Guest Post: Mainly on the Plain

Mainly on the Plain

Guest post by Michael Haig (BA English, German and History, 1966; Postgraduate Certificate in Education, 1967). Michael has written social studies textbooks for Zambian primary schools (1st edition, 2004; 2nd edition, 2014), “Bookworld Africa” and for Jamaican schools grade 7, “Living Together” (2008,  OUP).

He tells us about his time after Goldsmiths, his book “Mainly on the Plain” and future writings.

My time as a student at Goldsmiths (1963-67) nurtured a sense of adventure in my life and work from seeds that had been sown in my childhood but was now looking for an outlet in the real world. Goldsmiths in the 1960s, with its person-centred but an outward-looking approach to education, helped to “light the fuse” and set me on my way!

So I found myself, a few years later, teaching English in a Secondary School on the banks of the Upper Zambezi in Zambia’s remote Western Province, once known as Barotseland.  I was to enjoy five inspirational years here, immersing myself in the local community and its surroundings; this offered me a distinctive way of life, set against the timeless background of a mighty river meandering through its floodplain, all infused with myth, legend and the generally cheerful common sense of the people who lived there; there was also, inevitably, an element of tragedy arising from the difficulties and shortness of life.

Letters to my father in England captured impressions of my day-to-day life in Senanga and my exploration of the plain and the riverside villages.  I had wished to share this unique experience there with someone I knew.

Many years later, I found these letters carefully stored away in my father’s home. Reading them afresh, I was reminded of the vibrancy of the community I mingled with, the immediacy of the situations and the humour that often prevailed, despite the underlying hardship and uncertainty of life.

Initially, I typed these letters out as a record for my grandchildren. Much later, friends whose judgement I respected persuaded me to “go digital”. They believed my impressions were worth sharing with a broader readership. “Mainly on the Plain” was subsequently published on Kindle (Amazon) in March 2017. A paperback edition (self-published) is now also available from Amazon or Waterstones.

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Within the next three months, I plan to publish a collection of writing in prose and poetry from the early 1970s by young people on their traditional life in Barotseland. “Kuomboka”, the title of the collection, includes descriptions of the annual migration from the floodplain to the forest when the floods occur. Sections follow on birth and beginnings, dance and initiation, children’s games, women’s work, fishing, hunting and traditional medicine.

Here is a sample from the “Kuomboka” section, describing how the cattle are brought by the herdsman from the floodplain to the forest.

The Herdsman

“Twee-twee-tweeeee” hoots the namalwa, a hollowed wooden musical instrument with a reed inside it being struck by the herdsman.

The cattle wave their tails, jump about in the air and make horrible short cries: “Mee-mee-meee!” The young ones seek their mothers.

The namalwa is struck again and the cattle go in fours – threes – twos – and in single file.  The Lozi herdsman stands holding the namalwa, gazes at the cattle and spits out the words:
You accursed flood

I know you’ve come
to chase me away.
My cattle will not suffer
for I’m taking them to
the forest where they
can seek good pastures
Oh! What the hell!

You accursed flood
I know you’ve given
me a lot of troubles.
I had enough manure
from my cattle, but you
carry it away, away.
You leave me without.
Oh! What the hell!

You accursed flood
I know you’ve covered
the land where people
deposited their faecal matters
and now you force them
to sit on the edge of their
canoes for voiding.
Oh! What the hell!

You accursed flood
I know you’ve brought
faeces from other lands
and deposit it near
the edges of our village.
I’ve known, I know now
and I’ll know.
Oh! What the hell!

The herdsman now follows the cattle, crossing the flooded pools. He beats the namalwa and the cattle start trotting; for a short time the cattle are in full sprint. However, he can’t compete with them, so he gets hold of a calf and jumps on its back. Off he flies. He continues striking the namalwa.

The cattle reach the forest and then he stops striking. The cattle stop immediately and, to finish, he says:

Oh! You cattle of mine
I’ve brought you to
enjoy the green pastures.
But be careful not
to pass through the anus
of the hungry forest lion.

“Kuomboka” will be published in Kindle and as a paperback (self-published) from Amazon, hopefully in October this year.