Growing up in Africa

Last week a close friend died at his home in West Nicolson to the south of Bulawayo. His name was Dudley Rogers. Dudley was born in the District and was raised and educated in Matabeleland – going to Plumtree High School and then Gwebi College of Agriculture.

Eddie Cross

He went back to his home and worked on various ranches in the area and then came back to take over his father’s property where he ran a successful cattle operation as well as a hunting and safari business. Typically, the farm homestead was associated with a number of commercial enterprises which served the local community.

We were much of the same age and experience and I know what Dudley must have experienced as he enjoyed the experience of growing up in Africa as a white African. In many ways it was a unique and marvelous life and I know that Dudley had no regrets about committing himself and his family to life in Africa despite the hardships and the dangers.

I was born in Bulawayo and educated there ending up with a Matric and going on to work on a farm and then a ranch before going to Gwebi, like Dudley, and then starting my working life in the agricultural industry. I had a serious accident when I was nine and spent three years in hospital with 16 operations and eventually went back to school at twelve, but it took years to recover fully.

But I had a godfather who farmed and ranched in the Esigodini Valley – just south of Bulawayo and I used to spend all my holidays on the farm. He had a son David and our neighbors on the ranch had a son, Richard, the same age with whom we spent long days in the eastern parts of the Matobo Hills – where Rhodes had negotiated the peace treaty with the Ndebele people. We ran wild and Richard spoke Ndebele better than English and (a bit like me) only started school at the age of twelve. My Godfather attached a member of his staff to us to see that we did not come to harm anywhere.

We trekked cattle from one property to another – sleeping hard in the veld and herding the animals for 15 to 20 kilometers a day. We rediscovered Fort Umlugulu which had guarded the wagon trail from South Africa to Bulawayo at the turn of the century in 1900. We visited the Ndebele Communities and villages where we were tolerated and often fed and told stories of the days when Ndebele Impi’s swept the country, taking cattle and women as plunder.

We kept the baboons out of the crop lands – used an old 303 rifle and a handful of bullets to hunt baboons and other small game – not very successfully although I do recall poaching an adult Kudo bull! We sat on the hill behind the homestead at night to watch the stars – who can forget those skies at night when the milky way just blazed with light across the skies in the pure clean air, something you do not see in Europe.

Then the spring in Matabeleland – the first rains with that distinctive smell, the new grass where once was just dry bare land, the trees coming out in all the spring colors – burgundy, light green, copper colors and then the flowers – the Knob thorns down along the rivers – suddenly covered in white and then yellow flowers. Everything suddenly totally preoccupied with mating and feeding on the new growth after the long dry season.

We used oxen to mow grass for hay in winter and I spent days with the team, first mowing the grass and then collecting it with an old fashioned hay rake. We built a hay trailer from a truck chassis and local bush poles and used to use hayforks to lift the hay from the ground and load it into the trailer for transport back to the homestead. During this time, we grew lean and tough and our skin burned dark in the sun. Going back to school was a real struggle, putting shoes on and a tie! We thought school was a complete waste of time and as soon as I had my Matric I was off to farm as a 16-year-old.

Of course we could not see or understand our privilege as young white children growing up, we did not think it strange to have adult men call you Inkosi (little Lord) as a child. We did not think it strange to go to school in a country with 97 per cent black people and share the experience with just white kids like ourselves. We played hard at rugby and water polo or hockey, we just assumed that was the natural order of things. Inter school completion was fierce – who can forget those battles between Plumtree and Milton.

Although we were only a community of 250 000 in the country, we competed with the whole world in sport, car and motor cycle racing, we received no aid or assistance from anyone, did not borrow money in any quantity and yet we built roads and railways, cities and towns and despite the hard environment and variable climate, tore farms out of the virgin bush, living in mud huts until we could afford to build a home, always after the sheds and tobacco barns.

We fed the country at prices well below our neighbors, we exported a wide range of products abroad, competing freely with other countries, became the third largest tobacco exporter in the world, the second largest exporter of white maize and our beef and citrus was in widespread demand.

But, like a failed helicopter pilot, we failed to keep our eyes on the horizon and crashed. We went to war and like all wars between brothers, ours was a no bars conflict. The American Civil war is reputed to have been one of the bloodiest in history, ours was a “low intensity guerilla war” (CIA report) but even so our combined casualties exceeded those of the Vietnam War and as a small Community we suffered every loss. Who can forget the Vicounts, the collapse of the TV News anchor on the evening news when she read out the name of her fiancée and had not been told in advance of his death in a “contact”.

Every white male of above 18 years was conscripted and had to serve, we spent 6 weeks in the bush and then tried to settle down to six weeks at home and in the office or factory. We travelled in long convoys and drove through ambushes from the side of the road. We saw and heard landmine explosions and wondered who was involved and if they were OK. Our children fought battles in neighboring States where the casualties were enormous – those bush skills and gun experience being put to use in a conflict they did not even understand.

Dudley served in the Police and went right through the war in one piece. After the war he worked hard to stabilize and reconcile the communities he had grown up in and worked amongst. He became a reconciler and as a committed Christian, felt it was his duty to help rebuild the country after the war. When the new Independence Government went off the rails – he joined the MDC and was active throughout the Province. He had vehicles burnt and destroyed, as a major player in the area with a good relationship with his community, he was a real threat and became a target. His beloved ranch was taken away from him and he was left with a small area around the homestead – he watched his life work destroyed as his beloved cattle were stolen or killed.

But he stayed on and died, and is buried where his father and mother are buried in African soil. As whites we are Africans – our history is not pretty or acceptable in this new world, but we are what we are, we love our country and its people and all we want is to be accepted for what we are and to be allowed to contribute to the future of our adopted land. My granddaughters speak English with that unique Zimbabwean accent now mingled with Shonglish. They are the future and I hope that one day they will feel about Zimbabwe as Dudley and I have felt all our lives. This is home.

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  1. Jacqueline (Klein) Bortoft
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