Zambian gentleman

The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and his African Dream

Christina Lamb <em>

On my most recent trip to Africa I spent several days with an Englishman who is known locally as the Birdman of Tongabezi. Bob Stjernstadt is a somewhat dilapidated John Hurt lookalike, whose leathery skin is pocked with skin cancers that look like so many raisins on his forearms, and whose distracted demeanour conceals an encyclopaedic knowledge of Zambian birdlife. His dottiness is part of local folklore, and during our time together he revealed his potential for absent-minded catastrophe by casting off our canoe into the turbulent waters just above the Victoria Falls before realising that we had left the boatman - the driver - behind on the jetty. Fortunately, we managed to scramble our pilotless vessel back to the shore before we were sucked over the mighty falls. This near catastrophe didn't faze him at all, and within half an hour we were back on our journey - driver now on board - and the Birdman had settled into his groove, pointing out birds flying past, identifying the nests in the nearby trees and offering up a memorable lecture on local ornithology.

The Birdman grew up in Blackheath, read biology at London University and then, 30 years ago, travelled to Zambia as a consultant and discovered a foreign land where he felt more at home than he did at home. Had he not made that journey, one imagines he would have passed his life as a mid-level functionary in a British academic institution, commuting to work on the 9.05 into Paddington, being passed over for promotion by more politically astute colleagues and living an unremarkable suburban life. Out there in Africa, the Birdman of Tongabezi has found a grander stage on which to parade his eccentric skills, and he is now widely regarded as Zambia's foremost authority on birdlife and, by the local community, as a national treasure.

Even today, more than a century after the colonial scramble for Africa and decades after the equally chaotic process of decolonisation, the continent holds a magnetic lure for colourful characters who find themselves stifled by the social climate and tight-arsed orderliness that keep our western democracies on the rails. Africa is red in tooth and claw, still wild and exotic beyond the imaginings of the man on the Clapham omnibus, and in such an environment men of passion, with a lust for life, have flourished and made themselves part of the continent's history.

Such a character was Stewart Gore-Browne, the subject of Christina Lamb's moving story of Africa now and then. An opera-loving English aristocrat who, like the Birdman of Tongabezi, had fetched up in the middle of Africa by chance and ended up being seduced for ever, Gore-Browne built his dream house - called Shiwa Ngandu - in the early 1920s, at the height of empire, and saw out his last days there in the late 1960s, at the end of empire. In the words of his friend Kenneth Kaunda, the country's first president, he was born an English gentleman and died a Zambian gentleman.

Using Gore-Browne's diaries and letters and the recollections of his descendants and friends, Lamb has pulled together a compelling narrative of life in the raw in Africa, vividly detailing the hardships of the early settlers and the ambiguities of relationships between the settlers and the local tribespeople, who were both neighbours and servants. So when Gore-Browne describes the environment into which he arrived to build Shiwa Ngandu as a land "of poisonous snakes that devoured infants, diseases which could turn urine black and fell a grown man in less than a day, insects which could wipe out cattle, and terrible beasts of prey with growls that could freeze a man's blood", it is not difficult to understand that his frustrations with the locals are expressed in what would today be regarded as racist terms.

It is this aspect of the book that I found particularly rewarding, having grown up in colonial Rhodesia myself amid those ambiguities and having spent much of my life attempting to explain them to people who have never lived in Africa. As a young man who instinctively opposed Ian Smith and UDI, I remained in awe of the founders of my home town, Bulawayo, who in the space of less than a decade at the end of the 19th century had hacked an astonishingly pretty, fully functioning western city, complete with library, telephone exchange and sewer system, out of the bushveldt. This gave me some understanding of why Smith, and more recently the Afrikaners of South Africa, had clung so tenaciously to what they had created.

Equally, it is entirely consistent with the times and circumstances that Gore-Browne could be friend and confidant to both Kenneth Kaunda, icon of post-colonial liberation, and Sir Roy Welensky, seen by many western observers as a symbol of intransigent white rule. And that, while actively advocating Zambia's independence from Britain, he had no intention of removing the Union Jack from his terrace at Shiwa Ngandu and "still had no qualms about beating his servants if they disobeyed". This curious mix of warm-hearted paternalism and European arrogance runs through the story of Gore-Browne's life, and indeed through much of our colonial lives in Africa.

There were no easy answers in colonial Africa, and there are none in the shambolic ruin of the continent today. Now that we have some perspective on the disasters of the post-colonial period, we are likely to view the lives of white settlers such as Gore-Browne with more compassion and understanding. Lamb's meticulous research and dispassionate reporting of this fascinating man's life is a significant addition to our fund of knowledge. The Africa House is an important book, since not only does it tell the story of an extraordinary character but it also helps explain the place of the white man in Africa.

Graham Boynton's book on the end of white rule in Africa, "Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland", is published by Random House. He is travel editor of the "Daily Telegraph"