Rober Molteno reviews ‘A House in Zambia: Recollections of the ANC and Oxfam at 250 Zambezi Road, Lusaka, 1967-97’, edited by Robin Palmer: a reflection on ‘Southern Africa’s twin struggles for political freedom and economic development’ through the window of an ordinary house with extraordinary occupants.
This book is something rather unusual, the biography of a house. Not some aristocratic family’s great residence. An ordinary house, a modern house, but worth ‘listening to’ because of the remarkable people who lived and worked in it. 250 Zambezi Road was for over twenty years witness to the longest and most daunting of Africa’s liberation struggles – the African National Congress’s (ANC) century-long fight to bring democracy and non-racialism to South Africa. For much of that time, and afterwards, 250 was also in effect Oxfam’s operational base in Zambia, as this most famous of Britain’s development charities played its part in Africa’s other historical battle: to win a decent standard of living for the poor.
’A House in Zambia’ is rightly dedicated to the remarkable people who lived and worked there; Jack Simons and his wife, Ray Alexander; South African communists and the ANC members and Susie Smith, Oxfam representative (1979-84). All three were remarkable people – dedicated in their respective and influential political and development roles, courageous and much loved by everyone who came in contact with them. Jack and Ray had built their house on a large plot situated in a hilly stretch of ‘bush’ that slowly turned into a suburb of Lusaka near the university. For over twenty years, it was a home (albeit a home in exile) not just for them, but for a succession of the ANC leaders (including Oliver Reginald Tambo) and dedicated cadres. This was an atmosphere successive Oxfam field directors also embodied in the years after 1980 when they lived in one of the houses on the plot. And so the contributors to this book blend their recollections of both the place (with its thicket of avocado, paw paw and other fruit trees) and the many people who played their part in Southern Africa’s twin struggles for political freedom and economic development. One wonderful moment is recounted by Lazarous Chewe, who worked for Oxfam, of the evening when – unrecognised by Lazarous – Nelson Mandela, just weeks after his release from prison in South Africa, visited Jack, already 83 years old, and the tears ran down his cheeks as they hugged.
One perhaps surprising thing the reader begins to appreciate from this book is what the men and women working for such different kinds of organisations – the ANC and Oxfam – shared: their selfless commitment to the people of the sub-continent, an abiding respect for all human beings across potential differences in formal education and role in society and the human warmth and inclusiveness that permeated their work and lives.
This is not an ‘academic’ book, although historian Hugh Macmillan’s ‘Story of a House’ is a fascinating account of a little known corner of South Africa’s liberation story. Most of the book is written by a diverse group of Oxfam workers, many Zambians as well as Britons, who assemble their recollections of how they worked together. The reader only gets glimpses of the difficulties the ANC faced in exile, and learns too little of Oxfam’s unfolding perspectives and strategies in its development work. But beyond the occasional and probably well justified sense of nostalgia, there is a lot to be learned, particularly about how Oxfam worked in this part of the world. Victor Pelekamoyo perhaps sums this up best: ‘As an outsider, I wondered why Oxfam laboured so much to make the partners feel that Oxfam existed because of them, and not the other way round’. Dr Robin Palmer, who pulled this book together, and his contributors are to be congratulated on a remarkable and original work, and for arranging its publication in Zambia and not distant Europe.
2010-07-01, Issue 488
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* ‘A House in Zambia: Recollections of the ANC and Oxfam at 250 Zambezi Road, Lusaka, 1967-97’, edited by Robin Palmer, is published by Bookworld Publishers (PO Box 32581, Lusaka, Zambia), 2008.
* Robert Molteno, is the former managing editor of Zed Books.
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