Chittenden was one of the old time District Commissioners, dust in his boots and whisky in
his blood. Long years of sand and sun had tarnished his skin to a dark, leathery hue,
and on his head was a battered felt hat which he had brought out with him seventeen
years before, which he had worn almost every day since, and which he would not part
with for worlds.
He was not a slave to alcohol. But there is no doubt that, had his medical consultant
advised him that his life would be considerably shortened if he did not give it up, he
would have raised the bottle to his lips to drink to the health of whatever years lay before
him. Nor did it affect his faculties in any way. His eyes were still sharp, and nothing escaped
him; years of experience enabled him to distinguish at a glance between trivial incidents
and occurrences which might have serious repercussions whenever a report was brought
to him. He was of ample proportions, but a lifetime of touring by bicycle and on foot had
kept him fit, and ensured that he was never in danger of becoming fat.
Outside the office the brown sand and tall grass of the Barotse plain shimmered in the
afternoon sun. This part of Central Africa could really reach the extremes of heat in the
height of the dry season. Very different from higher up country where the greater altitude
tended to ameliorate this discomfort. Only a stone's throw away, the mighty Zambezi
meandered its way past the settlement, having already meandered a thousand miles and
with another thousand miles yet to meander. Far, far below this point lay the site where
was to appear the mighty Kariba dam - as yet only a flight of imagination in the dreams
of those whose job it was to cut out this country and lay the foundation stones for its
Who, on seeing this wilderness for the first time, could ever believe that for nearly
half the year this vast plain would be like a great inland sea? A time when the cumulative
effect of the rains would be to swell the mighty Zambezi to the dimensions of an ocean
fifty miles wide, all trace of the true path of the river disappearing beneath the surface
for a space of several months? That would be a time when this government outpost, like
many others lying on outcrops of higher ground, would stand like an island in the southern
seas, peaceful and serene - but with the added attractions of teeming mosquitoes and
innumerable watersnakes. This was one of the few places in the world where it was an
accepted thing for the indigenous population to have two homes, one down on the plain
during the dry season (for they had to be near the river to get water and grow crops), and
the other up on the mounds of higher ground further back when the great flood overtook
And everything depended on the river, of course. Like the Nile, it was the life blood
of this vast countryside. Not least among its assets was that of communication. No
genius of development has yet been able to tell us how to build across these plains such
roads that will still be there after they have been eroded by six feet of water for five or
six months of the year. And the days of regular air communication were yet around the
He mopped his brow with a 4irty handkerchief and looked at the perspiration. He
glanced out of the open door at the sandflies on the verandah. As was his wont, he
cursed 'this bloody place' as he had done so many times.in the past seventeen years.
What could anyone do with a water level that changed sometimes 20 feet in 24 hours?
With an effort he got up from the chair, pushed away the report he had been reading,
and sauntered over to the door. The grit on the red stone floor crackled under his feet. He
leant against the doorjamb and his hand held the blistered dull green painted woodwork.
He could not remember how long ago he had first had malaria, but spasms of it hit
him at regular intervals. It was now too far ingrained in his system for modem dmgs to
have any real effect. A flush of cold enveloped him as he fumbled below and pulled out
a drawer in the desk and brought out a flask containing amber liquid from which he took
a swig. Then he shook the flask to see how much remained.
Softly a shadow fell across the doorway and his Head Messenger entered the office.
He moved forward, extending a letter towards the desk. He took the letter and glanced
through it. His forefinger dabbed at it, line by line, as if checking off a list. Finally he
gmnted, and the Head Messenger waited while his Bwana slowly picked up a pen and
added to the list '6 cases of Haig'. His cook back at the house had already compiled the
list of provisions required from the shops in Livingstone, three hundred miles downstream.
The Head Messenger strode down the hill until his heavy boots clattered on the
wooden landing-stage where the barge lay waiting; the letter was passed from hand to
hand until it reached the hand on the wheel of the vessel.
As if at last given a permit to depart, the vessel shot away out into midstream, and
softly commenced to chug away on its long journey that would take it somewhere down
near the mighty 'Victoria Falls. This was tihe lifeline of the country; if some misfortune
befell this barge, then the outstation would be as cut off as an island. Six weeks would pass
before they would hear that engine again - six weeks of looking forward to equipment,
stores and provisions, and, perhaps, most important of all, mail from the faraway outside
world. They stood and watched it grow smaller and smaller in the distance until it was
lost to sight round a bend in the river.
He left the office, crossed the verandah, and trudged up the slope to his house. He
entered the sparsely furnished sitting-room and threw himself into a Morris armchair covered in a dirty old rug. Around the walls hung various locally carved ornaments. In
one comer was a battery radio standing on an elephant's foot.
He called out to the cook at the back of the house, "Chanda"!
An ebony face atop a khaki kansas appeared through the archway of the dining-room.
"If you forget the bloody whisky again, you'll find yourself without a job!"
The cook's eyes rolled in recollection. "Sorry, Bwana" he said; not unduly perturbed
- and one could conclude that the threat had been made many times before.
Six weeks is a long time; but time passes. The old ponderous river launch had to
appear again some day, and turn up it did, right on the nail of the scheduled day. As
might perhaps be expected, he was down there on the landing-stage to meet it. He had
actually been there since first light. His supply of the clear amber liquid had already
come to an end a few days before, and Horlicks, although a very excellent panacea for
night starvation for many people, was hardly a substitute to bring peace to his leatherlined
The stretch of water between the landing-stage and the launch gradually diminished,
until the green ripples eddied away in either direction, and the old motor tyres that
served as fenders took the shock of impact. The boatman threw the line ashore and he
bent down to make it fast. As he did so his quick eyes searched among the assorted cargo
strewn on the deck below. They ranged over the usual assortment of goods destined for
outstations - drums of paraffin, a few bicycles, odd items of furnimre, carpenter's tools,
corrugated iron, building materials and assorted boxes and parcels.
The boatman unslung a mailbag, and took out a fistful of letters and handed a few to
him. He took them, and observed that the top envelope came from the store in
Livingstone where he obtained his supplies. Feverishly, he ran his thumb along the top
and opened the envelope. Inside was a note that told a story.
"Regret have no Haig in stock. Would you like us to send Black and White instead?"