Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

The African bush took me back to my boyhood

It was a thrill and a delight to be in the Gonarezhou National Park, among the scents and the bird calls

Entering the Bulawayo Club, you step out of the blinding African sunshine on that safe and friendly city’s wide streets, and into the cool of a generous, mahogany-lined reception hall, its glorious art-deco doorways and fittings taking you back to another age: the early 1930s when the Club, already about 40 years old, rebuilt the clubhouse in the grand style of a confident colonial southern Rhodesia.

Facing you are two large portraits. One is of Cecil John Rhodes in tunic and wing collar. This you would expect, though the finest representation of that capable, restless, vainglorious, morally ambiguous and sometimes duplicitous achiever hangs in the Lobengula room: a light and sensitive pencil sketch of Rhodes as a very young man.

Less expected is the huge portrait that hangs opposite Rhodes on the other side of the portico. It is of Lobengula, chief of the Matabele people: brave, cruel, headstrong, perceptive — and haunted, as he went to his early and ignominious death, by the realisation that he had been outwitted by Rhodes and sold his people’s lands and birthright for a little money and a few guns. Rhodes had promised Lobengula and his people protection from the Portuguese and the Boers. He got it. What Lobengula had not understood was that he was also getting annexation to the British empire. ‘Did you ever see a chameleon catch a fly?’ asked Lobengula, sadly. ‘The chameleon gets behind the fly and remains motionless for some time, then he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then the other. At last, when well within reach, he darts his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly.’

Lobengula died in 1894. The Bulawayo Club was founded in 1895.

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