An English mansion in the Zambian bush

A few years ago, at an airport somewhere in Africa, I came across a book called The Africa House. It told the story of an old “English” mansion and its eccentric owner Stewart Gore-Browne. The house had been erected in the old colonial days in what was then Northern Rhodesia and it had now been turned into a living museum. Then and there I decided I had to visit the place.

But, Shiwa Ngandu, as the house is called, isn’t exactly en route to anywhere, so my plans had to be put on hold. It wasn’t until I started the research for my book about old white families in Africa, that I got an opportunity to visit the Africa House. And one of the most famous white settler-families in Zambia.

Before World War I, the original owner Stewart Gore-Browne had been on the boundary commission and that’s when he’d fallen in love with the land. A few years later, after the Great War, he built himself a feudal domain in the bush using local materials only. The colour of the walls correspond to the colour of the earth.

Gore-Browne was a strict, hard-working man and he demanded from his servants and workers that they lived up to all his expectations. He was a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist and lived the life of a monocle aristocrat on the English countryside – though his domain was set in the north-east corner of Zambia. He didn’t hesitate to punish his staff physically and he insisted on them wearing servants’ uniforms that he’d brought in from London.

But that was only the one side to Gore-Browne. He was also one of few whites who actively supported the black independence struggle and he became close friend with Kenneth Kaunda. He couldn’t stand the racial barriers in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia and on his passing in 1967 he received a state funeral.

Today, two of his grand-children live at Shiwa Ngandu. The quieter of them, Charlie, resides in the manor house. His younger brother the talkative and boisterous, Mark, runs a tourist lodge at the hot springs nearby.

The nearest town is Mpika, some good ten hours’ drive from Lusaka. From here it’s still another hour to the boundaries of Shiwa Ngandu.

The last kilometres is a bad gravel road and I arrived at Kapishya hot springs when it was already dark. This was one of Gore-Browne’s favourite places and the morning after, it was easy to see why. After having spent the previous day on rough roads, the turquoise water soothed any tension and stress and it was time to explore.

Mark Harvey, the grand-son of Stewart Gore-Browne sat down with me on the loft to share memories from his childhood at Shiwa. Happy stories about white little boys playing with the black children on the estate, learning Bemba before they could speak proper English and having “the world” as their playground. He calls it an unusual upbringing as his grand-father, who was still alive and very much the master of the house, instilled his philosophy and vision into the young children.

On the estate, the old man had built a clinic and a school, workers’ houses and a clock tower. It was a fully-fledged community on its own.

Gore-Browne’s Shiwa Ngandu was never an economically viable project, but old money from England kept propping up the African adventure.

It’s a fascinating tale and after all I’ve read and all stories I’ve heard, I can still not make up my mind about Gore-Browne. Was he a forward-looking man taking the black Zambians cause to his heart? Or was he just a pragmatic old colonialist who tried to uphold the standard and a lifestyle he could never have afford in England?

I don’t know.

Shiwa Ngandu still stands in all its splendour. When Charlie and his wife Jo moved back in 2001 the buildings were all but in dire need of massive repairs. Their aim was to restore Charlie’s grandfather’s dream and after months of hard work the farm was back on its feet. There is no more old money coming in from England, instead the economy of Shiwa is balancing on several legs – agriculture and tourism being two of them. Several members of European royal families have spent a night at Gore-Browne’s old mansion – but the door is open to regular tourists as well. If you pre-book you can get a tour of the more than fourty-roomed large house, stroll around the garden and get a closer look of this little piece of England built in this north-eastern corner of Zambia. It is, of course, also possible to spend the night in one of the old-fashioned guest rooms with regalia from a colonial era. Charles and Jo treat all their guest to dinner at the large table in the dining room, where red curtains reach all the way down to the floor, gilt-framed oil-paintings hang on the and the arched windows face onto the garden.

It’s an intriguing place, filled with historic glory and a dual sensation of nostalgia and romanticism of colonial Africa – hunting safaris, wide open spaces, sundowners in picturesque places. But though Shiwa Ngandu is a remnant of the past, Charles is adamant that he and his family are going to get the project working in modern times:

– This is a 100-year-old project, and a lot of people don’t understand that. We are here to stay, where else should we go?

Shiwa Ngandu, Gore-Browne and the Harvey-brothers are only one of the stories in my book about white Africans. It will be available in Sweden from mid-May 2018. Happy reading.  

Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.