A jiipsi's tale (Chpt. 3)

Part 1 - The Final Chimurenga Every Saturday afternoon, the main radio station had a forces request program, where loved ones at home sent in messages for their ‘boys’ in the forces which were read out on air. The messages were always lighthearted, witty and positive and seemed to prove that morale in the community was high.

A jiipsi's tale (Chpt. 3)

Cos we’re all Rhodesians

And we’ll fight through thick and thin

We’ll keep this land a free land

Stop the enemy coming in

We’ll keep them north of the Zambezi

Till that river’s running dry

And this mighty land will prosper

For Rhodesians never die

(John Edmund - Troopie Songs)


In 1975, my parents separated and later divorced. My father left Rhodesia, and my mother remarried to a man who had been born in Rhodesia. In many ways Morris, my mother’s new husband, was an excellent stepfather for a young boy growing up in Rhodesia. As Morris had been born and had lived in the country all his life, he offered a completely new perspective on life for me. I began to be introduced to a whole new world in the form of hunting and fishing in the great outdoors that we call ‘the bush’. I began to be exposed to a whole range of other aspects about the country in which I lived. Despite the fact that I was to know Morris for just four years, he would have a profound impact on my life.

Soon after they were married, my mother and Morris bought an old house on a small holding (about five acres), with the intention of making the house comfortable, and using the opportunities the land offered, to keep horses and grow vegetables. By this age I was already very keen on horses, and I thought the move an absolute dream. The property was one of the very last properties within the Municipal area, and was bounded by 50,000 acres of bush along its back fence. This bush formed part of the government owned Matopos Research Farm, and with the exception of a few cattle, it seemed to me to be a vast untouched wilderness awaiting my exploration.

Morris, with the assistance of our black employees, worked tirelessly on renovating the house and building stables and paddocks. During these hours of labour, I often assisted, and began to learn a little more of the local Ndebele language which Morris spoke fluently with the workers. I thought myself very clever at being able to say basic greetings and give simple commands in Ndebele. It made me feel a lot more African. Whilst I have never achieved a significant degree of fluency in Ndebele, my limited proficiency has been invaluable throughout my years in this country. It is remarkable the effect of communicating with a black person in their own language has on that person. Despite the limitations of my vocabulary, the black strangers that I have spoken with in Ndebele have always seemed to have had a genuine respect for my efforts. The other effect that communicating in Ndebele had, was making me realise the difficulties of the language problem that exists between blacks and whites from the other perspective. Up until now, I had always spoken in my mother tongue, and had expected the blacks to be able to communicate perfectly with me. When they mispronounced or misused a word, I thought it very funny, but now as I bungled over these new Ndebele words, I began to marvel at the quality of their bilingual ability. It is such a pity that the local languages were not taught in schools throughout the ‘Rhodesian era’. If it had been, I believe the understanding between races on all levels would have been greatly improved.

In the bush behind the house, I spent many hours on foot and on horseback exploring the countryside. A few blacks used the area to illegally graze their donkeys (I believe they still do today). The donkeys were used to pull manure carts around the suburbs, and the whites would buy the manure to fertilise their gardens. During their time off, the donkeys were left to roam the bush and graze. In order that the donkey owners would know where their donkeys were in this vast area, they attached bells around some of the donkeys’ necks, so as they would be able to hear them and track them down when it was time to pull the carts again. The removal of these bells became a bit of an obsession of mine for two reasons. Firstly, I believed the donkeys were grossly overworked and if I removed their bells they would take that much longer to be found and therefore have that much longer to rest, and secondly, the bells were an excellent trophy representing adventure to a young schoolboy. Needless to say, there were often donkey owners calling at our back fence, inquiring from my mother if I had any donkey bells in the house. Invariably, if my mother knew of their existence, the bells were returned, and the whole process would start again. Despite that fact that this whole exercise was obviously a complete nuisance to the donkey owners, not to mention an economic drain to them, they never once displayed any anger towards either my mother or myself. I will always remember the gentling tinkling of distant donkey bells with fondness as they represent an era of childish innocence in my past.

The ever increasing war effort in the country, meant it was inevitable that Morris was going to be called up to do military service. At first, these ‘call-ups’ were for one month every four, but by the end of the war, this had been increased to one month in and one month out. In addition, at the age of eighteen every white resident was required to do ‘National Service’, which was gradually increased from nine months to eighteen over the next few years. I found it curious that blacks were not required to perform military duty, as I felt that as they lived in the country it was also their responsibility. Clearly, I displayed a thorough grasp of the political situation in the country!

Over the next few years, I, like so many of my peers, would become intimately familiar with all the military jargon and slang of the day. Guerillas were known officially as terrorists, but in general conversation they were ‘gooks’, or ‘terrs’, an operational area was ‘the sharp end’ or ‘hot area’, etc., etc. All young boys are inclined to romanticise war and armies, and we were all no exception. In a way, I think we were being led down the path to the day when we would be called upon to carry out our National Service. If we saw the war as right, and the men in uniform as honourable, good people, then we would willingly serve our government and its’ cause. My social conditioning continued.

In 1976 my parents had a business opportunity in Gwelo (now Gweru), and so we had to move to that town. Robert Ganunga and his family also packed up their belongings and moved with us.

In addition to the Ganungas, our groom, Bee, also joined us, to be employed in our new restaurant as a kitchen hand. Bee had been with Morris and his family for fifteen years before I met him and considered himself very much part of the family. An extremely servile man, with the patience and tolerance of a saint, Bee applied himself to whatever task was asked of him, without ever complaining. His one vice, however, was drinking. Every month without fail, he would take his money on pay day and proceed directly to the nearest beer hall or shebeen. The following day he was always extremely hungover, and very little use to man or beast. The day after he would be extremely sheepish and apologetic, swearing never to do it again. Until the next month end, when the whole process started again. As a result of his monthly binge, Bee’s finances were always precarious. This led to his wife and/or daughter arriving on our doorstep some time during each month asking for money for some crisis or other. Both Nyathi, his wife, and Patricia, his daughter, lived in the Tribal Trust Lands as they were then known, and Bee was expected to repatriate some of his earnings each month. It seems he was very unreliable in this regard, and consequently, they never received any or sufficient money. When we moved to Gwelo, and Bee was employed commercially in the restaurant, his income was greatly increased.

Unfortunately, this increased earning power did not translate into an increase in disposable income for the family. The main reason for this was that Bee was now paid weekly, and not monthly as had been the case, and therefore his drinking binges only increased in frequency to accommodate the available cash. Over the years Bee, through his hard working nature (and in spite of his drinking habits), was promoted to the head chef, but his financial status never improved. Long after we had sold the restaurant and left Bee there, we received periodic visits from his much maligned wife and daughter, still desperately neglected by their errant provider.

This apparent irresponsibility on the part of Bee, and his reliance on his white employer for financial prudence has been repeated throughout my life in this country by various other blacks that I have come into contact with. Accordingly, I, like so many whites, found it easy to appreciate that if the blacks did not have the responsibility to budget their pay packet, how could they possibly have the responsibility to run a country.

Bee, like so many of his generation, had never received any formal education, and had spent his formative years as a herd boy in the native reserves. Life in the Tribal Trust Lands, or Reserves, revolved around eking a living out of subsistence farming, and generally conditions were extremely poor. As a result, most young Africans left their homes at an early age to seek a better life in the towns. Normally, as a result of their poor education, the only employment available was as domestic workers in European households. Hence Bee had joined Morris’s family as a fifteen year old assistant to the gardener. His rural upbringing obviously left him ill-prepared for life in an urban centre. Financial responsibility had never been a necessity in the Reserves, and consequently Bee had never developed any.

When we moved to Gwelo, I was in my second last year of junior school, and duly enrolled at Cecil John Rhodes Primary School. Gwelo was, as it still is, a much smaller ‘city’ than Bulawayo, and at first I found the (white) people stand offish to outsiders, which is what we were. The black people were also different. Bulawayo, for historical reasons, was comprised of a mainly Ndebele black population, whilst Gwelo was predominantly Shona. Up until this point, I had not realised that the black Africans were made up of more than one tribe. In reality I knew precious little about the Ndebele people, but of the Shonas I knew even less. As a generalisation, I would say the Shona culture is quite reserved by comparison to the Ndebele, and over the years I have mistaken this reserve for arrogance or aloofness. I, like many other whites in this country, have always been slightly suspicious of the Shona people. In white communities, people of all races that live in Mashonaland, are popularly known as ‘Shifty Shonas’ or just ‘Shifties’. Personally, I can attribute my wariness toward Shonas, as much to their reservedness, as to circumstances and particular events that occurred at the time of my first encounters with Shonas. Our move to Gwelo coincided with an escalation in the ‘Terrorist War’, and a major campaign on the part of the Government to tighten up national security. Posters and stickers were extensively distributed bearing slogans like ‘Even Walls Have Ears’, and ‘Big Ears is a Terrorist’. Up until this point, as I have previously said, all the blacks I knew were friendly, and definitely on the same side as us whites. These posters and stickers strongly intimated that not all the people around you were friendly or on the same side. By deduction, I formed the opinion that the suspicious persons were most likely to be those I knew least about, that is the Shonas. Obviously the Ganunga family were not to blame for information leaks, nor Bee Sibanda and his family, so therefore it must be these Shonas that keep themselves very much more to themselves. Soon after this, a service station in Gwelo was held up and robbed by suspected terrorists. Up until now, the war had seemed distant and not entirely connected to our daily lives. It was something that was being fought in remote parts of the bush on far away national borders, not something that could effect a town in the middle of the country. Suddenly there were bomb scares in all the towns, and life became full of evidence of a much closer threat. Shop windows were covered in adhesive tape to limit the dangers of splintering glass in the event of a bomb-blast, searches of handbags became mandatory whenever one entered a public building. At school we practised bomb drills where once we might have practised fire drills. Even our school suitcases had to be marked with white paint on the outside to clearly identify the owner. Suitcases that were unmarked and left lying in the playground were regarded as potential bombs, and the bomb disposal unit from the army or police were summoned to investigate. All national roads in the country became unsafe to travel on after dark, and in many cases travel during the day was only safe in police protected convoys.

The white community in the country had become far more concerned with the war and their individual safety. Large numbers of whites began leaving the country for safer more normal ways of life in new countries. Ironically, as events have unfolded, the greatest number of those that left went to South Africa. Probably the main reason for leaving Rhodesia to go to South Africa, was its apparent similarities in lifestyle to that that existed in Rhodesia. Those people that left the country were described by those that stayed as being ‘chickens’, and the steady stream of departures was known as the ‘Chicken Run’. As an adult I can sympathise with the concerns of the people that left, and appreciate the rationality of their decisions, but at the time our society conditioned us to believe they were little more than cowards and traitors. Those whites that stayed became far more insular in their outlook. It had never been totally acceptable to socialise with blacks, but now it was positively unacceptable. Their world and our world became much more clearly defined, and any contact between communities was limited to the boundaries of employer and employee. As the government came under increasing pressure from the international community, the whites living in the country became resentful of the outside interference, adamant that we were just and right in our beliefs and determined not to bow to the demands of the ignorant outsiders.

In the early days of the restaurant business, Morris had dropped off each employee at home in the evening because the restaurant closed after public transport had ceased. At weekends, if I was still at the restaurant at closing time, I would accompany Morris into the black suburbs, or townships as they are known, to drop everyone off. I found the townships to be absolutely fascinating as they were so completely different to the suburbs, I had lived in. The suburbs that whites lived in, whilst they displayed variations in economic prosperity, were all relatively large houses on half to one acre stands. Most gardens were well tended with lawns and trees and shrubs. Suburban roads were tree lined, with manicured verges and adequate street lighting. Each house was usually substantially different in style and appearance to its’ neighbour. By contrast, the black townships were (and still are) comprised of row upon row of semidetached little block houses, each measuring about 50 square metres and set in a yard of about 100 square metres. The houses were very cheaply built, with plain flat asbestos roofs and were often unpainted. There were no gardens to speak of, save a tiny vegetable bed, and very often no trees for miles around. The roads were generally dirt, and there was no pavements or street lighting. To me, these townships were not only from another world but from another planet. As to how black people could live in this sort of conditions whilst in the same town another community of people, the whites, lived in comparative splendour, without becoming bitter didn’t occur to me. It only underlined the differences that existed between us and served to emphasise the gap between our two communities.

Within a few months of the restaurant business’s opening, the townships became unsafe for whites to travel in at night, so my little encounters with the other side ceased. It wasn’t until years later (1982) that I was to venture into a township again, and again I remember being overwhelmed by the bleakness of the conditions, but this time the country was called Zimbabwe, and socio-economic forces rather than racial forces, dictated where people lived.

As the restaurant was a new business, and because of the nature of restaurant opening hours, our leisure time as a family was naturally limited and confined to odd hours. Weekends were not generally a good time for my parents to take off, so Mondays became a sort of unofficial weekend day. On these days, if we had something planned that involved the whole day, then I would just miss the morning of school. Most times we used to go fishing with our boat to one of the local dams situated close to town. Because it was usually a weekday, the dams would be deserted. As the war progressed, it became the norm for Morris to bring along a rifle so as to provide protection against terrorists should the need arise. Generally, adults were always armed, and my mother began to carry a pistol around in her hand bag. All the boys of my age at school were familiar with a wide range a weapon, their uses and strengths, and I like, so many of my peers, had been taught by my parents how to load and fire the rifle we kept at home in the gun cabinet. Attack of some form or another was a real possibility, and one had to be prepared. The attack, if it ever came, was always going to be committed by a black person or persons, which served to emphasise the perceived feeling of separation that was growing between the whites and blacks. I wonder now, if the blacks were aware of this growing rift between our communities. Perhaps for different reasons they were. Black people were more likely to be subjected to the constraints and inconveniences of tightening security in the townships. Of police searches on black buses travelling to rural homes. To various forms of mild and severe harassment directed at black people in the name of national security.

On the one hand, I was aware of feeling completely detached from the black community around me, but on the other, the relationship with our domestic servants and restaurant employees continued as before. A kind of bizarre double standards situation. Peculiar to think back now and realise that we, as a white family, were effectively involved in a civil war where unknown members of the black population were the enemy, but we still were perfectly happy to rely on black domestic workers in our daily lives. Strange that we should rely on these people, who were potentially the enemy, to cook our food, baby-sit our children, and generally take a very personal part in our daily lives. I suppose it emphasises our firm belief as a community, that the black people conducting the war against the white minority were a completely separate group of people to those that worked and interacted with us on a daily basis.

More and more, the society in which I lived revolved around the war, and its’ effects both directly and indirectly. Morris, who had been doing one month military call-up every three, was now required to do one month every two. Previously Morris had been in a normal territorial battalion, but, disillusioned with the usefulness of this battalion, he volunteered for one of the special forces, the Grey Scouts. The Grey Scouts were a horse mounted anti-terrorist unit that was primarily involved in tracking terrorists through the bush and then when the opportunity presented itself, calling in the ‘fire forces’ to engage the terrorists in direct ‘contact’.

Before Morris could become a Grey Scout he had to undertake a three month selection and intensive training course, which obviously meant he would be away from his family throughout this time. This greatly concerned my mother but was a source of great pride for myself. At school it had become quite significant exactly what role one’s parents were playing in the war effort, and with Morris joining one of the elite forces, by derivation, I believed our whole family was doing the right thing. Of course, I missed him terribly during his absences, but the stories he recounted on his return filled me with wonder and admiration. Very often he brought with him souvenirs of the war, tribal knives and bayonets from terrorist casualties, pieces of clothing, etc. All of these were shown off by me with pride to my friends. They too, had their own stories and souvenirs. Adults and children alike, discussed the topic of the terrorist war more than anything else. Every social encounter amongst whites was bound to include some reference to the war. The radio stations played ‘troopie’ songs that were more popular than the contemporary pop songs of the day. Every Saturday afternoon, the main radio station had a forces request program, where loved ones at home sent in messages for their ‘boys’ in the forces which were read out on air. The messages were always lighthearted, witty and positive and seemed to prove that morale in the community was high.

The war consumed us more and more in more and more ways. As an adult now in Zimbabwe, some twenty odd years after the fact, I have no idea what effect the war had socially on the average black living in Rhodesia at the time. I wonder what the black equivalent of me was thinking, feeling, doing, during these years?

More tragically, however, casualties of the war were coming closer and closer to home. A very good school friend’s brother was in the air force, and he used to fly his helicopter over our house each time he went out on an operation. As I knew him through his brother, I had become used to waving to him each time he flew low over the house. One day, my school friend never came to school, and we learned that his brother had been killed when his helicopter had been shot down.

The reality, and not just the heroics, of war were beginning to surface. Always the white population in Rhodesia had been small, but with the effect of the ‘Chicken Run’ beginning to be noticeable, the population was becoming alarmingly smaller. Soon, many casualties or deaths announced by Combined Operation Communiqués were invariably of someone you knew directly or indirectly. All this served to draw the remaining white community closer together. We all shared each other’s sorrows, and all believed single-mindedly and unquestionably in the righteousness of what we were doing. Ours was a just struggle against an evil enemy and an ill-informed international community. The enemy was pretty much all black people except those that worked for you, and the international community was everywhere except South Africa.

The isolation of whites as a community in both Rhodesian and world terms was complete.

Until the early seventies, the national press had been relatively free from censorship. As the war intensified, the government banned several black publications and censored the national daily newspapers, allegedly in the interests of national security. At first, in defiance of the government, the newspapers published blank spaces where a censored article had meant to be published. Realising this could be detrimental to public morale and opinion, the government banned the publication of blank spaces. However, by the mid-seventies, as a result of selective recruitment and the ‘Chicken Run’, I suppose most of the newspapers’ staff were ideologically in tune with the government. The newspapers’ reports reflected by and large the opinion, no matter how biased, of the white community for which they were intended.

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