Matthew Parris

A secret from my African childhood has become a deeper mystery

The ‘Arab slave pit’ my brother and I found. And what happened when I found it again

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

About 55 years ago, when I was about ten, my younger brother Roger and I discovered a slave pit in Africa.

Actually it probably wasn’t a slave pit and we probably didn’t discover it, but ‘Arab’ ‘slave pits’ were what Southern Rhodesian schools offered as an explanation for the circular, room-sized, stone-lined pits sunk about five feet below ground but open to the sky. And if Roger’s and mine were not the first modern eyes to behold this antiquity, then we were able at least to persuade ourselves of the claim, as there was no path trodden into the small patch of dark, dense primary forest in whose midst we found the pit; and nobody else seemed to know about it. This felt like a discovery.

We never persuaded Dad to climb with us the open, grassy hill on the other side of the cool Pungwe river by whose banks sat the ‘government rest house’ where our family often holidayed; so Roger and I remained sole guardians of the experience.

I’ve just rediscovered the place. My partner and I have taken a short holiday in Zimbabwe, hired a 4×4 and driven up into the green and misty Inyanga mountains from which the Pungwe tumbles in a series of rapids, pools and spectacular waterfalls. An enterprising local business, Far & Wide, have recently taken the cottages over from the national park, so we booked three days at what looked like the place my family used to stay, by Pungwe Drift.

Go there. It has hardly changed: still at the end of an atrocious track; still charmingly simple; still no electricity, but a wood stove, hot baths and hurricane lanterns; still a capable and kind assistant to look after the place; and still the dripping trees, chirruping frogs, bursts of intense sunshine and roar of the rapids all the black, 12-hour African night long. Magical.

I swam this time, carrying sandals, as I swam as a boy, across a quiet stretch of the river; and clambered up the green bank on the other side, making my way through the giant tufts of bush grass to the sombre copse that to my boyish eyes had seemed to contain such mysteries. Had I misremembered? Would the ‘Arab slave pit’ (now believed to be constructions by indigenous African people, for shelter or livestock) be there?

It was! Still unvisited by any path, as if it had kept the secret intimacy between us for more than half a century. Vindicated to myself, I could now trust my memory.

And trusting it, I could compare. For there was a big change. In the middle of the 20th century the pit had been in good condition, its edges well defined, its stone retaining walls in clean repair and only a little overgrown. Now it was tumbledown, at first hard to discern, and tangled by vines and clumps of shrubbery.

Curious! For at school in (then) Salisbury, we had been taught that these structures must be centuries old and nothing to do with the local people who occupied the land when the white man arrived at the end of the 19th century. These people, after all, lived in huts of mud and wood, and showed no knowledge of stonemasonry. And it was very much the preferred opinion of my fellow white Rhodesians that the native population had been tabula rasa when Europeans found them — with no ‘civilisation’ to speak of, nor anything amounting to a history such as we could boast. They had no story. And as there was no written record, who could gainsay that claim?

I now know, of course, that even by 1960, archeologists had concluded otherwise. As early as the 1920s it had been established that Great Zimbabwe, the magnificent and ‘mysterious’ stone-built castle-like structure that every visitor to Central Africa should see, was certainly not of Arab origin (as we were taught) but linked to the people still living around it today. This was all ignored in my early education.

What, though, of my surprise discovery that mine and Roger’s stone pit, so pristine 55 years ago, was approaching ruin, without apparent human intervention? I realise I risk either a wrathful ‘nonsense!’ or a sneering ‘obviously!’ from the experts, when I say I now have the strongest hunch that our Pungwe stone pit was not very old at all when we found it. I cannot think that the past half-century had brought such a degradation in its condition, where for hundreds of years it had stood unscarred by time.

Here’s a guess: that these structures date from the 19th century, were built by the African culture living there now, and are not really ‘ancient’ at all. Or ‘mysterious’ — in the sense that some dramatic explanation is needed for their desuetude; for the life being lived in the rural parts of Central Africa has no great use for stone: wood-and-mud huts work beautifully and are easy to construct. Perhaps there was a fashion for stone pits but they were found to add little value to agricultural life, stockades being just as good.

A Martian (and the late 19th-century white settlers in Africa may be seen as tantamount to such) arriving in Derbyshire today might marvel at the mysterious Chatsworth and Haddon Hall, and beautiful stone churches, and reflect that another civilisation must have built them as these skills appear to have entirely disappeared from contemporary building methods. But it’s just that we’ve found easier ways to live; and, having a written record of our history, can prove it.

When we are very young, we think we represent points in history. As we become old we realise our lives represent the elapse of time in history: a significant elapse. I was closer to the Boer War when I was born than I am now to the date of my own birth. I’ve been with that Pungwe stone pit for long enough to sense that it hadn’t been around for nearly as long as I thought, without me.

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  • Picquet

    Sounds more like a food store to me. In Tanganyika I remember a similar construct in the Usambara mountains, although less than room-sized. It was used to hold jackfruit.

    • Terry Field

      And that explains where the international supply of jackfruit has gone!
      One thing is certain – Cameron and Harman do not know jacksh!t about it!

  • mikewaller

    What an outstanding writer MP is. However after his recent foray into the reviewing of radio programmes, I do not think that is a line he should pursue further. There Kate Chisholm reigns supreme and if we broaden the role to embrace TV review, even Master Delingpole – very much his inferior in all other fields – has a surer touch.