'Whitewashed Jacarandas' by Diana Polisensky is a remarkably detailed tour de force portraying life in a tough gold mining community in Southern Rhodesia from 1946. That is prior to Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence and the advent of Zimbabwe with the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe.
The author, now living in Oregon, USA, grew up in a medical family in the colony. She says the book marks the first installment in a saga chronicling the end of the colonial experience in that region. Although this is pitched as a novel there seems to be a lot of apparently autobiographical material woven in.
Ms Polisensky is clearly an admirer of Sir Edgar Whitehead, prime minister ,1958-62, and statesman of international stature. She tells how Whitehead advised the novel's hero, Dr Sunny Rubenstein – who was looking for a medical appointment – to take a chance on Southern Rhodesia's exciting growth potential.
Whitehead and Rubenstein were sharing a compartment on a long nocturnal rail journey. “I drew up a financial plan for Southern Rhodesia before the war (WW2) broke out,” said Whitehead, “and prime minister Huggins had me refine it while I was holed up incognito at a hotel....between assignments during the war.” He noted that the government had purchased a lime and iron works close to the Cheetah gold mine which the train was heading for.
“If Huggins can win another term it'll be big – I'll see to it that plenty of money is made available. Get in on the ground floor,” he urged Dr Sunny. Whitehead envisaged a major steel complex developing on the site. “It'll be the industrial hub of the country with a model residential community.”
The tale then focuses on Sunny Rubenstein's quest for medical work at the Cheetah gold mine where a rough and tough community lacked competent medicine. And in a jiffy the existing doctor – who desperately wanted to find a post somewhere else –commits an act of gross fraud on Dr Sunny. He sells him the Cheetah practice for £2,000 when in fact the practice belonged to the mining company.
Dr Sunny takes up the job and soon discovers the nature of the place. The mine manager tells him, “You know the Natives are lazy bastards – always looking for a way to slough off. That's your main job, you know, to weed out the loafers at Sick Parade.....you see cutting corners makes all the difference to British shareholder returns. That's how you survive.”
There were no clinical records, surgery was virtually impossible, no anesthetics skills, and TB sufferers were simply sent home.
But by dint of enormously hard work and risky lobbying for funds Dr Sunny manages to modernise the facilities and upgrade the nursing staff.
The underlying tale – Dr Sunny's relationship with a beautiful and long suffering wife – comes to a happy ending. But only after abrupt confrontations and perhaps the rudest and most conceited letters ever penned by a husband.