Monday, May 29, 2017

Remembering the road to Paradise

On 31 May 2017, a new war memorial will be dedicated in Canberra. It has been a long time in the planning and those Australians who took part in the Anglo Boer War in Southern Africa between 1899-1902 will finally be recognised and will take their place along with all those others who are commemorated in AnzacParade.
 
Memorial being completed in Anzac Parade, Canberra.
The Boer War may now be far beyond living memory, but its echoes resonated in my own African childhood as my father had many elderly friends and acquaintances who had served in that War and always had many tales to tell.

It’s a morning in July 1973. One of those sunny, yet cool and crisp days that anyone who has experienced the Southern African high veld in winter will know. The air is bone dry and has been this way for a few months already and it’s unlikely there’ll be any more real rain until November. The nights can be very cold and one can still see the haze and smell the smoke from charcoal fires. 
My mother is too ill to join us, but my father and I go for a stroll. He says he wants to show me something that he only discovered recently; down beyond where the modern urbanised First Street peters out onto an old pioneer route, the Lendy Road. An African idles his way past us on a bicycle, a woman with a baby on her back carries a large tin can on her head, water or perhaps cooking oil.
(It was the one thing that struck me when I first went to live in Australia, the desperate loneliness of its bush compared to that of Africa. You can travel endless miles in Australia without ever seeing another living soul. But you are never alone on African roads. No matter how far from civilization or the nearest town or village you might think you are, someone will always come along, greet you with a smile, and pass on.) 
Dad diverts off the Lendy Road and we walk along another track until we come to a rusty barbed wire fence. It surrounds a small cemetery partly overgrown with acacias and msasa trees. A number of the graves are bordered with roughly hewn stones and have military crosses at the head.
It’s called Paradise says Dad. I’ve been told  some of them are Australians who signed up for the Boer War. Think most of them contracted fever out in Portuguese East and died here in the hospital at Marandellas. Maybe they never even saw action.
Apart from the gentle rattle of leaves in the msasa trees and the slight movement of the brown dry grass between the graves, it is peaceful enough although it doesn’t feel like any kind of Paradise to me. I'm sad that these men died and were buried such a long way from home. I wonder who they were. Some of the military inscriptions are easier to read than others which are rusted or faded.
There’s also another marker that seems out of place. A woman who died in 1935. Why is she on her own here with these soldiers? Dad says he might ask around in town, see if he can find out who she was.  
We wander back home. Dad stops briefly to sketch one of the cycling Africans on the Lendy Road that will later go into one of his paintings.

With so many other things on my mind, I forget all about the Paradise Cemetery for the next forty-odd years until somehow I stumble across it again on the Internet. The photographs show it looks exactly the same as that day I was there with my Dad.

From ZimFieldGuide.com

But the world has changed so much and modern technology and the widespread availability of genealogical resources now gives us the opportunity to discover things we could never have imagined before.

As can be seen from reading the ZimFieldGuide page, there is quite a bit of confusion over exactly who is buried in Paradise with names, units and even whether the correct marker is assigned to each grave, but my next few posts will investigate some of the people - Australians and others - who lie there beneath the msasas.

Perhaps I will discover very little, a photograph if I'm lucky, but anything that I find that gives an echo of life back to these lost men of the Boer War (and that sole woman) will be rewarding enough.

Another view from ZimFieldGuide