19. The Straw-blond Brigade

By Peter Fraenkel

When I reached Form IV I became a ‘senior’ so Rhodes House allocated a study to me.  I had to share it with two others which made it very cramped. Clifford was an old friend and he presented no problems. Sharing with Bjorkman was a different matter because of all his hangers-on. He was the eldest of what someone had nicknamed “the straw-blond brigade” – five young Swedes. There were three brothers Bjorkman and two brothers Johansens in the house. It was rumoured there were further straw-blond reinforcements waiting to emerge from the junior school. They were all the sons of Lutheran missionaries. Their mission station, Bjorkman once told me, had been founded by German Lutherans but when World War II broke out the Germans had been interned and the mission society had sent out Swedes to replace them. The Swedes were neutrals.

They were studious youngsters, these Swedes. One week they met in Johansen senior’s study, the next week they assembled in mine. Since we only had three chairs some had to sit on the floor but when they poured in both Clifford and I would escape and take our books to the edge of the rugby field. Others at Rhodes House put it about that these Swedish sons of bible-punchers were holding a prayer meeting. Not true. They were reading Swedish literature.

“We want to get into university back home,” Bjorkman explained to me, “we have to keep up with the Swedish curriculum.”

But there was more to it: They were super-patriots and starry-eyed about all things Swedish. Bjorkman proudly showed me a photo album of Swedish scenery – a land of lakes and forests and islands and log cabins with strange boxes which, he explained, were called saunas. And snow – lots of snow. For our African homeland he had an ill-disguised contempt. Once the war was over he would head for home, he declared. So would all the others of the brigade. Why would anyone want to stay in Africa?

I would occasionally needle him by asking what Sweden had to offer that could match ‘our’ Victoria Falls.

Bjorkman Senior, who was very good at maths, told me he hoped to become an engineer. When we left school he and I lost touch and I did not know whether he had ever succeeded in his ambition…. not until almost fifteen years later.

I had, by then, become a broadcaster and was recording a radio programme about the Kariba hydroelectric dam, then under construction. I was shown into a vast underground cavern chiselled out of sheer rock.

“Fraenkel!” shouted someone and the voice echoed. I turned around, surprised. There, supervising the installation of a huge generator, was Bjorkman Senior.

“What are you doing here?” I called to him, “I thought you were in Sweden.”

“Well, people can change their mind, can’t they?”

“Why did you?”

“Come and have a beer and I’ll tell you …. if you really want to know. I finish work at six.”

I had been quartered in a six-sided metal hut reserved for guests to the construction site. Shortly after 6 a freshly showered Bjorkman knocked at my door. He conducted me to a much large metal pre-fab which served as the staff pub.

“I couldn’t live in Europe,” he confided after the second lager “I just couldn’t. Everything was so … so small, so crowded, so petty. Narrow! Narrow! Everything was narrow. You know the last job I did in Sweden? I had to work out the loading of balconies for a block of flats – two metres by one metre fifty each, just big enough to hold one old woman and perhaps her man. And the conversation back in Sweden? That was one metre square, too, or even smaller. But you’ve seen what we’re building here … carving it out of solid granite?”

“Yes,” I nodded, “it’s like a cathedral.”

“Exactly. And the dam wall we’re building? That’s going to hold back the largest man-made lake in the world. Here a man can feel tall – two metres tall …. two metres fifty!”