British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R.E.N. Smith
Ulendo, 1911
Ulendo, safari, bush bashing, on tour - all romantic words redolent of the immaculately turned out Bwana, with his faithful gun-bearer just behind him, followed by a retinue of kanzu-clad servants, messengers and askaris, the tassels on their crested bright red fezzes swinging free, and a long line of happy carriers, each bearing the Bwana's essentials, as they head for a palaver at the Chiefs picturesque thatched-hut kraal. This was the popular image of the majesty of District Administration, or for that matter of any of the other services that brought the benefits of Western civilisation to the forlorn and friendless in their darkness. If the scene is more watery, then there is the D C on his river steamer, majestic with its polished brass work and disciplined Hausa soldiery, moving steadily upstream to subdue a recalcitrant Old King. Well, if you were brought up on Edgar Wallace's "Sanders" stories, or the reminiscences of early administrators, perhaps there was a smidgen of truth in all this, but in my time, at the end of the era, we were not quite up to this grand view.

Ulendo, c1917
I must preface my remarks by noting that judged by some standards Nyasaland was somewhat scruffy in dress. I well remember the arrival of an officer on transfer from Uganda, who appeared for work, to the stupefaction of all beholders, refulgent in all the glory of a pith helmet, khaki drill bush shirt and shorts, with the shirt sporting polished brass crested buttons. The usual dress for officers in our Boma was a short-sleeved sports shirt and khaki shorts, plus long stockings. In the cities and in cold weather you might wear a tie with this gear, but not in the average district. On ulendo the same dress would suffice, but you would probably replace the long socks with short ones - they did not collect quite as many prickles and burrs. I remember one forest officer (not noted for excessive energy) who kept a matchbox full of burrs, and sprinkled them on his stockings when visiting his masters in Zomba! On one's feet would be a battered pair of Bata crepe-soled suede shoes -- lineal descendants of the "brothel creepers'' of wartime. I usually owned three pairs of these most comfortable princes of footwear, which cost only 25/- a pair, one for best, one for ulendo, and, in a descending scale of serviceability, one for gardening. I do not think many of us ever wore a pith helmet, or a cork helmet, except for the pipe-clayed white horror that crowned us when in civil uniform. On the officer's head would be a soft Australian felt bush hat; my own was slightly unusual in that it was two hats sewn together and had once been part of my uniform in the army; now, stripped of the distinctive insignia of the Third Gurkhas, it served me well in Africa for many years.

Ulendo, 1940
On rare occasions one might have to dress up; when the Governor made his rounds you put on a suit and tie. Since my suit for several years was a purple striped double-breasted delight given me by a grateful British Government on demobilisation, it was not exactly Bond Street, while its successor, made by a Greek tailor locally, was not of a notably high standard either, so that I never achieved the nonchalant style of that most suave and elegant of officials, the late and much lamented Arthur Mell. As for evening attire, a dinner jacket was usual on special social occasions in the capital, but never in the bush. There my dress was more informal than most - my war-time denim trousers, tucked into mosquito boots, kept me from harm. The mosquito boots were made for me to my own design. They were in fact uniform boots, but I had had the zip put at the back so that when on parade there was no sign of their usual more mundane service.

Nyasaland Stamp
One's own retinue varied according to choice; there were usually a house boy and a cook, a clerk plus a messenger or two. I have remarked on these latter stalwarts before, but they were the essential part of one's tail. They organised the carriers, put up the tent, saw that a toilet had been prepared, and on top of that they would round up any miscreants one wanted, would form the "complainants" (the villagers with any sort of request) into a little line, and generally serve one's dignity and comfort with zeal. Their uniform was modest enough - shirt (with brass buttons) and shorts, a leather belt and the brass-crested and tasselled fez; you could distinguish between Boma messengers and Native Authority messengers by these tassels - red for the Boma men and black for the NA ones. On top of that the level of smartness was always in favour of the Boma messengers, almost always ex-askari of the King's African Rifles, and as loyal and dependable as one could wish. They usually went barefoot and carried no weapons; the only firearm visible on ulendo was my 12 bore shotgun, with which I chased guinea fowl in the early mornings and evenings - with only minor success, for I was never a Great White Hunter.

Dugout Canoe
My first ulendo was not on foot at all, but by canoe; I did not rate a river gunboat, a launch or even a rowing boat, for the Lower River District did not boast any such luxury. I was honoured all the same, for Chief Nyachikadza had sent his personal flagship for me, and it was a grand enough canoe, dug out from a remarkably large tree to hold me, my clerk, a messenger and a couple of servants. From Port Herald to Nyachikadza's capital was no great distance, and going downstream was quick and easy, while out in the middle of the Shire River there were neither flies nor mosquitoes. This was luxury indeed, but the return voyage was rather different. Because the canoe was so large, it made much poorer progress than the usual two-man affair. We crept slowly and with difficulty up against the current and hugging the marshy bank, so that the pests we had foiled on the way down had their revenge, while the heat was horrid; well at least I personally did not have to do the paddling or poling.

Likoma Canoes
The number of carriers you were permitted to take at Government expense was laid down in General Orders. You could have twenty two, with extra if you were traversing waterless areas. This may sound a lot, and certainly you did not always take that number, but you needed six for the clumsy and heavy tents that were standard issue - double fly, verandah, bathroom apse, plus poles and pegs. For my gear I had had several petrol boxes adapted. For those who have not met these humble but essential items, they were sturdy wooden boxes, each holding two flimsy four gallon cans of petrol or kerosene; used in the War they had been grossly wasteful of petrol, but for my purposes they were perfect. The Boma carpenter put a hinged lid on each, and they then held food, pots and pans, clothing, crockery, and all the other essential impedimenta of travel. One held the pressure lamp and its attendant paraffin tin; these lamps gave excellent light but were subject to constant failure of their little burned-cloth mantle or "bulb" - and the replacements were not cheap. This brilliant light also attracted the multitudinous aerial creatures of the night, all intent and often succeeding in self immolation -- the flying "sausages" were particularly annoying and as they burned they cooked with a horrid stench.

On Safari
Another petrol box I had cunningly adapted as a luxury box, with two doors on the side and folding legs at each end. Inside lived a couple of shelves of paper-backs and my Saucepan Radio, a fore-runner of the little transistor sets, and yes, its cover was a saucepan. On arrival in camp the legs were folded down, an aerial wire thrown on top of the tent, and contentment settled on me. This happy state was aided by a demi-john of Portuguese wine; Port Herald was close to the Mozambique border where a few unhappy trading stores nudged the frontier at Marka Nyathando, and one could buy a demi-john of quite passable wine cheaply indeed. With a glass of red wine to accompany one's dinner, a book, the radio and a quiet pipe of tobacco, what else could one want? Other carriers had the gear of the staff and servants, and any other unconsidered trifles we acquired on the way. In another district an officer of an unusually sensitive nature had a personal carrier-borne toilet seat that was fitted over the usual hole in the ground inside a grass walled surround, but he was the only such sybarite that I heard of.

There were two exceptions to the twenty-two rule, one legal, the other highly incorrect. There was a dispensation in General Orders for an officer who was physically disabled that permitted him to be carried by "machila" men. A machila was no more than a hammock slung on a long pole, and had been a common mode of transport for the more idle of Europeans in the earlier years of the century. I only knew of one officer who could legitimately have used machila men, an ex-Indian Army officer who had lost a leg on the North-West Frontier, but I do not think that he ever availed himself of the privilege. All the same, by a process of immutable habit so dear to officials, it was usual for there to be a couple of machila men on the roll of each Boma (I do not know how one machila man could have performed his duties) and they were the indispensable performers of odd jobs that every station needed. Efforts to have them abolished were thwarted by renaming them "station hands".

The other exception to the rule was the Department of Agriculture. The Director, a highly experienced, able and forceful officer, had spent all his career in Nyasaland and had, I suspect, imbibed deeply of the "Cinderella of Central Africa" belief that was often thrust upon us. In a praiseworthy attempt to get the maximum of ulendo consonant with the least damage to his touring vote, he laid it down that his officers were not permitted more than sixteen carriers. Such was his mana that no one questioned his contemptuous infraction of General Orders, for he had no authority to override them. He just did it, and his department fell into line. He must have been the earliest practicians of the mean and lean" type of administration that is now popular with politicians all over the world.

The Lower River was not a large district, and the distances between camps and villages quite modest, so one recruited carriers at each halt and paid them off on arrival at the next. It was not highly paid work -- I think that the rate in 1950 was nine pence a day, though it did improve later. The scene each morning was animated, as the clerk and messengers tried to get the milling mass of young men into some sort of order. Once all the gear had been packed, and the tent taken down, the loads were allotted. By a world-wide phenomenon among organised manual labour, it was invariably the biggest and strongest man who picked the smallest load, but my trips were usually enlivened by the downfall of this little quirk of human laziness. My clerk, the servants and messengers would smile in anticipation as some great hulk of a man rushed for and seized the little padlocked wooden box that stood all on its own. Unaccountably he had much difficulty in lifting it, and there was laughter all round when it was revealed that this small box was lined in metal and packed with 12-bore cartridges. In later years portering became most unpopular and in a commendable spirit of national pride, young men were reluctant to carry, even for the princely sum of 2/6d. At Visanza in the Central Province in 1960 I made no attempt to recruit men, for it became much easier to find women to do the work. Prom their point of view they were paid to carry comparatively easy loads for a few miles to a village where they would be able to visit their friends, and be paid handsomely for it - for I doubt if the men would ever have handed over their pay to their wives!

In the interests of taking government to the people, whether they wanted it or not, the Governor of my day had laid down minimum ulendo standards. Every District Commissioner had to do seven nights touring each month and every Assistant District Commissioner fourteen nights - and no excuses were acceptable. This sounds reasonable enough and was generally not too wearing, though ulendo in the wet weather could be extremely unpleasant for all concerned. In my first tour I was a bachelor, and so constant touring was no problem. Its effect on some officers, however, could be odd. My first District Commissioner in the Lower River District formed the habit of having his tent erected at the Boma itself, some four miles from his house, and camping there, thus obeying the strict letter of the directive, if not its spirit.

From the Lower River I moved on to the sub-district of Mwanza, which, like so many of these subdivisions of large districts, was a former independent district that had perforce been amalgamated with another for lack of staff during the war. There was much ulendo to be carried out, but the country was beautiful. I have happy memories of a camp on the Kirk Range in a grove of tall trees, and the following day's trek down into the valley of the Wamkurumadzi (big water), crossing a waterfall half way down its face, before climbing up to the old Boma at Neno - a delightful spot. To balance this Nirvana I can also recall a slog in mud through heavy rain and being stuck in a soggy tent for two days, with the heavens opened above us. No praise can be too high for the ability of the servants to conjure passable food in such conditions, while their cheerfulness was remarkable. There was only a slight recompense for them, in the shape of "presents" of chickens, eggs and flour from the chief (all paid for after a short delay - the fiction of a "present" had to be maintained). The staff and servants (and carriers) got the flour, I got the eggs, and the chickens were either eaten on the spot or carried back to the Boma.

Some years later, married and with a small child and a second on the way, I found myself in charge of the sub-district Boma of Kasupe; this was at least as large and as populous as its parent district of Zomba, and while it certainly needed much touring, had also a mass of paper and court work to do at the little Boma itself. I found myself touring from Monday to Saturday (and once from Monday to Friday) three weeks out of four, and trying to catch up with the office work at weekends, so that my wife saw little of me. We spent all of three years there (split by a leave) and loved it, in spite of too frequent frustrations and even personal tragedies. Come what may, ulendo had to go on. Ah well, it was probably character building!

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profiles
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 87: April 2004


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