Growing up in Africa it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about having a servant. Most homes had one, perhaps two or three. They were as much a part of the given order of things as parents, friends, household pets and tradespeople.
The first time I remember feeling that perhaps servants were somehow different -- not quite the stable components of my little world I had taken them for -- was when James disappeared. James had been with our family pretty well since any arrival on the scene, and now he was gone.Something to do with missing food and a depleted store- cupboard. Anyway, I was disconsolate. Never again in my eyes could a servant be dependably woven into the emotional tapestry of home.
A few years later came an incident which, though slight, momentarily nudged the master-servant relation into focus for me. The dusty bush-paths round our home were strewn with devil thorns. One prong always pointing up, they were an absolute menace to byicycle tires. Punctures were beyond number.
"Kenneth!" the cry echoed in our back yard one afternoon.
Not best pleased at being interrupted in a chat with his friends, the tall Ndebele whose build betrayed his Zulu ancestry walked slowly into the garden and glowered at me.
"Kenneth, please mend my bike."
"Why?" he said, "why should I?"
I was dumbfounded. Age six or seven, I had no idea why. Nor, for that matter, why not. Sensing my bewilderment the big man resignedly set about fixing the puncture. Little did he know that the lesson had gone home.
I was not, generally speaking, allowed to give instructions to our servant. Besides, apart from my bicycle, I was not a man of property and so had none to give. But I was deeply interested. The hours spent watching Nyambo sieve the contents of the compost pit, or the time, much later, when Joseph laid a pathway at the side of the house; even the mundane business of hanging out the weekly wash; these events spoke of an important cooperation between my parents ad succesive servants in shaping our home.
Time went by, and the servants gradually retreated into the warm domestic background. They were no longer on the cutting edge of my experience. I was engaged in the world of school, and servants belonged to the conquered realms of childhood.
Meanwhile large events were gathering on the political front in southern Africa: the "Winds of Change," African Nationalism, the break-up of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Sharpeville. But if grownups talked about these things their deliberations never penetrated the horizon of my boyhood concerns: homework, friends, tennis, model trains, swimming, music lessons -- who would have it otherwise? It was not until the start of High School that stirrings in the wider world filtered through.
Rehearsals for Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" in our boys' school found us first-years ignominiously attired in starched petticoats, tennis shoes and striped frocks, lustily bellowing "For he ism an Englishman --. Form he is a-an E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e- eeeenglish man!" But there was a lurking ambiguity in our response to this stirring refrain. How the feeling reached us is hard to say. It must've been in the air. I remember no definite channels.
In the middle of African in the twentieth century, werem we Englishmen? It not, what were we? What were we singing about?
Three years later came U.D.I. Sent home from school mid-morning on the 11th November 1965, we gathered round the radio to be told that our country was independent. The consequences are still unfolding, but with that step the political education of ordinary Rhodesians -- my generation -- had begun in earnest.
Some of us went off to university, learned about social contracts and poverty datum lines, of growth theories and under-development, of racism and political modernization. We got hot under the collar at the appalling shortsightedness of our seniors. Couldn't they see it coming?
Also, we talked about servants. Some maintained that having a servant was wrong in any circumstances. No matter what they earned, or how they were housed. Serving was an affront to human dignity. Others wanted to know how refusing to employ someone who could get no other work and needed to support a family was going to help. And so on. Endlessly.
Eventually I came to England and went to study at Oxford; to be greated there by my "scout," Michael, an amiable Irish exmonk who wandered into my rooms shortly after my arrival and announced his intention of making my ben each morning. Gradually we came to an agreement whereby he would flick a duster about once a week or so, and for the rest we would chat. Or rather, Michael would discourse and I would listen.
"Of course you have servants in Rhodesia, don't you?" said Michael. Michael, it seemed, wasn't a servant. "What was it like to have servants?"
What was it like?
Aziko 'nDaba ("it doesn't matter"), who earned the nickname because this phrase, accompanied by the most wonderful smile, was his perennial response to our fulminations over the vast quantity of crockery he managed to smash. Clumsy? Yes, but it takes while to learn the strength of china when you aren't used to it.
And Elena. Elena who helped nurse my father with an intuitive tenderness and skill we could scarcely match. She's learned to cook since then. Her scrambled egg is pretty good. Elena, Folyan, Joseph, Aziko 'nDaba, Kenneth, Nyambo and James -- the servants of my childhood.I wonder if they remember the imperious little white baasm who long ago used to play barefoor among the sunflowers.
Now we have an independent Zimbabwe struggling for world recognition. Elena, who still works for my mother, had several lessons on the kitchen table about how to put her cross on the ballot paper to help elect a black government. How she voted I've no idea.