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Shiwa Ngandu, Northern Rhodesia,
Good Friday 1914
It began as it would end, in the place he had always known he would find one day. In front of him, under an endless sky, stretched the lake, shining like a Queen's sapphire in the morning sunlight. Shiwa Ngandu, the local Bemba people called it, the Lake of the Royal Crocodiles. 'Shiwa N-ganndu.' The young British Army lieutenant tested the name on his tongue, emphasizing the penultimate syllable as he had heard the Bemba do, and enjoyed its sound.
The lake was quite small, about five miles long and one and a half broad, and lay cupped in a circle of hills, garbed with lush grass and trees. Here and there a sensual burst of colour broke up the green -- the scarlet of a bubu tree, bursting with African tulips, a pair of tiny flame-breasted sunbirds singing, and a patch of yellow diamonds on the ground which rose up and became a cloud of butterflies. There was a flat meadow-like area between the hills and the far shore, and through his field-glasses the officer could make out a herd of zebra, skittishly parading their finely painted stripes and black manes. Everything seemed to be revelling in life. Removing his pith-helmet, Stewart Gore-Browne lay back against his pack and sighed up at the clear sky with satisfaction. It was all so magical that I felt I had entered a fairy kingdom, he later wrote. The rainy season over, the air tasted so crisp and pure that he fancied himself the first to breathe it. It had been a long, hazardous journey. But at last he had arrived at the place where he could build his manor and be lord of all he surveyed. His thoughts were interrupted by Bulaya, the young orphan he had been trying to train as his cook, proffering a Spode china cup and saucer. Like all his servants, Bulaya was clad in white calico shirt and shorts and black and yellow waistcoat, which Gore-Browne had had sent out from the Army & Navy store in London. I fancy the colours will set off their coppery skins, he had written in one of his thrice-weekly letters to his beloved aunt Ethel, adding, just because one is in Africa, is no reason not to do things properly. He took the teacup and smiled at Bulaya's big white-toothed grin. The forty porters he had brought with him were all Bemba people who had worked for him over the last three years on the Border Commission marking out the frontier between Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo, and they were overjoyed to be back in their homeland.
He was about to ask Bulaya to knock up some celebratory breakfast from their dwindling supplies, when a rustling down by the shore caught his attention. Instinctively, he reached for his rifle, the .318 Richards given to him by his uncle Goff, the naval commander who had taught him to shoot, and edged forward. Three small reedbuck were cavorting at the edge of the water, their pelts quivering with alertness, their arched bodies and legs reminding him of young ballerinas.
He held the sight against the monocle he wore on his right eye and selected his prey. It was a clear shot and he squeezed the trigger quickly. Tow.' The single retort echoed round the silent hills and sent a flock of dark geese shrieking into the distance, low over the shining water. Two of the bucks fled and the other fell, right on target. There would be meat for lunch. He made a thumbs-up sign to his headman, Chikwanda, who set off with Kakumbi, the hunter, to collect and skin the body. Watching them go, Gore-Browne sat on the canvas chair outside his tent and took his pen from his pack along with a small black leather-bound book. Opening the page at 10 April, noting with surprise that it was Good Friday, he recounted the event in his diary, followed by the single word Happy.
Summoning a small boy who came running with a fan woven of banana leaves to keep him cool, he looked around the place contentedly, thinking about where he would build his grand estate and imagining himself on the terrace, commanding his servants, or striding about the grounds, a rifle under his arm and a Great Dane by his side. For as long as he could remember, he had dreamed of owning an imposing house, something like Brooklands, the Surrey estate of his father's favourite sister Ethel and her husband Hugh Locke King, which always seemed to be full of interesting people, the table replete with fine food and wine. The couple had no children of their own, and he and his younger brother Robert and sister Sapphire had often spent school holidays there, preferring it to their parents' place, Oakley, near Abingdon, where their mother, the beautiful Helenor Shaw-Stewart, who claimed descendancy from Robert III of Scotland, was always occupied in socializing and organizing London balls and their father, Francis GoreBrowne, a brilliant barrister, was either off at his chambers or buried in his books. Father, 1 think of as always away or busy, he once wrote. Mother, I never managed to get on with.
Young Stewart had become unusually close to his aunt, and he would cry when his mother came to collect him at the end of the holidays. From an early age it was Ethel he had gone to when he was unhappy, when he was sent away to Wixenford prep school at the age of nine, then to Harrow where he was bullied as a 'worm', being painfully shy, and neither clever like his father, nor athletic like his father's three brothers, Harold, Wilfred and Godfrey, all of whom had studied there.
Excerpted from The Africa House by Christina Lamb Copyright © 2005 by Christina Lamb. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 31, 2010
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