SONG OF THE RIVER
Older listeners will remember the film made with Paul Robeson from Edgar Wallace's stories of Sanders of the River in which there was sung a remarkable song by the men who paddled the canoes down the Niger. Only a generation ago there were hundreds of such songs which could be heard on the Zambezi. They were like the old seamen's shanties, in that they set the rhythm of the task and provided stimulation to those who were performing it. It is sad that few have even been noted, for the craft of paddling a large canoe is now almost as obsolescent as the skill of handling a ship under sail, and the canoe song, like the sea shanty, is doomed to die. But only a generation ago, the normal means of transport down the Zambezi was by canoe.
Fortunately, in 1936, a Mr. S. R. Denny, presumably a Native Commissioner of those times, placed on record both the melody and the words with which the paddlers encouraged themselves on their long journeys. He describes the rhythm of the songs in this way: "When paddling, the outside hand holds the paddle shaft below the bulwarks and over the side. The shaft is tapped on the side of the canoe during the stroke and again as it is withdrawn from the water. Then there is a pause before the new stroke." The rhythm, as I understand him, is thus of four beats to a bar, but it gives the effect of treble time. . . paddle in . . . tap. . . tap. . . pause. . . paddle in . . . tap... tap. . . pause. The speed of the stroke varied from forty to forty-four the minute, and many cross rhythms developed as the paddlers sang. I will not ask John Hooper to sing the music but it is interesting to note the themes of the paddlers' songs. Again like sailors, the canoe-men sang a great deal about their wives, their girl-friends and their homes.
There is a song about the man who goes home and brings his wife a pretty dress; but he finds she already has one. And when he asks her how she got it, she says laconically "because I am clever," and there is laughter and a jeering chorus. Or, just to show that men are not always the fools in marriage, there is a song sung by the lady killer. "I have married a wife with my eyes," he boasts. "The dowry was my mouth. . yee . . yee." "I have married with my eyes." What he is saying is that he has only to look at a woman for her to come to him and to speak to her and she is his. He is the canoeist with a wife in every kraal along the river. Many of the songs are a little "blue" and not the sort to be quoted except in bowdlerised versions, as is also true of sailors' shanties, but most of them are full of rough humour and sentiment. They are the sort of songs men aU over the world have always sung when they are away from their women and far from home. And even the rhythm of this one-when translated-has a startling resemblance to Shenandoah: "0 Kalimansenga Stop your hoeing, Go away and mourn your troubles,"
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HOW GWELO GOT ITS NAME
Much as Americans are criticised today, it must not be forgotten that many individuals from the States have played important roles in the development of our country. Some of them came up with the Pioneer Column and took part in the early wars. It was one such man, an American scout from the Western plains who, according to Mrs. Jean Boggie, herself one of the area's best known characters, probably founded Gwelo in July, 1894. He is said to have driven home the first of the surveyor's pegs at the site for the township, which had been chosen by Dr. Jameson. The first Hotel in Gwelo was called the Horseshoe, opened in January, 1895, by Mr. and Mrs. Hurell from Fort Victoria. To begin with, it consisted only of pole and dagga huts, which were sometimes washed away during the heavy rains so that the guests had to wait around while the African staff re-built their accommodation.
A centre of prospectors and smallworkers, Gwelo soon earned the reputation of being the thirstiest town in Rhodesia, and within six months of the Horseshoe opening its doors, five other hotels were built. As distinct from the early huts and tents, the original Gwelo house was erected by a Mr. Nash, whose son still lives at Umvuma. The house had first been built in Port Elizabeth, was dismantled, brought up in parts by oxwagon and re-assembled at Gwelo. The same Mr. Nash started "The Northern Optimist", a newspaper whose title reflected Gwelo's early confidence, and he was also responsible for the lay-out of most of the town. The avenue of gum-trees up to the kopje was planted with his own hands. Mrs. Nash, well known as a violinist when a young woman in England, was one of a small group of kindred spirits who took some of the roughness off the early settlement. Together with a Mrs. Peel, she gave musical evenings in her home or under the stars in the market square, where the town's one piano was brought from the Horseshoe Hotel.
Music by moonlight played a great part in the lives of the staider founders of Gwelo, and decorum required that a wood and iron building be available before the first dance was held, as it was, in Gwelo's first store, to the music of a concertina and by the light of candles. The first baby to be born in the township was Thomas Edward Whitebeard. His father was the man who erected that tall smokestack on the hill at Falcon Mine, the landmark which all travellers look for when they are approaching nearby Umvuma. Another of Mrs. Boggie's vivid anecdotes tells of how a post-pole was erected in the village in 1894. Gwelo was astride many of the old pioneer routes and people would attach letters to this pole, hoping that sooner or later the addressees would come across them.
And Gwelo deserves special mention as the place which gave impetus to a sport at which Rhodesians have since gained a standing quite out of proportion to our population. After the miners' camp had settled down. . . in every sense of the phrase. . . Gwelo built the first public swimming bath to be opened in the whole of Central Africa, setting an example which almost every village and township was to follow.
I grew and flourished in a tawny golden bowl
Of Africa, among ramparts of tumbled granite rocks,
Where antelope passed in painted frieze
Under a pale bleached sky, eagles floating,
A sky that turned torrid and flaming at day’s end,
Then filled with pinpricks of glacial light;
The Southern Cross spread constant across the sky
As the world turned childhood slow in the indigo night.
I tumbled breathless, tear-streaked and dusty,
From rough coat, bony bongolo/donkeys,
Feet pricked by paper thorns, devil thorns,
Arms scratched and bare - never thought to wear shoes.
Africa tripped me over, thumped me, loved me,
Washed me in warm brown flowing rivers,
Sandbars rising, sinking, slow windmill
Turning, spinning, tangling my heart,
Caught for all time in the wait-a-bit thorns.
I will never be free, though the grey loerie
Calls ‘Go ‘way, go ‘way’, and I did.
Now I return plump and well-groomed,
Shot through space in a winged vacuum,
Decanted into soft-seat insulated car
That glides along smooth highways,
Past/through the once loved bush. I touch fingers
To cool glass, and there is my Africa,
Like a shop window, packaged, televised,
Sanitized, and things will never be the same.