15 Sep 2020
(Research by Christiaan Jacobie)
Who cannot be awed by the king of trees, the mighty baobab? The hollow centres of some of these majestic trees have been used for various purposes in the past. They have been used as a hiding place, a post office, a jail, a chapel, a storage barn, a bus stop, a bar and in the far north-eastern reaches of Namibia, in Katima Mulilo, even a toilet.
After shopping for supplies and filling up with fuel on my way to Gondwana’s Zambezi Mubala Camp, I noticed the sign to the baobab tree and followed the forested road to the grave of the man who had it built, a Major Lisle French Watts Trollope. This got me wondering, who was Major LFW Trollope and why was he buried on the outskirts of Katima Mulilo?
His story is interesting, as is the baobab that has featured in international travel guides like Lonely Planet and which is well-known to many a traveller and soldier who spent time in the region in the 70s and 80s. Major Trollope’s story is one which well-known South African author, Lawrence Green, would have woven into a colourful tale. But, the Eastern Caprivi, as it was then called, was ‘beyond the last frontier’ featured in his book ‘Lords of the last frontier’. Before Major Trollope was appointed magistrate and native commissioner for the area in 1939, it was a territory that was a free-for-all; a hive of poachers, hunters and ivory traders. One of the duties the major was given in his new position of administering the territory was to take action against witchcraft. But, Trollope tried only a single case at the beginning of his administration before turning his attention to dealing with soldiers who went AWOL, were drunk or asleep on duty or had lost army equipment; and exploring the region, which found a place deep within his heart.
In those days in the remote Eastern Caprivi, he had closer dealings with officers in Kasane and Maun in Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) and Sesheke in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) on the opposite bank of the Zambezi River - where his post was delivered - than with those in South Africa and the mandated South West Africa. Being far from the administrative centres of the South African government, he ran the Eastern Caprivi administration as he saw fit, and this included enlisting a team from the public works department in Northern Rhodesia to install a flush toilet in the hollow baobab tree next to his house.
It is recorded that Trollope maintained a constant stream of correspondence with natural history museums, anthropologists and scientific societies throughout the world and that his interest ranged from flora and fauna to the people from the mythical ‘lost city of the Kalahari’. He was a bachelor and his sister, Alice, occasionally shared a house with him and assisted with entertaining guests.
Over the years magistrate Trollope gradually distanced himself from the Union of South Africa and ignored some of his official duties like formal administration of taxation and labour censuses among the population, so it is not surprising that he didn’t find favour in the eyes of the nationalist party that came to power in 1948. His fourteen-year tenure ended after a court case following an incident with one Anderson Luendo, whom Trollope had previously provided with clothing and funds for school fees. As the story is told, Luendo had been arrested and convicted for a burglary in Sesheke. In 1952, when Luendo was nineteen, Trollope held him for three-months in the magisterial prison in Katima Mulilo. The reasons for his arrest are not evident and he was never formally charged. During this period, Luendo was guarded by a policeman and had to look after Trollope’s cattle. When the angry young man had a chance to escape, he attacked Trollope with an axe while he slept on the veranda of his house. Luendo was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison. Trollope was ordered to return to Pretoria, an order which he ignored. When his replacement arrived in East Caprivi, such was Trollope’s authority that he demanded to see his permit, and when he found it lacking, sent him packing.
The new magistrate eventually, with the correct paperwork, succeeded Trollope, and took a more conservative role and a keener interest in his official duties, including witchcraft trials. The borders of the Caprivi with its neighbouring countries were enforced and mail and administrative matters were rerouted to Windhoek and Pretoria respectively. The area beyond the last frontier was severely reined in. Trollope is said to have taken up work in Botswana. He never recovered properly from the attack and died a few years later while receiving medical treatment in Bulawayo. The Caprivi became a war zone in the years leading up to Namibian independence, with Katima used as a base for the South African Defence Force. After Namibian independence in 1990, its value as a tourist destination was realised. The Zambezi Region, as it is now called, offers countless attractions of rivers, culture and wildlife, drawing travellers into this lush corner of the country.
The colourful character of Trollope has largely been forgotten, except for the grave and the toilet in the baobab, which is now enclosed by a barbed wire fence. Today, the SWAPO office is next door and Trollope Street has been renamed Doreen Sioka Street.
The Katima baobab, however, still stands, stronger and larger than before, joined by a smaller baobab at its side. It has witnessed the changing of the times, wars and independence and the whims of many a man. Living up to two thousand years, there are many stories that a baobab witnesses in its lifetime, a toilet in a hollow tree being just one of them.
(ref: ‘Beyond the Last Frontier: ‘Major Trollope and the Eastern Caprivi Zipfel’ by Jan-Bart Gewald; The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa)
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