From Muzungu: A Rhodesian Testament, a memoir of a childhood in late colonial Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, and the exilic life that followed from it. Published by Dogberry Books.
Searching nature, I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins
Someday, if there is a human future, maybe some anthropologists will dig me up and find my teeth full of south-central African minerals and isotopes. They might hypothesize upon how the skeleton of this modern day analogue of Homo Rhodesiensis had come to lie in Middle English soil. My teeth could then become further evidence for some social historian to pontificate about Britain’s radically increased diversity from the late Twentieth Century onward. But my bones would be telling a much more subtle tale.
Just before the start of ‘the lockdown years’, I agreed to a rare teaching session in a creative writing class at an English university. It was an experience not to be repeated. I read them a draft of an experiential piece about the British in Africa that dared them to think differently from what I knew they’d been taught in secondary school history lessons. As I read on, I watched their childish faces glaring ever more truculently back at me. The few who were articulate enough to speak extemporaneously spouted the usual belligerent post-colonial clichés, while the tutor, who had, no doubt, helped to inculcate these, looked on approvingly. Their thoughts seemed as if minted by a group mind, and dropped ready-made into their individual ones. Their ability and willingness to question had been smothered by the dogmatic orthodoxies of the horrendous educational system that had landed them there.
The only history they appeared to have been exposed to was the rise of fascism leading up to the Second World War and the dissolution of the erstwhile equal evil of imperialism following it. One girl from the group stopped me afterwards, spying around to make sure her peers were all out of sight and earshot before divulging the secret that her mum was a Rhodie-Zimbabwean exile living in England. She said her Mum often spoke of her lost Africa and about how no one understood, nor wanted to understand, the complex four century long history of the interaction and admixture of races in southern Africa. She thanked me for writing about my birthplace, for bringing lost Shona and Afrikaans words back to mind, and for remembering the lives of forgotten people who loved Africa, and who, like me, dreamt of their mother country, which had turned its back on them, and despaired of their adoptive nation, which wished to forget their existence.
African history runs closer to that of Europe than many people realise. I was surprised and pleased to find out recently that my sister and I were not the only Madockses to be born in Africa. In the mid-nineteenth century, John F. Madocks, brewer, of Somerset, England took his family to South Africa. It is recorded that one of his sons, my great-grandfather, John E. Madocks, was duly born in Durban in 1876. I have never discovered what the family were doing in Durban. Perhaps they were plying the family trade, making cheap beer for migrant workers in the diamond fields, or for the military on the eve of the Zulu War. Perhaps John F. even helped to supply Chelmsford’s army with its six-hundred wagons of goods moving through Natal in 1879. He could have seen the survivors of the Natal Native Horse come galloping back to Durban to tell of the shattering British defeat at the hands of the Zulus at Isandlwana and of the subsequent siege of Rorke’s Drift. Maybe the Zulu War drove the Madocks clan away or maybe they were naturally restless. Whatever the case, the 1881 census shows them back in England running a brewery in the West Country.
Then, there was the African sojourn of my grandfather, Sidney Madocks, later to become a publican in Lichfield. He took a troopship to Africa in 1901 as a teenager, riding with the Imperial Yeomanry light cavalry, wearing a slouch hat and bandolier. His letters home reveal a high-spirited teenager’s enthusiasm for a “hot skirmish”. He also sent expended Boer Mauser cartridge cases home as souvenirs. He was back in Africa in the Army in 1917 in Egypt and Mesopotamia, arriving in time for the recapture of Baghdad and the breaking of the Ottoman armies. There’ll be no more Madocks in Africa now, that’s for sure. Equally certain, I think, is that my pessimism and awareness of the ambiguous nature of reality derive from my African childhood and perhaps from my ancestors’ experience of it. This understanding sets me apart from the preponderance of deracinated English people who often seem naïve to me in this regard.
As a boy, listening to the ceaseless buzzing of the insects in the African bush, I first got an inkling of the immense, mysterious vacuum at the heart of life. I realised instinctively then that we humans could never understand the meaning of our existence and the only way to cope with this was to tell ourselves, or be told, stories that would help us deal with peering into that terrifying abyss. I turned out to be one such tale-teller. It’s been a benediction and a torture. To record something is to change and reorder it. I see this work, which follows the African thread in my life, as the making of a map that can guide my first steps out into a new world. It is acting like Buster’s leash that drew me along as a lost boy and has given me a newfound ability to look unflinchingly at the doomed self, and find a new track.
In the latter years since my mother’s death, my little family has shrunk further through illness and time’s gnawings. I’m just about the last one left. Freed thus from all familial bonds, what have I got left? Only the self and the potential to love. What do I seek in that situation? A numinous nowness, as sensual life ebbs out of me. I recognise now there is an occult creativity in my family legacy of repression and screwed-up genes that keeps on feeding me as an artist. I think my ancestor spirits or the DNA are telling me I may be inhabiting a different sort of self than the one I’ve always imagined.
I think I’ve found the ur-memory that illustrates the formation of my paradoxical questing nature. It has its origins in those amazing mornings in Fort Roseberry when I was on holiday from boarding school and left to my own devices. The bulbuls would be making wolf-whistle calls from their hang-out in the backyard mulberry tree, the sound coming through the open veranda doors as I breakfasted on pawpaw and lemon slices, followed by bread that Jonas had baked in the wood-fired oven, spread with honey from our hives and fresh milk from the boma herd that grazed the golf course. The boma drums had thudded much earlier calling Dad to work, and Mum to market or to chat with other government wives. Our servants usually took it easy once Bwana and Dona were out. They trusted me, as I did them, and knew I’d never tell.
Other servants would arrive with notes from other government officials, bearing written invitations to dinners, requests to borrow household items and such and they’d all gossip together sitting on the red-polished front steps. Their conversation would be joined by wandering tribesmen who’d turn up selling tortoises, animal skins, bantam eggs, monkey bread tree pods with their delicious creamy pith, and all sorts of fabulous things. Sometimes I’d leave their conversations to wander into our sitting room and re-tune the radio from the World Service to LM Radio, broadcasting from Lourenço Marques, which played current hits like Ag Pleez Deddy, Jody Wayne songs and American early rock’n’roll stuff like Bill Haley. I’d practice jiving and twisting on our highly-polished parquet floor for a while before heading outdoors, still barefoot.
The nkoya-nkoya call of the fish eagle over the nearby Mansa river would often accompany me as I walked under the cassia trees with their yellow flower racemes. The trunks of those trees were wrapped around with earthed-up termites’ nests that were in the process of consuming the tree from the bottom up. Blueskop agama lizards bobbed on Mum’s rockery and sunbirds flickered in the honeysuckle and roses — English plants that Mum grew. Going down the sandy track to Ndewenu’s vegetable garden, I’d pause to inspect the pug marks a leopard had left in the night. The tracks would still be crisp and sharp and, if I got on my knees to sniff the impress, I’d catch the musky foetor of big cat. That wild reek made my nape hairs rise with a delicious terror. My senses would prickle with alertness and I’d notice everything those glorious African mornings had to offer. Those days were such gifts and, wonder of wonders, I still get that feeling that the everyday world is waiting to give up its remarkable secrets to me.
You’d sometimes find abandoned gardens and homesteads out in the bush, places where the land had been too sour or dry to prosper, or where rinderpest had wiped out the cattle and ruined the ranchers. Now, I expect, there are many more. Our own old African gardens must all be deserted and gone. All those footpaths, rondavels and rose arches Mum created have long since crumbled away, eaten by termites, or covered over by new shanty towns. And all those farms down south in Zimbabwe, on land taken from the Shona and Matabele and, in turn, removed from their white proprietors, are now disassembled, their metal and stone scavenged, falling back to the wild to end up like Changa-Changa’s house, which I saw that time crumbling away out in the Luano.
Often you can discover on these abandoned farm sites a remnant old fig tree, the obliterating runners of the bitter gourd or karela, or the orange flame of marigolds gone feral among the grasses. Insects still buzz and blue skop lizards flicker like shadows over the remnant heaps of stone. To me, those flickering lizards are the ghosts of lives lost or unled, despoiled lives both black and white. All the lost are becoming tokoloshe spirits that inhabit those ruined waste places. The buzz of the insects in the long grass amidst them is the everlasting sound of emptiness, one of the signs that the earth is not really interested in humans and will get on very well without us. My parents’ English garden, now mine, will also be lost in due course, an abandonment that is a natural occurrence in the shape of things. It’s alright. I accept it, and all relinquishment, as a sacral rite. I, the lifelong exile, am expecting that everything will eventually end up covered by the bitter karela, like the radioactive city of Pripyat near Chernobyl in Ukraine.
I saw once in my school days a pangolin imprisoned in a makeshift cage. They were rare creatures even then and it was a most unusual thing when a villager at Marandellas caught one and kept it in a thorn kraal for the amusement of visitors. I watched as the humped shape of the scaly anteater was prodded with a stick to make it skitter about its little enclosure. It hobbled on bent legs on the points of its strong digging claws designed to grub out termite nests. It was a sorry sight. Some scales were hanging off its back. Its tiny bewildered eyes were blinking and its pink rubbery tongue flicked around its long mournful snout. It curled itself up whenever its captor went near it, trying to protect itself with its armoured scales. Though these might have helped against predators in the bush they were no good against humans.
It was strange, even sacrilegious, to me that this Shona villager treated the pangolin so badly. Among the Bemba they were revered as messengers from spiritual realms. They were totem animals for spirit mediums or rain-makers, and featured in the initiation rites of young men. Often, pangolins appeared in dreams and tales to warn humans of some impending calamity. I paid the villager sixpence to stop tormenting it and begged him to let it go, saying I would pay him much more money to free it. He simply shook his head at me, the foolish muzungu child. I doubt the poor creature lived much longer.
Now, I read that there are hardly any pangolins left in this dark world and wide. Apparently, the Chinese eat them for medicinal purposes. Their flesh is supposed to improve the circulation, and their ground-up scales to impart magical protection. I comfort myself with the thought that the pangolins, in both Asia and Africa, will have their revenge somehow. Maybe they themselves will become the disaster that African myths say they predict. I pray that they will incubate some noxious, new virus in their innards that will produce a pandemic far worse than the recent one, which will sicken and kill off the heedless species that is exterminating them. And I take comfort from the notion that there are abyssal secrets lurking in the natural world, entities yet unknown to, and I hope, beyond the reach of the scientific mind and its technologically-enhanced senses. Perhaps these will become known to me when my soul is finally loosed from its cage.
As a young man, I was drawn to the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Druze ideas of samsara, the great circle of life, the idea of metempsychosis and being born to many lives. The Africans I knew tended to believe in inhabiting ancestor spirits, rather than reincarnation as such but a few tribes did have such notions. The Ila of what is now Zambia were one rare example. Fittingly, their name meant “the set-apart people”. They were a cattle-herding tribe who had submitted to the authority of ‘Changa-Changa’ for a while. They lived along the Kafue river basin and were traditionally distinguished from other tribes by their exceptionally tall height and the way they pulled their hair up into cone-like shapes to make them look even taller. The old hairstyles were almost gone by the late 1950s but I saw one sported by an Ila chief who’d become a nationalist leader and who occasionally came to our house and to Dad’s Boma office.
This chief also carried a carved stick and had long claw-like nails, a sign of wealth and privilege among the Ila. His hair was teased up in a conical, loaf-like shape and held in place by a tarry pomade that also trapped all of the bugs that happened to come into contact with it. Mum said he looked absolutely revolting but I was fascinated with him and often hung around him. Sometimes he’d smile and gesture to me to come closer by crooking his long yellow-nailed forefinger. Jonas didn’t much like him either and told me the Ila were possessed by ghosts. Only later, did I find out the reason for Jonas’s claim. Although many tribes believe that shadows are really ‘soul-entities’ that follow us, but which can also travel on their own accord, the Ila hold that something called their musedi chingubule, their ‘shadow-double’, accompanied them everywhere. This was a tutelary spirit from a former life. I have long been enamoured of this idea and sometimes, in quiet moments I seem to sense my own protective shadow-double following me.
The last time we saw Jonas, our cook and chief servant of our rustic little imperial household, was in June of 1965. Jonas was the closest to a grandparent I'd ever know and he has reappeared to me since in waking dreams as vividly as the molten primal colours of the Cine Super-8 home movies that Dad used to make. In this one, we are packing up our home in Lusaka in preparation for leaving Africa and going to our new life in England. Dad has arranged for a departmental lorry to take Jonas and his wives and still-at-home younger children back to his tribal home territory of Chinsali in the Northern Province. We have given him all of our left-over furniture and household goods, along with a handsome cash stipend to last him the rest of his life. Dad has also gifted Jonas his old Birmingham University Cricket Club blazer, its fabric a pattern of multi-coloured vertical stripes and adorned with colourful appliqued chevrons. Jonas is especially delighted with it and keeps turning around, urging his family to admire it.
I have known and loved Jonas my whole life and it seems inconceivable that I may never look upon his wise and benevolent features again. My heart is a stone crushed to powder and I cannot not reply when he takes my hand in his and gently says not ‘Shalineepo’ which means ‘Goodbye forever’, but ‘Twalamonana’, which signifies, ‘See you later’. “Go well and remember us,” these are his last words to me, called out as the Boma truck bumps slowly away, heaped with our tables and chairs and Jonas’ blazered arm waving. That truck seemed to me to be taking away everything I had known up to that point. It is so difficult to say goodbye to the past. I have returned throughout my life to the image of that arm waving in the African sunlight. Let there be no finitude and that arm go on waving in memory forever.
Rod Madocks is an author based in Nottingham, England. His latest book is the memoir Muzungu, extract above. His writing includes Our Tan, a Memoir of a Destroyed Life’ by Shoestring Press is a lament for the avoidable loss of a young woman and a savage critique of the British government institutions that failed her, the crime novel 'No Way To Say Goodbye', a book of short stories about his career as a forensic specialist in maximum security hospitals, 'Ship of Fools' , a historical novel set in the Devon during late Victorian times, Babbicam and The Rising Flame a memoir about the WW2 poet, Sidney Keyes. Website - www.rodmadocks.com