Cookie. Painting by Violet Ross 1958


Cookie was from Northern Rhodesia, one of ten children, though six had died in early life.  He had worked in the mines on the Copper Belt, saved enough to buy cattle for lobola and married.  He had a gift for languages and had had two years of education. His easy going manner and roving spirit eventually brought him to the Globe and Phoenix Mine.


Cookie had no desire to go underground again.  Somehow he found himself employed as house servant and general factotum to an old nursing sister.  She lived in three large airy rooms at the back of the European surgery, the front rooms being used by the mine doctor for outpatient consultations. The pantry served as dispensary.  The kitchen housed the sterilizing equipment, laundry tub and iron.

When Dad took up the position of mine doctor at the Globe and Phoenix Mine in 1946 from Dr. Zacks, Cookie came with the territory.

An altercation soon occurred with the old sister.  Dad’s ultimatum to the mine management was “It’s me or her”.  Cookie’s cheerful manner and his gift for languages held him in good stead.

A native clinic at the back was opened.  The Africans sat on logs when the benches were full.  Cookie became interpreter.  He was given a white uniform. His wages were raised.  He was steadily trained as a medical orderly under the direction of a cheerful, young and efficient sister.

He enjoyed the camaraderie at the mine compound each weekend, the beat of the drums, the Chibuku beer,  the gambling and sense of freedom.  On his month’s annual leave he would proudly return home to Northern Rhodesia to his wife and family.  He had no desire to bring them to Southern Rhodesia. There was no decent accommodation for them anyway.

Early on in his mine appointment, Dad built Stanley House in town and established a private medical center.  A decade after his arrival, a new mine manager did away with the mine medical services.  Cookie moved with Dad to Stanley House.

A pension scheme for the expanding black staff at Stanley House had been introduced with the added incentive that the practice would add pound for pound for any additional savings an employee contributed.

Cookie’s raised status gave him prestige in the compound.  The beer now  drew him on most nights like rain after a drought.  Except on Monday mornings, his work was not affected.  He remained cheerful and accommodating, interpreting in Shona or Ndebele for women and men, no matter how private the medical condition.

So the years passed.  The pension funds grew steadily except that Cookie no longer added extra amounts to his.

“Too many children” Cookie explained.

Too much beer, Cookie.  Not good for you every night, and too much gambling” countered Dad.

His hair was graying. His face deeply furrowed.  Now, it was not only on Monday mornings that he was ill tempered and forgetful.

“We’re all getting older” Dad mused at the dinner table. “Time to pension Cookie off.  With the amount saved and paying a monthly sum to him, through the District Commissioner in his hometown, he and his family should come out quite nicely. But how can I put it to him?  He’s been with us so long.”  For a whole week Dad mulled it over.

On pay day, he called Cookie into the office.  “Cookie, you have been with us for a long time.  There is enough money in the pension fund for you and your family to live on.  The D.C. will give you a certain amount each month.  Would you like to think about it?  Take a month or two months, then let us know.”

“No,” said Cookie very emphatically.  “I want to go now.  Tomorrow!  I want my money.”

“Hold on Cookie, not so fast!  If you really want to go soon, we won’t stop you, but we’ll have to sort the money out between you and the D.C.”

“No! No D.C.! The money is mine.  I want it all now!”

“Cookie, if you take all the money now, it will soon go on the drink, you know that.  The D.C. here will send all the money to your hometown D.C. and every month you can draw whatever sum you need.  No one is taking it away from you.”

Dad and Cookie visited the D.C’s office with the pension book.  Explanations and assurances again followed to no avail.  He would take the train leaving for Northern Rhodesia in two days time and take all his savings in cash with him.

“On the train there are skellums, Cookie.  You will drink. You will gamble.  All the money will be gone.”

The practice hurriedly gave a farewell party.  A splendid gold watch, a sports jacket and a large hamper of special goodies for his family was presented; golden syrup, white sugar, Sunlight soap, candles, a five pound bag of mixed boiled sweets that would travel well in the heat as well as a pocket of oranges and one of lemons and a five pound bag of rice.  A send off followed at the Railway Station, an unprecedented departure from social custom.  He put his cash in the inside pocket of his new sports jacket.

By the time he arrived in his hometown, all he had to show for his long years of work was a rumpled sports jacket.

Many Thanks to my brother, David Hirsch, for sharing this painting of Cookie by Violet Ross.



  • betty

    Reply Reply May 7, 2011

    Such interesting reading and so tragic, to live a life of hard work, diligence and caring for others, only to be lost through alcohol addiction….and to have lived away from his wife his whole life in order to bring a good retirement fund home, only to lose it in a few hours. What happened after his trip home? Did you lose track of him? I know his wife was terribly angry and disappointed in his squandering the retirement funds…..perhaps she left him immediately! I know your dad was heartsick and angry also.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 7, 2011

      The idea of providing retirement funds for Africans was a new idea. For centuries Africans lived on a subsistence economy moving as the land was “used up” (ie over grazed) to pastures new. Once it was settled by whites they carried on this life in tribal trust lands. In this system they had no need for money but a government Hut Tax was imposed to encourage them to join the work force which was badly needed to develop the country’s infrastructure, (their were only foot paths before 1890. Africans never having invented the wheel). The material world also beckoned: a bicycle, a suit of clothes and so on. African men migrated to the mines and then the cities as they grew, returning to their families annually. On ‘retirement’ they went back home and were supported by the family. They traditionally measured their wealth in children and cattle and this tradition remained strong. The idea of smaller families so the children could be educated etc was (and still is a hard sell there).
      Children were and are their old age security. Cookie returned to this system. No, a wife couldn’t ‘leave’ her husband, she was his possession. He probably had hoped to buy more cattle for labola (bride price) for another wife (or two).
      Dad was disappointed, sad. The lesson not yet learned, he went on to try again and again (other stories) to tell. As my mother would say “It makes my heart sore.”

  • Beryl Gunn

    Reply Reply May 10, 2011

    A sad but interesting story. It must have been very hard to try and bring change to a culture for their own betterment, when their tribal customs were so deeply ingrained. Hopefully the future generations will gradually learn the value of retirement security and adapt.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 11, 2011

      Beryl, Yes, it does take generations to bring about lasting positive change. The tragedy of Africa was/still is the belief that it could come overnight.

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