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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

John Conyngham’s Hazara “a story about longing and allegiance,” writes Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson recently reviewed renown author and former journalist John Conyngham’s Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm for Business Day.

Read an extract from Robinson’s review here:

The word Hazara in the title of this fascinating portrait of settler life in Natal is not an exhortation that is yelled as the panga whacks the sugar cane. Rather, it is the name of a British army regiment in which one of the author’s ancestors served.

One of the imperatives of an Anglo-South African family was to maintain “standards” and keep Africa at bay. So as John Conyngham notes drily, the whites who settled in Natal in the 19th and 20th centuries tended to name their properties after places or things that reminded them of their earlier lives in far off places.

Through successive generations, European settler men fought in the Crimean, Anglo-Zulu, Anglo-Boer, first and second world wars — and if they survived, they farmed.

The author has ingeniously reconstructed his family history to show how Hazara came into their hands and then became a lucrative operation employing a hundred farm hands, bankrolling an enviable way of life of parties, private schools and trips overseas.

But there was also a lot of damage to be observed on the neighbouring farms — drunken quarrels, bolting wives, faithless husbands, still births and sudden deaths as the bush revealed its dangers. The most tragicomic example of a sudden death was the five-year-old boy who expired from a puffadder bite while the mother and the family servant quarrelled over who should suck the venom from his wound.

This settler society, of course, floated on a giant lake of alcohol knocked back on the veranda at sundown and quite often at breakfast too.

Most Europeans who move to Africa go slightly mad one way or another, for they lack the essential cultural inoculation of having been born there. Natal was not the Congo, but neither was it “home” for the incomers. As Joseph Conrad wrote of Kurtz, “the wilderness had found him out early and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion”.

Hazara, near Stanger (KwaDukuza), originally came into the family as a dowry for the author’s maternal grandmother upon her marriage in 1924. The marriage was not happy, partly because the couple lost all three of their children as infants to a suspected genetic abnormality. In those days, it was considered perfectly normal for a childless colonial couple to adopt an abandoned English child and ship them out to Africa.

Continue reading Robinson’s review here.


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