16 March 2017

Zimbabwe: Lawrence Vambe @ 100

column

ONE of Zimbabwe's best loved and most widely respected authors and journalists, Lawrence Vambe, turned 100 on March 5. Trevor Grundy writes here that this great African might now be old, but his heart and his spirit remain young.

Despite the fact that President Robert Mugabe still runs Zimbabwe, his former friend, one-time admirer and Kutama Mission School contemporary, Lawrence Vambe, remains certain that his country and the people who live in it will one day have a great future.

"My people will come through their present ordeal and emerge stronger than ever before," he told me from his home in North London where he lives with his daughter, Elizabeth and son-in-law Stephen Pollock.

On the phone a fortnight ago, he sounded more like a man in his 50s than one about to hit a 100.

The First World War was raging in Europe; a revolution that brought Lenin to power in Russia was approaching and non-whites were told to walk in the gutters of Salisbury when whites approached when Lawrence Vambe was born at Chishawasha Mission Station on March 5, 1917.

Friends and admirers of this great writer have been ringing, writing and saying how much his literary work has helped them understand Africa and Africans -- how his time-tested integrity as a man and a writer has helped them remain true to themselves, their political beliefs and the hopes they all held for a country not called Zimbabwe when they were young.

"He has enriched our lives," says his close friend and strong admirer, Judith Todd, the widely-respected daughter of the late Sir Garfield Todd and his wife, Lady Grace, who did so much to improve education for African children after the couple's arrival in Southern Rhodesia from New Zealand in 1934.

"Lawrence is one of our greats," says the veteran journalist and author Pius Wakatama.

Doris Lessing went to her grave befriending and admiring Lawrence Vambe and her foreword to an An Ill-Fated People helped turn it into a seminal work.

The Nobel Prize winning author wrote: "It was painful reading this book. I hope it will be painful for other white people to read. I hope particularly that it will be read by the white-skinned British, who are responsible for the double dealing, the negligence and the cruelty, the atrocities described here."

His second book From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe is regarded as the best primer for students of African history written so far.

Lawrence's birth in 1917 witnessed the outbreak in Africa and Europe -- later the whole world -- of Spanish influenza which claimed more lives than the whole of the 1914-1918 disaster.

His mother died soon after his birth and his father, close to a nervous breakdown, was unable to cope with family affairs.

Vambe was brought up by German nuns at the famous Roman Catholic Chishawasha Mission Station.

"Every morning, a novice nun would go and milk one of the cows and bring me fresh milk. Without her. . . well, I might not be alive today."

And then a smile, a nod of the head and a laughter that all his friends and one-time colleagues in the Rhodesian Press found infectious.

Lawrence went on to run the country's main "black" newspapers during the days of all white rule in large parts of the African continent -- working alongside top talents, men of the outstanding calibres of Nathan Shamuyarira, Stanlake Samkange, Herbert Chitepo and Kingsley Dube.

Later he was Southern Rhodesia's Press spokesman in London during the days of the Central African Federation. He went on to work as a public relations executive for Anglo American in London and Lusaka before returning home in the late 1970s.

In 1959, he was awarded the MBE by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to Commonwealth journalism.

In 1980, he was one of the founders of the Zimbabwe-Britain Society and throughout his long life, a strong, devoted Roman Catholic.

On the eve of his hundredth, Lawrence Vambe does not wish to condemn the men and women running Zimbabwe into the dustbin.

As always, he looks to the future and believes that one day soon things will improve for his countrymen and women. "The torch is now in the hands of our young people. I believe that they will one day understand the sacrifices that were made by the men and women of my generation. We don't want thanks. It was our duty to fight the oppressors. Now it's their turn and we all know that oppressors come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. . .all sorts of skin colours, too."

Before the big day, I telephoned my friend of so many years and told him he has a long, long time to go yet.

"Why?" he asked.

"Well, the Queen has sent you a congratulatory letter. We must have someone important here from Zimbabwe to send her a telegram when she reaches that age . . . nine years from now. So stick around Lawrence Vambe."

Down the line I heard him laugh  that still young sounding laugh that had captivated so many people when they were young and when -- as the song says about another time and another place our hearts were an open book.

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