Friday, April 06, 2007

OBITUARY: J.B. Shenton of the Kafue National Park (1929 - 2007)

John Barry Shenton was born on the 30th April 1929 in Eshowe Zululand. His father “Shen” had moved to South Africa from Leicester, UK as a baby with his grandparents in search of a new life in the gold reefs of Johannesburg in 1894 and Shen followed his father as a mining engineer up to the Great War. Captain John Lindsay Shenton “Shen” came back from Europe to a cattle/cotton farm. Barry’s mother Pat was a strong-willed Scot of third generation in South Africa. By 1936 the cotton had done well but the cattle had been decimated by Nagana, the deadly tsetse disease and when Shen joined the Parks Board, the family moved to Hluhluwe game reserve that year until the time they trekked north to Zambia in 1948. The conflict between the three small game reserves in Zululand and the livestock escalated because of Nagana and at one time the game department were given orders to shoot all the wild animals to prevent further spread. Barry and his younger brother Bob became good hunters until Shen organized six Martins bombers to spray DDT up to the boundaries of the reserves and this stopped the tsetse conflict. Barry served for a couple of years in the Natal Parks Board before accompanying his parents to Northern Rhodesia where Pat farmed chickens for eggs while the two men opened up a virgin piece of land in Mazabuka. It is remarkable that the eggs were sent by train to the Copperbelt with the train guard, and the money and the boxes returned on the next train.

Times were tough with the first crop yielding 35 bags of maize, so Barry joined Bert Schultz as a professional hunter in the newly formed Northern Rhodesia Game Department in 1950 on the Government Controlled Hunting scheme in Luangwa Valley. Wealthy overseas clients would pay to hunt wildlife on Chief Nsefu’s reserve and the profits were given to the chief to develop his area – a system not unlike today’s Community Resource Boards. These early rangers became testers for Mr. Bata who would come out every year with shoes modified for the tough environment in Luangwa. Barry ended up with a cupboard full of shoes like Imelda Marcos- rope soles, tall mosquito boots, and many versions of the “veld skons” that most bush people preferred in the end. These shoes were nick-named “brothel creepers”. The first camp they built, Nsefu, survived the floods this year, for the 57th time while many other newer structures have been washed away over the years, a testimony to the quality of service offered by those early government workers.

Barry spent an exciting four years hunting in the dry season and controlling elephant in the wet season by shooting crop raiding bulls in the villages around eastern province. He had grown up fluent in Zulu and now learnt ChiNyanja. Over the next five years Barry was a full time ranger opening up the west bank of the Luangwa game reserve to tourism and also postings to Kabompo, Kasempa and Lundazi where he built the Nyika Lodge on the 8000ft plateau.

In late 1958, the council gave the game department just eleven months to open up Kafue National Park to tourism, failing which the area would lose its status and be re-settled. Norman Carr selected Barry and Johnny Uys to help him and over a very hectic year, they managed to open up 900km of road and build Ngoma Lodge and two bush camps under very challenging conditions. Roads were surveyed on foot and cleared behind by hand to then be smoothed with a railway line triangle pulled behind a Landrover. Bridges were built with rock and concrete around 44-gallon drum forms, all carted by an old three ton Morris truck via Namwala. The Morris chassis eventually broke, and it was repaired with a mopane pole wrapped with wet buffalo hide - good enough to finish the job. By the end of 1959, the game department had won its challenge, and Zambia’s biggest National Park was open to visitors. Barry was a painfully shy man in those days but dedicated to duty, efficiency and discipline and was promoted to Warden of KNP in 1964, while his parents ran Ngoma Lodge.

One of the visitors in the dry season of 1961 was a pretty Swedish nurse who had settled at a mission hospital in eastern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and escorted her visiting parents to KNP in an old Morris they had bought for the journey. The car developed a problem and Barry took four days to fix it, by which time he had proposed her for marriage and in 1963, their first son Rolf was born. Marianne loved the bush and moved to KNP to become his lifelong partner, bearing three sons and a favourite daughter, Allison who lives in Livingstone. Marianne, always a socialist, a nurse and a great traveller, mellowed Barry’s colonial past and shyness and he adapted positively to the new Zambia when droves of Europeans left.

By 1970, Zambians were ready to take over the Game Department, and Barry retired to manage brother Bob’s farm in Mazabuka. He attacked this job with the same vigour and determination as always and within two years produced the first crop of tomatoes on top of seed maize and cotton. The first half of the crop was given away in the Mazabuka market as no-one had the taste for this new fruit. Suddenly the taste caught on and Barry couldn’t produce enough for the next few years. He also introduced potatoes to Mazabuka’s growing list of produce and used to sell them off the back of the truck in Lusaka’s city market. Barry was always up- to-date with new ideas and bought a new diesel Mercedes from Germany in 1969 forseeeing the fuel crisis. This car is still driving around Lusaka.

In 1982, Barry finally managed to buy his own farm in Mkushi and again adjusted quickly to the new environment. He proved, at 53, that one is never too old to start a new life and became one of Zambia’s biggest seed growers, both in soya and maize. Barry diversified whenever opportunities arose, and ran a borehole drilling rig, contract harvested maize, and built Kaingo Safari Lodge in South Luangwa National Park in 1992 with his son, Derek. In 1994, when the Great North Road was almost impassable, he began his last major project: The Forest Inn. Friends and family advised him that it was a bad time to build with all the uncertainty, but as usual he responded by saying he might not have the energy to start later and that the road would be fixed sooner or later, and so he did it anyway! The well-appointed, peaceful Forest Inn has become the place to stay for almost all visitors to Mkushi with all creeds and colours welcome for business or leisure.

Barry slipped quietly away on the 21st of March in his bed surrounded by his wife and children, surely a satisfied man, having beaten all his life’s challenges, including a first cancer fifteen years ago. Youngest son, Clive will continue managing the farm and the Forest Inn. His children and grandchildren have continued his sense of nation building, social conscience and sustainable resource management.

Rolf Shenton

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