boy" or foreman, Ephraim, with whom I had grown up, approached me and explained very apologetically ..(maybe the FN that hung permanently off my shoulder had some thing to do with his particularly good manners, as I would imagine my sense of humor was starting to wear thin at this point)... that they had no option but to leave as soon as they were paid the month's wages due to them. He also explained confidentially that all our lives were in grave danger if this simple requirement dictated by the "terrorists" was not met. With most of our neighbors' workforces already gone and some tragically sad evidence of what would probably happen, there was little else to be done but to pay them their due. Overnight the able bodied workers disappeared "like rats leaving a sinking ship!"

Now I was left doing "damage" control using my Guard Force men and a couple of workers I had "press-ganged" from Que Que to "dismantle" as much as possible and to save as many of our cattle herd as I could from this disastrous situation. Stock theft was becoming rampant and fences were being cut all over the ranch, creating havoc.

I had an old, seven ton Bedford lorry and we began the task of carrying away the accumulated worldly possessions of sixty six years of farming. Roofing sheets and timber was pulled off the sheds and houses, boreholes had piping, engines and pumps dismantled, implements etc. all had to be carted off to a temporary base on a farm near Iron Mine Hill, which was in a somewhat safer locality. And every time we left either of the two homesteads, crawling off up the road with a full load and blowing clouds of black diesel smoke, the local "robbers" would be straight in there doing their bit of "dismantling" too!

In the middle of this "transport" turmoil there appeared in the yard, a rather tragic looking group consisting of "the lame, the halt and the blind", carrying their worldly possessions consisting of a few blankets and cooking pots. Kwatayi, Mabodho and Biya, along with their ancient wives asked for permission to "come-aboard" as well. I remember trying to persuade them that they were under an obligation to "desert" me along with their more able bodied colleagues but they assured me I was quite wrong in this regard!

And so these pathetic old souls were helped onto the lorry and moved along to the next staging post at Iron Mine Hill. Eventually, I bought a small farm near the old Drive-In on the Selukwe Road just out of Gwelo which I pessimistically named "Hopeless Farm", and everyone moved there and settled down for the time being. As things started to calm down in the Tribal Trust Lands most of the "refugees" made a plan to return to Chilimanzi, but old Mabodho in fact had no idea where he came from, so had nowhere to go, anyway. One day my new "foreman" Charis (Charles) announced that Mabhodo had passed away in the night.

I suggested that he pick a suitable place and bury the old man. I can remember an absolutely horrified look on his face as he shook his head, and when I asked what the problem was he explained that only a blood relative could carry out the formalities required to ensure a funeral with a successful outcome, so that the old man's soul could rest in peace. When I suggested that I was quite happy to assume the role of surrogate relative, since there was absolutely no-one else, and that he now had my blessing to get on with it, he assured me that that plan simply wouldn't work either and that the possible consequences of treating such matters lightly were definitely not worth chancing.

At a loss as to what to do next, I contacted the local police, and they sympathetically removed the old man's remains for a pauper's burial. With hindsight, maybe I should have dug the grave myself, and buried our old retainer, for there is plenty of evidence these days in the troubled land of Zimbabwe, that many basic formalities were not followed and that the land cannot be "at peace" for a while yet.

To my father then, Thomas Angus Hogg.....1889 to 1982

My father was fifty seven years old when I was born in 1946, and he had actively farmed on only two farms for over seventy years by the time he passed away at the age of nearly ninety three. After "matriculating" from Marist Brothers College in East London he worked for his grandmother on her farm at Bolo Reserve in the Eastern Cape for five years. Then the whole of his family moved to the "new" Rhodesia in 1913 and he farmed on Rio Ranch until 1978/9.



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