124. Flowers – say it with flowers?

By Peter Fraenkel

True story though I had to Invent names I had forgotten.

Northern Rhodesia, when I grew up there in the 1940s and ‘50s, was home to a viciously racist white society. As increasing numbers of Africans acquired a modern education, these whites – especially the least educated among them – felt increasingly challenged and insecure. With growing assertiveness they boasted that it would take the munts a thousand years to reach our civilised standards.

It was, I thought, the whites with least to boast about who most assertively claimed the superiority of our race. As a schoolboy I challenged some of my classmates “So – how many hundred years has it taken you?” I soon learnt to desist: they were stronger than I was. I got beaten up and labelled a kaffirboetie – an Afrikaans term for ‘little brother of the kaffirs’.

The Lozi people of Barotseland presented such whites with a problem.  Here were African people with ancient customs and a sophisticated culture. They inhabited the Zambesi flood plain. Every rainy season the river rose, bringing down waters from the Congo and Angola. Flood plain villages had to be evacuated and people migrated to higher grounds. This was an annual event – the Kuomboka ceremony – which I witnessed and have described. (See my story “Out of the Water.” Number 23 on my website.]

There were a small number of white merchants in Barotseland, most of them cattle traders – one or two Lebanese, a Jew and a few Afrikaners. They did well financially. Despite this most remained contemptuous of the Lozi people. But they found it advisable to keep their contempt to themselves.

A British district officer – khaki shorts, khaki bush shirt – came to Nalolo, the second, southern capital, to announce that a British royal prince was about to arrive for a visit. The prince would, undoubtedly, want to pay his respects to the Mulena Mukwae – the princess-regent for the southern region. Would the princess be willing to invite him for a meal? The princess said she would be happy to do so. European-style food – though she herself did not much like it – did not present a problem.  One of her staff had been a cook at the posh Victoria Falls Hotel. The cook was summoned and the menu was discussed.

The princess knew white people loved flowers. One of the white shopkeepers – an Afrikaner called Swanepoel – had a fine garden.  She used to admire his flowerbeds. That had been in the days when she had been more mobile. She had not managed this in recent months because of her ailment – a painful infected leg. Puss had to be drained from it twice a day and the bandage changed. She now kept a medical aid as part of her household. She summoned Swanepoel, the trader and asked him – perhaps a little too peremptorily – for flowers. He promised to send them over. He was contemptuous of blacks but especially of black women. Others found this odd since it was widely known he had a black mistress. However she was kept out of sight and treated badly. They described his behaviour. It was sadist – though this was not a term they knew.

Swanepoel was kept waiting in the drizzle, while the medical aid changed the Mulena Mukwaes’ dressings. It took a while. The longer Swanepoel waited the more irritated he became. He was getting wet through.

In the end he took refuge in his shop, just opposite. There he had a shelf full of porcelain articles. Yes! He would get his revenge: He took two chamber pots, half-filled them from the rainwater trough and arranged his flowers in them. He went and placed them in the centre of the princess’ dining table and chuckled. It would make a good story for his mates.

There was the sound of cars arriving. The first was that of the district officer. He had changed into long trousers – the first time anyone had seen him dressed so formally, but he had never before had to escort a Brit   royal. He spotted the chamber pots on the dining table, buttonholed a servant and ordered him to remove them immediately. Just then he heard the royal party arriving.

“What’s wrong?” asked the princess. She was not used to being kept waiting.  The D.O. explained in a whisper, struggling with the Silozi language. Was there a term for a chamber pot? He mimed its use. The Mulena Mukwae nodded and gritted her teeth.

That night Swanepoel’s shop burnt down. His residence, too, caught fire but his mistress woke up. She shrieked and rushed out of the house. In the moonlit night she ran all the way to her parental village. Swanepoel never saw her again. He himself yelled for water. No one reacted. It was as if all had, suddenly, gone deaf.  He was lucky to escape with his life.

After that there was nothing he could do but abandon the place and that life.  The burn-scar on his right hand would long remind him of his misadventure. When last heard of he was struggling to make a living mending punctures and repairing bicycles at Cape Town.