Dairy farm memories

I grew up on a farm in Africa. Although it was not solely a dairy farm there was a dairy. Long before before milking machines the cows were milked by hand. Every cow had a name and if I think about it hard enough I can remember a few of them. I can remember the cool, dark dairy in the early morning. The fragrance of the warm milk mingles with more pungent smell of the silage, and the waft of fresh manure. In my mind I can hear the cows munching, the sound of milk frothing against the sides of metal buckets, and the dairy hands talking and whistling softly. Most of the commands where whistles as the cows were moved along and the next lot moved in. My mother would sit up at a high desk recording the amount of milk from each cow.

Friesland cow. Photo courtesy Roy’s Farm

The Friesland dairy herd were, at that time, my mother’s pride and joy. Butterfly was the colossal Friesland stud bull. He was kept penned for a lot of the time and as a result was quite cantankerous. One day he escaped from his pen and it just so happened that my younger sister and I were in the vicinity. He came lumbering after the two of us and the bunch of African children we were playing with. We all ran for our lives, screaming (of course). I grabbed my sister by the hand and dragged her willy-nilly to the silo. Normally we were forbidden to climb into or onto the silo but under the circumstances I disregarded that command while ‘escaping’ from Butterfly. I can’t remember the outcome of this adventure but seeing it was not me who released Butterfly from his pen, it was probably trouble-free.

I’ve often thought of Butterfly and wondered why such a delicate name was bestowed on such a massive animal. What happened to him I have no idea. The dairy was eventually closed. The big metal cans used to transport the milk to the Dairy Marketing Board – who knows what happened to them?

I can recall things about those early mornings in the dairy which, in reality, I was probably too young to remember. But, there is a softness in these memories; the memories evoke the peacefulness of the predawn milking.

Nowadays I can’t even drink milk!


Dairy farm memories

Into the city: a memory

Digging around in the box of photos I found this one. It brought back memories of going shopping in town when I was a little girl.


A trip into the city, or ‘going to town’, was an adventure. Mother would wear a hat, stockings and sometimes she’d wear gloves. ‘Town’ was Salisbury, the capital of Southern Rhodesia. The road from the farm to town was mostly a gravel track and if the  Makabuzi River was up over the drift, well then you turned around and went home.

This photo was taken by a street photographer. I’m not sure what the black streak is – probably ink. This is an old photograph. Mum, Graham and me walking down the street with the Christmas shopping wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.


Graham is my oldest brother. I think going to town was not a popular occupation for either of my brothers or my older sister (my younger sister was yet to make an appearance). I was taken along willy-nilly being the baby in the family. I see my mother has a tight grip on my hand. I have been told that I would often make a dash for whatever took my interest and I had the road sense of a caterpillar. Of course I did! I lived on a farm.

In the shoe shop we put our feet in a strange looking machine and the shop assistant would peer down a tube to look at the foot bones. This was probably a form of X-Ray machine and may account for some of the foot pain that I suffer as an old woman. I’ve only just thought of that! Shoes were not high on my priority list, most of the time I was barefoot – but not in town. Never in town.

I did disappear on one shopping trip and was found under a rack of dresses. We were in Sanders, one of the original department stores in Salisbury. Mum must’ve been shopping for clothes for herself and, being thoroughly bored, I remember dragging myself around on the floor. I remember because one of the shop assistants said, “Oh, so you’re cleaning the floor for us!” I missed the sarcasm but heard something that made me want to hide. In retrospect, I think I enjoyed the fuss when nobody could find me because I did the disappearing act quite often after that, in town and on the farm.

Going home was the worst part of going to town. Mother would make us gargle with a Dettol mixture in case we had picked up any germs. I can taste that mixture just thinking about it.


Into the city: a memory

An Interloper in the Bush

Main Camp, in retrospect, was a place where I learned many things and unlearned many others. In Main Camp I was given a puppy, a Doberman bitch. I named her Liza. Her mother was called Janz and her brother, Prinz (you get the drift). Liza was my best friend and my only confident throughout those years in National Parks. She saved my sanity in Main Camp and in Binga, Roland’s next posting. Liza’s tail was docked, that’s the way things were done in those days. I used to wonder what she would look like with a tail. She was amazingly quick – both in physical speed and mental acuity. Liza would help me in the garden, carefully digging up everything I planted. She was extremely protective of me from the beginning right up until the day she died twelve years later.

This isn’t Liza but it looks a lot like her

In Main Camp I learned that women had little value. They must not be seen as being independent and, frankly, were not really welcome. Most of the other Rangers’ wives in the camp were unimpressed with me and I was made to feel an interloper. The Alpha-woman had ‘chosen’ a bride for Roland and that bride was not me! I learned fairly early in the piece to curb my tongue, to placate and defuse the situation. For a sparky, even volatile, person like myself, this was purgatory.

So, truth be told, the first year of married life was ghastly. If I had had the courage to drive out on my own, I would have done so. In the event, Liza was my salvation. With Roland away on patrol for weeks on end, she was by my side, supporting me in my isolation and in my anger and sadness.

Of course there were highlights. It was not unmitigated doom and gloom. My younger sister came to stay and one night I showed her the elephants as they scratched their thick hides against the corner of the house and munched on the mulberry trees. She was kneeling up on the couch peering through the window and I can remember her saying, “Where are they? I can’t see them!” and then I pointed to the gleaming tusk not a metre away from her. I wonder if she remembers falling backwards off the couch onto the cement floor?

One evening I was walking Liza down on the airstrip and noticed that the Park’s pack-horses and donkeys had not been rounded up for the night. I managed to get behind them and, with Liza’s help, herded them toward the camp. We had not gone far when I realised I was rounding up a herd of wild zebra. In the half-light of dusk their stripes were inconspicuous. We beat a quick retreat. The danger of lions had completely escaped my attention.

In Main Camp, Aaron came to work for me. Aaron was cook, housekeeper and friend. He came with us when we moved from Main Camp to Binga and when we moved from Binga to Salisbury (Harare). He stayed for a while in Salisbury but it was far from his home and he eventually moved back to be nearer his family in Matabeleland.


I am writing down memories. As memories go, there are some that I would not consider committing to paper – and some of this feels like one of them! Some memories are too incriminating of me and some may be hurtful to others. Nevertheless, there are some I’d like to “write out” but not in a public forum. Many of my less savoury experiences I have written about in my private journals. Sometimes I feel this is merely burying them deeper in my psyche. Would publishing them prove to be cathartic?

An Interloper in the Bush

How a Diaspora may happen


thoughts and memories

This blog takes me back to when I researched and wrote my Honours dissertation. I have reworked the introduction to make it relevant for the blog. The material is self-reflective and, at the time, it worked as a catharsis for me, helping me understand my own identity and my own place in the world. The dissertation also gave me the opportunity to begin (and eventually complete) my doctorate. The dissertation is called ‘When “Back Home” isn’t England: making visible the memories, lives and experiences of some white women in Rhodesia’. I was awarded First Class Honours although there was some dispute regarding my work and a third examiner had to be appointed. I had a similar experience with my doctoral thesis so it seems to me that my writing has the effect of polarising readers. I have included some excerpts from the journal I kept on my trip which serve…

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How a Diaspora may happen

Honours Dissertation: the beginning

I have blogged this before but thought it would be interesting to reblog.

When “Back Home” isn’t England: making visible the memories, lives and experiences of some white women in Rhodesia


When I ponder on my choice of topic for this dissertation, I remember an incident that makes me reflect on my place, as a white woman and a member of a minority ethnic group, in Rhodesia. This is in 1976 on a tourist bus in Greece – somewhere between Athens and Delphi. An Austrian man, sitting next to me on the bus, is highly sceptical that any white people who are not British are settled in Rhodesia. I feel affronted and defensive that this stranger can, so arbitrarily, dismiss my background. This bewildering sense of being unseen, feeling unseen, is an experience Adrienne Rich expresses as psychic disequilibrium: ‘When someone … describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing’ (in Rosaldo 1989:ix) I understand that this is my experience.

There is an actual moment when I choose the topic for this dissertation – to explore the memories, lives and experiences of white, non-British women immigrants into Rhodesia. In November 1996 I decide to go home to Zimbabwe. I am feeling homesick and miss my family. The idea of using the time I am there to research the experiences of these women, with whom I share a common background, comes to me. I approach Dr Philip Moore (at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia) and he is enthusiastic. This, in retrospect, is when I realise the idea has been simmering in the background of my life not only since the bus trip in Greece, but since I was a young girl, questioning my ‘otherness’ in school and in the Rhodesian society. I realise this is the haunting space into which I seldom look, the moments of ‘psychic disequilibrium’. I wonder if it is the same for the other women, and if they will speak to me about these things. As the idea develops in my mind I make the decision to go and to find out what I can.

British Colony of Rhodesia 1965


Honours Dissertation: the beginning

White settlement in Rhodesia

Here is an excerpt from my unpublished Honours Dissertation. It is called

When “Back Home” isn’t England: making visible the memories, lives and experiences of some white women in Rhodesia (Venables 1997).

Rhodesia was, from 1890 until 1924, under the rule of the British South Africa Company.

The history of white settlement in Rhodesia begins with the arrival of Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column in Mashonaland, in 1890. The raising of the Union Jack in Salisbury took place in September of that year. These men were by no means the first white people to venture into the area, but it was the first white claim to the region. The Pioneer Column was dispatched from South Africa by Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. The group of 196 Pioneers, and some 800 other men, were led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson, and guided by the hunter Frederick Selous. The historian Robert Blake suggests that the men in the Pioneer Column were mainly drawn by the lure of gold (1977). Earlier, in 1867, the gold seekers in Matabeleland were warned by *Moselikatse ‘on no account to bring with them a woman, a cow, a ewe or a she goat, because the permission is to carry away stones (gold), not to build houses and towns in my country’ (quoted by John Mackenzie in Kirkwood 1984). Clearly, the presence of women implied a different purpose for the land to the Matabele king.

The women who came into Rhodesia in the early days of white settlement were generally missionaries and the wives of missionaries. ‘They were the earliest white women to settle in Rhodesia, arriving during the 1850s’ (Kirkwood 1984). Their relative position is indicated by Neville Jones who writes that ‘While it is hardly correct to describe these worthy missionaries as settlers, I should be sorry to miss this opportunity to do honour to brave men’ (1953). No mention of honour to the few (three) brave women with them?

However, between 1890 and 1896, the white population was predominantly men seeking gold. In 1895 Mashonaland and Matabeleland were united under the name of Rhodesia (Caute 1983). After being crushed in the Mashona and Matabele rebellions in 1896 and 1897, the indigenous people were effectively silenced politically. Whoever was going to determine the political future of Rhodesia, Blake observes, ‘… they would not be black. With remarkable speed after the rebellions the Africans ceased to count politically … [they] became literally a silent majority for more than half a century (1977).

By 1907, a programme encouraging European farmers was introduced, to reduce the country’s dependence on imports and raise the value of the Company’s own assets. It was in this programme that my grandfather was recruited from Bulgaria by the British South Africa Company, to work in establishing tobacco farming in the colony.

This programme also had the effect of significant demographic change. The white population rose from 14,000 in 1907 to 20,000 in 1910 (Blake 1977). Kosmin gives statistics for 1911 showing 23,606 white settlers, of whom 15,580 were men (1973). Throughout white settlement of Rhodesia the disproportionate amount of power held by the small number of whites is remarkable. This is commented on by Barry Schutz who observes ‘Perhaps of all the British colonies with established settler populations, Rhodesia has had the fewest in numbers both absolutely and relative to the indigenous population (1973). The white population, at its peak in 1960, was 223,000, under 8 per cent of the African population (Blake 1977).

Rhodesia was a white-male-dominated society and, more particularly, a British-male-dominated society. I found that the historical literature, which is predominantly written by Englishmen, is not dismissive of minor ethnic groups and women. Rather, there is a total lack of recognition, a void, no reflection in the mirror of history. Deborah Kirkwood, when researching her essay ‘Settler Wives in Southern Rhodesia: A Case Study’ had similar problems finding references to women settlers. She writes ‘As I read these old books I noted all references to women; these were scant and were in themselves revealing’ (1984). For example she quotes Hugh Marshall Hole, an eminent early Rhodesian: ‘There was said to be a white woman somewhere in the camp, but she must have remained in purdah for we never saw her’ (in Kirkwood 1984). Paradoxically, I find Deborah Kirkwood’s writing also omits any mention of settler’s wives who were not English or of British extraction. In Rhodesia during the Second World War, Doris Lessing mentions in passing ‘… the local girls, and girls from Britain and South Africa or who were refugees from somewhere or other’’ (1992). This is the void into which I am researching. This is the void into which I write. This is the mirror with no reflection.

*Also spelt Mzilikazi, the founder of the Matabele nation and father of Lobengula.

If you would like to read some more of this, I can add another page one of these days. If you are interested in the Bibliography, I can put that up too.

White settlement in Rhodesia

Random Memories and Identity

Memories are not something with which you can argue. Family memories are so deeply personal and individual that siblings sometimes need to agree to disagree. Memories can bond family members together. When my sisters and I are chatting about old times it seems that we engage in a game, telling stories and remembering. Is this a way of bonding our relationship as sisters and friends?

I question where our character and our remembering come together to shape our lives, our identity. Is this part of our worldview? Is it a slow process that brings us to where we are in the present moment? Sometimes it may be that a crisis takes place and the repercussions are only felt many years later.

In my own experience, I remember a moment of crisis that made me question and reflect on my identity, my image of myself, as a white woman and a member of a minority ethnic group, in Rhodesia. This was in 1976 on a tourist bus in Greece—somewhere between Athens and Delphi. An Austrian man sitting next to me on the bus was highly skeptical that any white people who were not of British origin or close descent had settled in Rhodesia. I remember how hostile and defensive I felt that this stranger could, so arbitrarily, dismiss my background. This bewildering sense of being unseen, feeling unseen, is an experience Adrienne Rich expresses as psychic disequilibrium: “When someone … describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing”.

I have to say, this experience triggered my interest in identity and, many years later, informed my research for both Honours and PhD.

Random Memories and Identity