A home in Africa

By Kate Tyndall

Deep in the remote African bush country of northern Zambia lies Shiwa, a sprawling 40-roomed English manor house complete with chapel, pool, tennis court and terraced gardens, a monument to one man's African dream, home now to dust motes, termites and the encroaching vegetation. Born when Victoria was still England's queen, Stewart Gore-Browne built Shiwa for a woman who never lived there, his dashing aunt, Ethel Locke King, 19 years his senior and for whom he cherished a lifelong, though unrequited and only tacitly acknowledged passion.


It was presided over by another, Lorna Goldman, 25 years his junior, whom he married as a young girl of 19. This Lorna, whom he referred to privately in his diary as Lorna II, was the orphaned daughter of his first love, Lorna Bosworth Smith. She had married another suitor when Gore-Browne tarried in declaring his feelings for her. His wife eventually left him, and he was never able to entice his beloved aunt to come live at Shiwa, but Gore-Browne's romance with the house and the land on which it was built never faltered. It was a passion that lasted unabated for over half a century.
Christina Lamb, a foreign affairs correspondent for London's Sunday Times, first came upon Shiwa in 1996 in the company of Gore-Browne's grandson, Mark Harvey, a safari guide in Zambia, who told her a strange tale of a proper Victorian who built a manor house in the bush, complete with servants in livery of the owner's specific design, cocktails on the lawn and formal dress for dinner every evening.
He offered to take her to see the abandoned home. At the end of a 13-hour drive from Zambia's capital, Lusaka, Ms. Lamb recounts, Harvey drove through a typical English village, complete with signposted village store, post office, estate office, gate house and clocktower, the latter carved with the date 1920. Further along were red brick cottages, then a steep drive bordered with Italian cypress leading to the house.
Ms. Lamb was stunned by her first sight of the three-story, pink-bricked mansion, with its line of arches supporting a first floor terrace, set between the granite hills and the lake. "In all my travels in ten years as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Asia and South America," she wrote, "I had never seen anything like it." Ms. Lamb's passion to tell the story of Gore-Browne's Africa house equals his own to build it.
That first afternoon, she and Harvey went through the crumbling manor, everywhere, from the clocktower down to the carved posters of Gore-Browne's bed, embellished by the owner's device, a rhino. Gore-Browne himself was known throughout the region as Chipembele, the Bemba word for rhinoceros, for his hot temper.
As she walked through room after room, still full of furniture, much of it built by workers on the estate, and saw crystal chandeliers, Meissen plates, a pink and gold Spode china tea service, oil portraits, photographs and a massive library of leather-bound volumes, it felt to her, Ms. Lamb later wrote, that "Shiwa Ngandu seemed to symbolize the arrogance, paternalism, vision and sheer bloody-mindedness of British Colonials in Africa."
The real story was much more complicated and the author does it justice in the telling. Given complete access to Gore-Browne's letters and diaries by his heirs " he was a compulsive diarist and maintained a prodigious correspondence — Ms. Lamb tells a cracking good tale in "The Africa House," deftly blending one man's story into the wider political context surrounding the birth of an independent Zambia and the death throes of British colonialism.
After an unexceptional career as an army officer, Gore-Browne was offered a chance to go to Northern Rhodesia in 1911 as a surveyor with the Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission, a group charged with plotting the border between the Belgian Congo and British Northern Rhodesia. He accepted the job, not knowing where exactly Northern Rhodesia was. In his three years with the border commission, Gore-Browne came to love the vast country, still so largely unexplored, and its people, and realized he wanted to make his home there.
After his work with the border commission was done, he set out looking for a piece of land to buy on which to build his home, when he found out the British South Africa Company was selling land in Northern Rhodesia at bargain rates to lure white settlers. In Africa, he realized his modest means would allow him to live like a king and fulfill his dream of building a country manor, like his aunt's home, Brooklands, where he had spent so many happy hours as a boy.
When Gore-Browne first came upon the area overlooking Shiwa Ngandu, a body of water the local Bemba people called the Lake of the Royal Crocodiles, he knew he had found the site for his Africa house. He bought 10,000 acres of land for two shillings an acre and set out to build it. Gore-Browne was not fazed by tales of the lake's man-eating crocodiles — one of which had made a meal of Scottish missionary David Livingstone's little dog Chitane, on the explorer's last journey to find the headwaters of the Nile — nor did he worry about the predatory leopards or any of the other wild life that was so abundant around the water.
Later he wrote of his first sight of Shiwa Ngandu: "It was all so magical that I felt I had entered a fairy kingdom." Born in 1883, Gore-Browne was a conventionally raised and educated Englishman, with all the aspirations, entitlements and prejudices of his class and time. Yet he was and remained an independent thinker, who often criticized, in word and in print, Britain's paternalist attitude toward and treatment of the Africans.
Though he spent most of his life recreating a feudal haven in the African bush, Gore-Browne ended up renouncing his British citizenship for that of his adopted homeland and advocating for the Africans right to rule themselves. He lived to see an independent Zambia. He built a school, hospital and later, an airstrip at Shiwa, and at one time was the largest employer in that part of what was then Northern Rhodesia.
After Gore-Browne's first sight of Shiwa Ngandu, he had to put aside plans to build his African dream house to return to England and join the war effort. He was not to see Shiwa again for six years. In 1920, the retired Lt. Col. Gore-Browne returned to Shiwa, this time with a caravan of porters and oxen bringing all the equipment he would need to start building his house.
Equipped with an army building manual, he employed hundreds of natives to make bricks, dig drains, plow and sow crops. He built a distillery to process essential oils for the perfume trade, determined that Shiwa would eventually be self-sufficient. The house was finally completed in 1932. His teenage bride, whom he married on a trip back to England and brought to Shiwa in 1927, became adept at helping him run the estate.
However, his African dream was not so easily shared, and the pair gradually grew apart as Gore-Browne began to spend more time away from Shiwa engaged in politics and Lorna spent more and more time in England with the couple's two young daughters.
In 1935 Gore-Browne was asked to stand for the legislative council elections in Lusaka as the representative for the Northern Province. He agreed, though with reservations, writing to his aunt that he had little patience with his 600 constituents' "anti-native views." He was duly elected, and for the next 30 years, spent much of his time working for the native interests and the creation of an independent Zambia.
When Gore-Browne died in 1967 at the age of 84, news of his death covered the front and editorial pages of the Times of Zambia, and his one-time protege, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, who had grown up in the village near Shiwa, ordered a state funeral. Gore-Browne was also honored with a chief's burial, the only white man in Central Africa to have received both. He is buried on the hilltop above Shiwa Ngandu, beneath a simple headstone bearing the inscription Chipembele, the name his neighbor Africans had given him.
In an afterward to "The Africa House," first published in England in 1999, Ms. Lamb writes that Gore-Browne's oldest grandson Charles and his wife have taken over Shiwa, buying out the interests of the other grandchildren, and are slowly restoring it. There could be no finer memorial for the man who once wrote: "If I can only leave a beautiful home for the girls and a better country for all my people at Shiwa, then it will all have been worth something."

Kate Tyndall is a Washington, DC writer.

Article by: Kate Tyndall