The Africa House: Shiwa Ngandu
On the Great North Road from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam there is a great house. Shiwa House was built by a British Aristocrat named Stewart Gore-Browne in the 1920s and 30s.
Gore-Browne arrived in Northern Rhodesia to mark out the border between Rhodesia and the Congo, which he completed in 1914. The same year he came across the lake and the valley and bought the land from the British South Africa Company, with dreams of creating his perfect English country house, deep in the remote African bush. At the time it was a three week trek from Kapiri Mposhi to Shiwa. After fighting in the Great War he returned to Africa to build his paradise.
The house sits in a valley, overlooking Shiwa Ngandu, The Lake of the Royal Crocodiles. This is the lake where Dr Livingstone’s dog was killed by crocodiles, and his porters fled with his supply chest. The Bemba Chiefs use the skins of the crocodiles in the lake for their shields, so the lake has an intrinsic association with royalty. The local Bemba people also believed that there was a great spirit which dwelled in the depths of the lake, which was not to be disturbed.
Gore-Browne had a dream of creating his perfect house, and a model community at Shiwa Ngandu. He believed that he could do far more good in Africa than he could have done in England. His hope was to pass on his skills and knowledge to the local people. He taught them how to make bricks, in fact his brick making exercise was one of the largest employers in Northern Zambia in its day. He built schools and a hospital on the estate, and tried to lure locals back to a better life than being sent down the mines in the copper belt.
I arrived at Shiwa Ngandu on a sunny monday morning, having spent the weekend at Kapishya, 20 kilometres down the road. I had been interested to see the house ever since I read the book The Africa House by Christina Lamb. The book does a good job of chronicling the life of Gore-Browne, who had been an avid man of letters, writing to his beloved Aunt Ethel almost everyday. although I think the Harvey’s (Current owners of Shiwa and descendants of Gore-Browne) would disagree with some of the details in the book.
I parked my car at the gate house, which looks a little like an old schoolhouse, and walked up the cypress lined drive to the house.
I met Jo, the owner of the house, who is married to Gore-Browne’s eldest grandson, and after waiting in the chapel for a few minutes a guide arrived to show me around. He led me around the house, recounting the story of “Chipembele” or The Rhinoceros, as Gore-Browne was known.
Outwardly the house in an English red brick mansion, which reminds me of many of the colonial buildings around the midlands of KwaZulu Natal. It’s a lot like Cordwalles, Michaelhouse and much of the British Era architecture in Natal. The interior feels strange, as everything is very thick-set and heavy. The scale of the house is a little interesting, In person it’s certainly smaller than it looks in photographs.
I was led through the house, from the dining room and drawing room on the ground floor, up the carved wooden staircase to the library, which was Gore-Browne’s favourite room, and it showed.
Gore-Browne was involved in politics and supported Zambian independence. He was the first white man in Zambia to give up his British passport and become a Zambian. He died in 1967 and was given a full state funeral and a chief’s burial at Shiwa. His funeral was attended by his long time friend, Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia.
After my tour of the house I walked back down to my car, down the over grown drive and passed the ruined gate house. This was the ultimate expression of that colonial desire to mould Africa into an idealised version of England. I have always felt that it was foolish of white men to come to Africa to “play house” and after my visit to the greatest colonial house I can’t say I’ve changed my mind.
In the book Lamb details the financial and social difficulty faced by Gore-Browne, and chronicles much of the heart ache that the estate generated between him and his wife, Lorna. The house seems to be coming back to life under the stewardship of Jo and Charles, they’re reclaiming it from the encroaching bush. The ghosts seem to have gone. However Gore-Browne’s dream of teaching the local people the skills they need to lift themselves up above “The mud hut mentality” (as he called it) will still require a lot of work.
“Africa always defeats you in the end” – Lorna Gore-Browne (Stewarts wife) is a line that’s been ringing in my ears for a while now.