A Victorian mansion in Africa
WORDS: Nicole McCreedy | PHOTOS: Nicole McCreedy & Shiwa Ng'andu
Built by Sir Stewart Gore-Browne in 1932, Zambia’s Shiwa Ng’andu is a stately Victorian treasure with a rich and varied history that's integrated into a world-class private game reserve.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve often imagined building your dream home, jotting down ideas as they come about. Perhaps, like Sir Stewart Gore-Browne – an unhappy young schoolboy at Harrow – you’ve even sketched the outlines of your home on a piece of paper in a diary somewhere.
Gore-Browne dreamt of a mansion. It was a dream that would lead him to Africa and would become the remarkable story of Shiwa Ng’andu, a stately Victorian home in a far-flung corner of the British Empire.
Today, apart from the Zambian flag hoisted from the flagpole on the first floor, Shiwa Ng’andu’s exterior looks pretty much as it did when it was first built in 1932. This is largely due to the efforts of Gore-Browne’s grandson, Charles Harvey and his family. Over a cup of tea served in the guest lounge at Shiwa House, I ask Charles about the restoration process.
When he took over the running of the estate in the year 2000 the house had been uninhabited for several years and was literally falling apart. “The biggest problem with the whole house is that it's built of mud,” says Charles. “The cement pointing is only on the outside.” Mud constructions should be kept dry and the roof was in a seriously bad state.
The year that Charles and his family moved to Shiwa, over 2500mm of rain were recorded. His family thought he’d gone mad. There was only one working toilet and the shower was in the courtyard.
At Shiwa, maintenance is an ongoing battle, according to Charles. “One starts repairing at one end of the house and as soon as you get to the other side, you have to start all over again. Not a lot of people know that Shiwa House is built on an earth tremor fault. We had a fairly big one last October.”
Charles is soft-spoken, attentive in his manner and forthright. He has the composed confidence of a gentleman – a trait possibly instilled in his youth, having grown up at Shiwa House when his grandfather still lived here and Victorian rules applied.
Manners are not all that Charles inherited. His gentle mannerism downplays the wilful determination it must have taken to turn the ailing fortunes of the estate into a profitable commercial farm that commendably plays a role in uplifting the welfare of the community and the wildlife.
It's the same stubbornness (and his short-temper) which earned Charles’s grandfather the Bemba nickname “Chipembele” (black rhinoceros). Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, a young army officer with grand ideas, an adventurous spirit and limited resources, came to Africa in search of a piece of land to settle on. He found what he was looking for among the Bemba people on the shores of Ishiba Ng'andu – “The Lake of the Royal Crocodile”.
Whatever your architectural dreams may be, it's very unlikely that they'll require the tenacity that it took to build Shiwa House. Armed with a copy of the Britannica Encyclopaedia, an army engineering manual, a model of the house fashioned after his childhood home, Brooklands, in England and the help of 1,000 local labourers, Sir Stewart Gore-Browne set about becoming the architect of his dreams.
Shiwa House, which is still Charles’s home, now earns her keep as an exclusive getaway for tourists.
“Guests are invited to come into our home, we’re not going to put on airs and graces,” says Charles. “This isn’t England or the 1940s. The best way to describe it is as a country party and so far it has worked very well.”
Indeed, pastimes in which guests can indulge, from horse riding to hunting, do invoke the image of a weekend in the country for the English nobility.
The experience is all this and, like a finely aged whisky, it's richer and more complex too. Shiwa Ng’andu has a history that has been flavoured on Zambian soil. The constitution was written here. And Sir Stewart Gore-Browne was the second person in Zambia, after Kenneth Kaunda, to get a Zambian passport following independence. There are now three generations of people living here who have their own stories to tell about Shiwa Ng’andu.
Above the library fireplace at Shiwa House is a Latin inscription, which means “This corner of the earth smiles upon me above any other.” Watching a southern ground hornbill – a shy bird with a red beak, the plump body of a turkey and a wingspan to rival that of a vulture – glide towards the reedy banks of the lake, I too, have a glimpse of the beauty that stole Gore-Browne’s heart. It makes me smile.
More information: www.shiwangandu.com
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