Tuesday, 29 December 2015

No.10 – Water, words and whiteness in ‘Zambezia’

Mosel River, Germany, 1979


One of the most stimulating books I’ve read in recent years is historian David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature (2007).  This is a startling history of Germany from the perspective of water management.  I didn’t realise, when I was travelling myself along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, that virtually everything I saw, including the river banks themselves, were man-made. 

What are now smoothly built-up river-courses, were once often fens and swamplands, which historically provided both many livelihoods (for eel-harvesters, for example), and absorbed floodwaters from mountain snow-melts.  The draining of the fens under Frederick II from the 1740s on, Blackbourn argues, set the emerging state of ‘Germany’ on a particular technological course – river-controls, dam-building, naval power – which played a major role in what Germany became.  The development of a particular, self-conscious “German identity” was founded to a great extent on how it treated its waters.

This got me thinking about water management in our own region, particularly my native Zimbabwe – and even more particularly about how water management and aesthetics played into a sense of ‘whiteness’ for that country’s ethnic minority.  What role have the big enfolding rivers, the Limpopo and Zambezi, played in forming a “national consciousness”?  What about dams, boreholes and irrigation in the farming community?  Dams and rivers as venues for quite culture-specific leisure activities?  The effect of the region’s unique seasonal changes, everyone always “waiting for the rain”, to use the title of Charles Mungoshi’s novel?  What are the relationships between water resources and the spectacles of tourism?  How have such attitudes amongst the flexing number of whites changed between, say, David Livingstone in 1855 and our post-independence present?

Lots of questions, and I haven’t read nearly enough to suggest any solid answers.  One anthropologist has had a shot at part of the issue – American David McDermott Hughes, in a short book entitled Whiteness in Zimbabwe (2010).  Hughes argues that rural whites attempted to recreate an English-Romantic kind of landscape, centred on dams, and that this was part of whites’ attempt to avoid integrating with indigenous peoples.  He took as case studies the role of dams in the Virginia district, near Harare, and the big one – Kariba.  From a more urban perspective, Muchaparara Musemwa’s recent book, Water, History and Politics in Zimbabwe (2014), shows how water reticulation and control played a crucial part in the white Rhodesian government’s exercise of political and racialistic power over Bulawayo’s townships.

Hughes has been roundly critiqued from a number of perspectives, but he has opened up a potentially very fruitful line of enquiry: the relationship between landscape aesthetics and group identities in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe.  I have become increasingly wary of branding “white Rhodesians/Zimbabweans” any one thing.  Despite the song –  “For we are all Rhodesians, And we’ll fight through thick and thin; We’ll keep them north of the Zambezi [see?], Stop the enemy coming in”, regaled by Ian Smith’s son-in-law Clem Tholet at the height of the 1970s war – the “white” population was always quite fluid and internally dissonant in many different ways.  Nevertheless, a hard core, which still exists, came to believe that the “white Rhodesian” was some special kind of animal, and expressed that belief through various kinds of literature and power structures.  This includes how certain landscapes were viewed, valorised as beautiful or special in ways unique to Euro-colonial whiteness, and therefore removed from “black” habitation or access.

Thomas Baines' iconic painting of Victoria Falls

Among the sundry unexplored aspects in all this, I find myself wondering about waterfalls.  I guess waterfalls are attractive to people of all cultures, though they may be viewed and utilised in culturally nuanced ways.  There’s the biggie, of course – Victoria Falls, still known by the name of the Dead White Queen.  Between the ambiguous “discovery” by Livingstone and the blandness of today’s tourist brochures lurk many other illuminating treatments.  One is The Diary of Henry Stabb (1875), written well before Rhodes’ invasion of 1890:

To convey any just idea of these falls is hopeless ...Suddenly & without a moment’s warning, right athwart the entire bed of this hitherto peaceful river occurs a mighty rift, the walls of which on either side go sheer down for nearly 400 feet, forming a frightful chasm into which the waters of the river disappear.  The original bed of the river on both sides of this huge rent remains as it used to be before the earth yawned & this vast fissure appeared; the bed has been simply rent asunder, but on the far side now grow trees & grass & ferns where formerly the river flowed.  Into this chasm, nearly 1900 yds. in length, the entire river rolls with a deafening roar; imagine more than a mile of water suddenly precipitated over a sharp ledge into a black & yawning gulf.

Stabb was no great writer, and his geology quite wrong, but what’s interesting is his attempt to measure objectively as well as to convey the “awful” subjective frisson of the Romantic sublime.  But this is not purely European, either: Stabb noted that his local gunbearer, “being a very fine fellow, showed yesterday by his frequent exclamations that, savage though he is, he is capable of thoroughly appreciating the beauties that surrounded us.”

If this is a glimpse into an early “white” aesthetic, in the post-colonial era the poet Harold Farmer, then resident in Zimbabwe, figures (I think) the receding of white power as an imaginary receding of the Zambezi river itself, a sub-continental drying-up.  The last stanza of his poem “Victoria Falls” reads:

The Falls have shrivelled; cracks in the clay,
paper boats in puddles, mock battles between
unruly sailors and the predictable course
of a trickle, crocodile snaps of twigs
and the restless indentation of children
in foliage, the massive ropes and chains shrunk
to spindles, great slabs of crested sound
dwindled to an insolent dripping.

White supremacy, Farmer seems to be intimating, was always a fragile and delusory thing.

Pungwe Falls
On the other side of the country, at about the same time, N H Brettell was writing about the smaller, but still spectacular falls of the Inyanga highlands: Pungwe, Gairezi, Nyama.  “It seems odd,” he wrote in his lovely memoir, Side-Gate and Stile (1981), that there is not much music written about waterfalls:

But nothing that I know has all the noises of this cataract, the steady bass of the underlying roar, the fluting of the spray scattered by the up-draught into a score of variations, the cymbal clap of ripple on rock, the sudden thunder like the muffled thump of timpani, of loose stones rolled in the bed of the swirling torrent, strings and woodwind competing for the contrapuntal voices of the cloven stream: the whole orchestra ...

Only someone thoroughly versed in Western orchestration could write like that.  In the poem “New Year”, Brettell observes how a weir had been thrown across the “petulant stream” and how “James the water clerk” came to take his flow readings – a hint at the technologies of control, management and governance of water:

But you can only tame a mountain river
For a few yards.  After an olive sliding,
Sleek as an eel-skin, over the basalt shelf,
Flexing of shoulder muscles for the eager wrestle,
Against the random barriers of the gorge
It leaps, splits, foams, and overcomes
The haphazard fashion of the broken bed ...

Between the green pool and the cataract,
I wait with Janus, chameleon, the swivel-eyed:
Before, the savage catclaws of the rapids,
Behind, the sullen measurable flow.

The aesthetic of white belonging, Brettell implies, is also split, between controlling ‘civilisation’ and the liberating lure of wilderness.

My mother Jill Wylie also wrote (in Call: Life with a Basenji) about some falls in the same region, the Inodzi, with similar personification.   Though in the middle of a dangerously slippery search for a lost dog, she took time to appreciate the perilous aesthetics of the place:

The river strolls along a gorge flanked by gums and wattles, tumbles over a little weir and basks in a wide, shallow pool.  For a moment it fools around among natural steps and crevices, not looking where it’s going.  The burnished iron and copper slopes down, so smooth, so innocent – come into my parlour – one could be forgiven for stepping too close.  But it takes the heels from under the river and flings it, confused and out of control, down the slick gorge.
            Sometimes it hits rocky projections which toss it into white manes, white and brown and silver in the sun.  For a moment it tries to catch its breath against a sand-bank but is whipped onwards to sheer down into a deep, glass-sided pool. ...

Which is where she found the dog, dead.  The way the description reflects what must have been the dog’s own inner experience of falling, without making it at all obvious, is I think quite remarkable.


And there must be much more of such intriguing writing about the place of water in our lives...

Sue Ross-Jarvis' original illustration for Jill Wylie's Call.

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