Thursday, 6 March 2014


 A forgettable moment in Rhodesia’s history.

 Lewis Walter (Intaf)

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was established, with much trumpeting, in 1953.  This set off waves of enthusiastic development aimed at the country’s future.  Waves which eventually, some years later, washed up on the shores of Rusape, a small town easily passed un-noticed on the road from Salisbury to Umtali.

Rusape rejoiced in a Town Management Board, which  immediately leaped into action.  Something momentous was needed to mark this historic event – and what more important than to replace the time honoured “Mafeking Mail” with a more modern sewerage system.  For the uninitiated, the so-called Mafeking Mail consisted of a wagon drawn by some long-suffering mules and manned by an enthusiastic and jolly crew of “Zambesi Boys” whose mission in life was, at about 3 a.m. daily, to travel down the sanitary lanes replacing soiled buckets with sparklingly fresh buckets for the next day.

A story, no doubt apocryphal, is that on one occasion the toilet was occupied.  “Morning Madam” called out the operative cheerfully as the buckets were deftly exchanged, and the cavalcade proceeded on its way.

But I digress.  The decision of the TMB was that by a certain date, all bucket systems were to be replaced by septic tanks.  This was enthusiastically hailed by residents of the town, and procedures immediately set in motion.  The government houses in the village were conveniently paired, and for reasons of economy it was decided that one septic tank would be provided to serve each pair of houses. In one case, the house of the Postmaster (Federal Government) was paired with the adjacent Native Department Mess (Territorial Government). Pits were dug, contracts entered into, and all proceeded well.

Proceeded well, that is, until some obscure minion in the Treasury discovered an equally obscure regulation which forbade the sharing of facilities between Federal and Territorial establishments, without high-level approval.  Clearly, it was unthinkable that the Postmaster (Federal) and the Native Department Mess (Territorial) should share the same septic tank. Letters were written, telegrams flashed, but to no avail – no valid reason could be found to override the regulation.

Stalemate.  However Rusape rejoiced in the presence of two diligent Members of Parliament – one Territorial and one Federal - who farmed in the area.  Messrs. Barrett and Straw if I remember correctly.   They became embroiled in the saga, and eventually in desperation unearthed funds which enabled the provision of two separate septic tanks – one FEDERAL and one TERRITORIAL – to serve the needs of the postmaster and those of the Native Department Mess.

The necessary motion was passed, and work resumed immediately.   Very shortly the TMB was able to host a reception to celebrate the completion of its project. 

The unthinkable had been averted  - Federal officials, who considered themselves superior, did not have to share a septic tank with Territorial officials.  And, more important, Territorial officials, who KNEW themselves to be superior, did not have to share with the Feds !

Native Department Mess, 1950s. 
Brian May on motorbike, and my dog Shumba in foreground


Thanks to Lewis for sharing his memories and photograph with ORAFs.

Comments are always welcome, please send them to Eddy Norris at

The following comment received from Stephen Clarke exceeded the permissible amount of text allocated, therefore it is added as an addendum. Eddy Norris

Stephen Clark (UJS, Chancellor, UBHS 1947-1955) Writes:-
The Septic Tank saga evoked happy memories for me.  Herewith a short reminiscence of my exploits as a six-year-old in Umtali [Mutare].

My sincere apologies for all those who suffered at the time....

The Mdenga Patrol

The story of the Rusape cesspit saga recalled a series of escapades of the 1940s, in which I played a unforgivable part.

Give idle times, idle minds are led to devious ways.  This applied no less to myself and my friend Ray, who oft-times found ourselves of an evening pondering what fun and games we could enjoy.  

Sometimes, fully armed for the quest,  we crept between the stilts underneath the wooden houses of old-time Umtali [Mutare].  These bricked stilts were built to lift the home above the level of marauding termites which might otherwise eat the entire house.  This left a large space underneath, for the full length of the house above.  It was usually neglected, dusty  and unthought-about.  Of an evening, an unsuspecting house-holder might be enjoying a quiet relaxation by the radio, perhaps, or even savouring an early evening meal.  Suddenly, through the floorboards, a heavy pounding would emanate upwards from the space below, rending the tranquillity.  This was done with the end of a broom handle, or somesuch implement.  It could induce firstly, panic, then howls of rage.  Frustration would soon follow, as we had long since escaped the wrath and indignation to hide behind a bush or wall out of range of the apoplectic resident we had disturbed.  We saw otherwise gentle folk jump up and down in torment.  Such hilarity!!

Tying a stone to a door knocker was, perhaps, the next daring exploit we undertook.  Pulling and releasing the string from behind a bush, etc, and then witnessing the perplexity of the innocent drawn to the door, late in the dusk, by this unexpected arrival at the front door.  A couple of turns at this would usually elicit howls of invective and an eon’s worth of threats and incantations to the Gods for the blood of the invisible oppressors.

As most of the roofing materials used in those days were a combination of wood and corrugated iron sheeting, what better orchestration could be found in the silent eventide than the combination of strategically hurled handfuls of gravel; tossed high into the sky, to fall and then roll, bounce and slide with horrendous noise into the guttering.

Oh, what fun we had!

But the most devastating prank of all was to watch for any unwary and discomforted soul who was forced under the cover of darkness, to visit the pikanini kyia [‘P.K.’ to all veterans] at the end of the garden.  The lane along the back gardens not only provided the route path for the ‘Zambesi Boys’ cited in Lewis Walter’s tale of Rusape.  But these lanes also provided the means of ambush for those digestively-challenged souls who nervously trod the darkened path.  Unbeknowingly, this path led straight to two small boys quivering with excitement and anticipation in the dark shadows beyond.  The sounds of occupation of these small premises were unmistakable….. The lifting of the latch, and the closing of the creaking door. The squeak of the rickety hinges on the seat above the squalid bucket and the thud as it was propped against the back wall.  The creak of the scrubbed board as the weight of the visitor was distributed upon it.  Maybe, came the sound of a sheet of paper being torn from the nail on the side.  Then, perhaps, a sigh of relief and anticipation might escape into the darkness and solitude of this haven of peace.  And then ….. 


Small hands grasped eagerly at the under edge of the hinged flap between the bucket and the lane.  Lifted as high as it would go, the flap was opened.  And then, with as much strength as could be applied, the hinged flap was hurled downwards against the back wall of the outhouse.  The resounding crash and concussion might well lift the unwary and enthroned captive several feet into the air, in surprise and shock!!  Shrieks of mirth emanated from the lane.  Then the hammering of feet on the pebbles as they sped away in a delirium of ecstatic fulfilment was all that this unfortunate, interrupted soul might hear as it sought to re-gather dignity and calm once again.  

What did we do without television?!


Rob Burrett Writes:-
 This is one of the few remaining metal license disks on the little houses on the sanitary lanes in Suburbs, Bulawayo.

Ref. Rhodesia

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At 6 March 2014 at 17:11 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Erik Eilertsen (RhSigs) Writes:-

What a lovely, and typically bureaucratic, story!

At 6 March 2014 at 17:15 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Nick Baalbergen (Intaf) Writes:-

A 'Tale of the Times'! Oh, the petty bureaucracy, but what an amusing story as a result!

As you know, all of our settlements retained the 'sanitary lane' concept long after the introduction of septic tanks. In our little town, as school kids, the network of 'santary lanes' provided the quickest way to cycle to 'town', some 3 kilometres away. The town's TBM tractor & trailer used the 'sanitary lanes' to collect household refuse - before the advent of dedicated refuse removal trucks.

I was stationed at Rusape about two decades later, in 1973, and also stayed at the 'Cadets Mess' of that era. The majority of the government houses were located along one street, not far from the office complex and a couple of streets away from the main road to Umtali. From your photo, it looks like the 'Mess' of your time, two decades earlier, was in a different location - looks like a hill behind the house

At 9 March 2014 at 12:47 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

I've just read the piece by my friend Lewis Walter about the saga of the septic tank. Lest your readers think this was unique, may I say that I occupied the single quarters mess in Chipinga in 1956. I forget what needed attention but what ever it was, work was halted for the same reason. It seemed that an extension to the mess had been completed by the Feds and the rest of the house was territorial so before undertaking repairs a wall demarcating the two sections had to have its ownership established.
If I remember correctly my DC (actually NC in those days) solved trhe problem by sending his DDF (district development fund) builder in to do what was needed to the horror and consternation of both the respective PWDs (SRG and Fed RN).

Jim Latham
Feoch, Mutorashanga Zimbabwe

At 9 March 2014 at 12:51 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Bill Teague (SAAF and RCAF) Writes:-

This must have caused quite a “stink” at the time

At 9 March 2014 at 18:12 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Eddy Norris (ORAFs) Writes

The allocation of toilet paper must have poised a difficult task?
Who got 1 ply and who got 2 ply?

At 11 March 2014 at 16:16 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

John Mussell (RhAF) Writes:-

Nice stories.

They triggered off a memory:
In the early days in (old names) Selukwe, Bulawayo and Salisbury, loos that backed on to the sanitary lanes were in the natural order of things. In Selukwe there were two small boys who, to this day, have good reason to remember the metal flaps that helped the sturdy and noble men of the "pilgrim parade" serve Rhodesian towns with their nightly bucket-changing routines.

Early one morning in 1937, when I was four and Frank five, we saw neighbour Grandpa Parker walk out of their back door and head for the "PK". It took no more than a few moments to dream up a plan to take advantage of the opportunity. We broke a small branch from a jacaranda and hurried down the sanitary lane to the rear of their modest facility. After lifting the flap and peering through the gap between seat and bucket, we spied old Parker's lower cheeks. One's elder brother, being mission leader for the occasion, pushed the leafy fronds through the gap and towards the target. A wiggle or two of the branch produced the anticipated reaction. Muffled yells and activity from inside the little house announced "mission achieved". In haste, two mischief makers scurried down the lane with mixed emotions – one being elation at the success of their venture. The other was a troubling niggle whether the Parkers, knowing the parson's kids to be a source of pranks, might initiate follow-up.
Sighs of relief - nothing happened.

At 12 March 2014 at 17:07 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Boet van der Walt (RhAF) Writes:-

I sent you this story in my Book “Tales from the Rails” and I think it deserves a mention in the Bucket Saga.
ORAFs suggests that you please consider visiting Boet's "Tales from the Rails" at the link below.


While shunting at a siding in Northern Rhodesia, a fireman was overcome by gipo guts. Asking the crew to carry on he ran to a toilet next to the track. This was a bucket affair and he sat down and started his business.

Suddenly he felt a snake bite him on his backside. Screaming he ran from the toilet to the locomotive and showed the driver the marks of the bite. Realising that he could die from the venom they cut off the load of the train and sped off to the nearest station and doctor. A person staying at the siding phoned the station and asked them to get a doctor to standby and wait for the train. The driver opened the throttle wide to get to the station as quick as possible.

Meanwhile the stationmaster asked the person who phoned to go to try and find the snake. He walked to the toilet and opened the flap at the rear of the toilet and was surprised to see a hen brooding on some eggs.

When the loco arrived at the station, the driver was disgusted to see the doctor and stationmaster rolling on the ground with laughter while this poor fireman was dying from snakebite.

Hen pecked was the verdict of the doctor.

At 12 March 2014 at 17:07 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Chuck Osborne (RhAF) Writes:-

Just to add to the string about the dreaded loos.

When I was Assistant Air Scoutmaster at 4th Gweru Air Scout Troop, my fun was watching the youngsters squirm at the end of the map-reading badge test. I had memorised the map reference of the middle of one of Gweru's sewerage ponds. And my final question to a lad who was taking the test, was "if you are standing at grid ref XYZ, where would you be?" My Chief Scouts, Richard & Blayde, knew my routine, and they used to watch from afar with much interest. Amazing how some of these poor lads could be so embarrassed and uncomfortable by the realisation of where I had put them, and they usually rechecked their procedure a few times until they realised that I was having them on. But it showed that my map-reading lessons weren't in vain....

At 13 March 2014 at 20:32 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Trevor Edwards Writes:-

Shortly after arriving in S.Rhodesia in 1952, I met a character called Arthur Bott. He was possibly a deserter from World War 1 and who could blame him getting out of that terrible conflict. He had somehow crossed the Meditteranean and then over the years worked his way south through africa. He told srories of how at one time he had been the night porter at Meikles Hotel in Salisbury. This was in the days before the pie carts in Railway Avenue became a feature of Salisbury's nightlife. He therefore as the night porter moonlighted, and ran an all night meal service for late revellers. He told the tale how one night some revellers commandeered the cart that collected the sewage buckets in Salisbury. The cart was pulled by a team of six or eight donkeys. The revellers took it through the main entrance of Meikles Hotel, across the lounge. into the dining room and then left it. Of course there was no way to turn it round and unfortunately I cannot remember him telling about the chaos was sorted out. Perhaps someone else can.

At 13 March 2014 at 20:34 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Mike Hamence (RhAF) Writes:-

Picture this:
Sultan of Oman's Air Force AFB Salalah, 1980.
Ex-RhAF BOQ residents were: Roy Morris, Cocky Beneke & myself.
While Roy & Cocky had rooms in what was known as 'The Mews'. I had a room in 'Skid Row'.
This was the ground between two rows of ex-RAF BOQs built in the 1920s, taken over by the Brit SAS in the 1970s when they controlled The Dhofar region of Southern Oman.

The British SAS. after a successful patrol against the 'Adoo' - Russian/Yemeni-controlled insurgents in The Dhofar, would return to base at Salalah and 'hit the bottle' hard.

They would then race their LWB Land Rovers up & down 'Skid Row' until one or the other wrote themselves off.

The 'Cess Pit' part?
At the back of my BOQ was a septic tank which had not been emptied since the SAS had quit; it was so full that the contents lifted off the concrete lid!

But, believe me, the tomato plants were the healthiest in the land!

At 13 March 2014 at 20:34 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Bill Teague (SAAF and RCAF) Writes:-

In the good old days public toilets in South Africa sported beautiful crafted brass penny in the slot door locks.
Inscribed on an inside wall was the wail, “Here I am broken hearted, paid a penny and only farted”

At 16 March 2014 at 12:05 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

John Andrews (BSAP) Writes:-

On the subject of 'bogs' I'm reminded of a time in the early 60s when I was sent out to Nkai from CID Bulawayo to accompany a platoon of the Rhodesia Regiment on a 'show the flag' patrol. Nkai was a hotbed of nationalist activity with loyal chiefs being targeted, diptanks and schools destroyed etc. I think the Lieutenant in charge of the army guys may have been named 'Spike'.

We camped at the site of an old disused Native Commissioners camp site which had the advantage of a long-drop surrounded by brick walls, corrugated iron roof and wooden door. Unfortunately it hadn't been used for some time and the pit was now occupied by a colony of bats. Sitting down on the bog led the bats to believe that it was night-time and there was a risk of a bat flying into one's bare backside. Not nice!

This could not be allowed to continue and the solution was to make a Molotov cocktail out of a dumpy bottle and hurl it into the depths. The result was unexpected - the bottle broke and the exploding petrol detonated accumulated gases, blowing the roof and door off the PK. History does not record what happened to the bats.

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