Several brooks skipped down the slopes of the mountain. Where it became steep they turned into small waterfalls. Tall clusters of bamboo hid the streams from near-by houses and screened these houses from their neighbours. The sub-tropical trees – blue-flowering jacarandas and red-blooming flame trees – scattered their discarded flowers down the mountain slope. Streams washed the blooms down the hill.
This was Zomba, only a village when I knew it but the capital of colonial Nyasaland. It was the most beautiful capital I have ever known.
When the colony became independent Kamuzu Banda, the first president, moved his capital north, to Lilongwe and renamed the country: Malawi.
Lilongwe, alas, is a dull place on a flat, characterless plain. It is, however, in the midst of Banda’s tribal homeland. Perhaps he felt safer among his own Chewa people, especially as his rule became ever more tyrannical. But to give him a modicum of credit Lilongwe is on flat lands which allowed for its later growth.
But Zomba, beautiful Zomba! Sir Harry Johnson, the first governor, had built his residence there and around it he created a colourful botanical garden. The garden flourished wonderfully in that subtropical climate.
Exotic trees were well-established when, half a century later, I was posted to Zomba to launch a radio studio. Both my engineer and I were pleased to be quartered in a cottage right in the botanical garden. The old residence had by now become a hostel for civil servants and several cottages had been built in the gardens. Ours was set among beautiful trees.
A new governor’s residence had been built higher up the hill – a much grander building, white with towers and crennelations. Ranged below it, circling the hill, was a ring of large houses for heads of government departments. Below these were smaller residences for lesser civil servants and still further down were hostels for secretaries. The architecture of the residences echoed the style of the English Lake district – white walls but green-painted timbers with fret-work patterns.
Social life was as hierarchical as the geography. Sundowner get-togethers were horizontal – heads of department associated with other heads of department though occasionally one might invite an up-and-coming assistant head. Once or twice a year, however, a departmental head would graciously entertain his entire staff – the white staff, of course, though if he were one of the liberal sort he might even include one or two of his African staff. This was what they called a vertical party.
The government staff list, which was available in every office, showed the status of every civil servant, his salary, his years of service, when he was due to retire…. except mine and that of the radio engineer who had come with me.
We two were not members of the Nyasaland colonial service but that of the neighbouring territory. Our radio service served three territories but we were on the payroll of Northern Rhodesia.
Since no one at Zomba could check up on our status, we had not a single invitation in our first month but that changed the day I met Dr Haslam. He had been a government medical officer back in Northern Rhodesia but had recently been promoted to Director of Medical Services, Nyasaland. Earlier he had participated in my medical education broadcasts. We had got on well. He immediately invited me to his next party. I found myself amidst heads of departments who must have assumed I shared their status. The result? In the following weeks I found myself invited to a whole series of ‘dos’ at the houses of heads of department. I found it embarrassing.
Fortunately we spent much of our time, either ‘up-country’ on safari or recording in the Zomba district.
Behind the governor’s residence a steep road rose up to the Zomba plateau. The road was narrow – too narrow for two cars to pass so they had devised a rota. At certain times only up-traffic was permitted, at other times only down traffic. By the side of the road little African boys sold berries. They looked like raspberries and tasted similar but were bright yellow. If you stopped to bargain about the price, cars behind you could not overtake and might start to hoot.
The plateau, altitude 1,800 metres, had a temperate climate, though surrounded by low-lying hot subtropical land. Forests of fragrant pines had been planted on the plateau. There were trout streams and cool lakes. One small restaurant had long views south but from the northern end of the plateau you had an even longer view down to Lake Chilwa. Beyond that was the palm-fringed Lake Malawi – one of the largest lakes in Africa.
When I got back from some weeks “up country” I was reluctant to reclaim my false head-of-department status. I had not even applied for membership of the Gymkhana Club, nor had I signed “the book” which would ensure that I was invited to the governor’s next reception. Fortunately my colleague, the engineer, had by then discovered The Crown and Anchor. It had once been part of the Railway Hotel but trains now came rarely and the four or five hotel bedrooms were usually empty. The pub, however, had become a social centre for any who felt uncomfortable at the Gymkhana Club. At the pub it was the Cockney “clippie” who set the tone.
“If it’s champs you want, me old china, you’ve come to the wrong place” was her greeting to me as I walked in.
“No, no. Best bitter please”, I replied.
“And what for the pretty boy?” she asked, gesturing towards my engineer. He was neither pretty nor a boy. He, too, settled for a beer. Once we had reached our second drink she asked:
“And what about some elephant’s trunk?”
I hesitated. Was this cockney rhyming slang? Bunk? Monk? Dunk?
“It’s on the house” she assured us.
I was certain this was a joke and answered “Of course! Of course!”
Conversation around the bar ceased and eyes were on the two of us newcomers. From a large fridge she brought out a tray with – yes, there was no doubting it – a piece, perhaps a foot long, of cooked elephant’s trunk. No rhyming slang involved! She took a large kitchen knife, sharpened it against a stone and cut two slices which she placed on separate plates and presented to us.
They looked much like smoked ham – but, disconcertingly, there were the two nostrils going through them. Rather off-putting! All eyes were on me. Would I chicken out? I asked to borrow her knife and cut out a ring of flesh around the nostrils, set this aside and then tucked into the rest – cautiously. It tasted good – like ox-tongue but firmer. I took a second bite.
I appeared to have passed muster. Conversations resumed…. until, twenty minutes later, another ‘new boy’ entered and the entire game was repeated.
They referred to her as “the clippie” and I learnt that she had once been a conductor on London trams, clipping the tickets of passengers. Her banter had its roots in London trams. At pub closing time she would call out loudly “All change!” or “Terminus.”
Her pub became our home from home.
One Thursday the pub was crowded. The weekly mail train was coming. Someone said a government minister from London was expected. Normally big shots came by plane but flights had been cancelled. Swarms of red locusts had, that week, made flying hazardous.
A tall young man dressed in a dark suit came into the pub. Suits were a rarity at Zomba. Most whites wore khaki shorts and bush shirts. I recognised him: the A.D.C. – the governor’s aide-de-camp.
“So, what’s it to be, ‘andsome?” asked the clippie.
Instead of answering he announced “H.E. is arriving”.
“Aitch ee?” she repeated. “’oose he when he’s at ‘ome?”
The young man pulled himself to his full height: “His Excellency the Governor.” And when that appeared to make no great impression on the clippie he added “the representative of Her Majesty the Queen.”
“She coming too?” she asked. “She’ll be welcome.”
“No, just H.E.”
“Hasn’t ‘e got a name like other folk?”
Before the A.D.C. could find an appropriate reply the governor himself came in, a shorter man but also in a suit. He waved his hand cheerfully to the assembly and took a bar stool.
“’Evenin’ guv” said the clippie. “If its champs you’re after, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
“No,” laughed H.E. “A best bitter will do fine.”
All of us had slid off our barstools and were standing upright, though not quite at-attention: “Anyone know when the train is due?” he asked. The clippie replied “Stationmaster has just downed his beer. Said the train was due any minute.”
“Oh,” said the governor. “Then I shan’t get in a second pint?” This remark relaxed the atmosphere. We waited. Would the clippie offer him her elephant’s trunk?
When we heard the train pulling in we walked out to the platform. So did the governor. We could see him greet his guest and spirit him away in that large Rolls with a gold crown in place of a number plate. We others trooped back for a last half pint.
“You never offered him your elephant!” someone teased the clippie. “Chicken, weren’t you?”
For a moment she looked a trifle nonplussed, then recovered herself.
“I’m waitin’ ‘till he brings in queenie… I mean ‘er majesty.”