Rankin and Nikka

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“Pick them gently and wash the berries before you eat them inkosikazi” Nikka said.

He was an old man, a very old man by African standards, and although his close cropped woolly hair had turned grey, and his coal colored body wizened, he still had a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face, a tender heart and a sharp brain.

He would sit in his rocking chair on the kitchen verandah in his immaculately starched white uniform sipping tea and drowsing in the liquid sunshine that is Africa. How old was Nikka? Older than the earth as far as I was concerned being only 7 years old, but in years, well into his eighties or maybe early nineties.

He had been with the family for many years and refused to retire. His job now was to bake the one loaf of bread needed for the household each day and to sit in the sunshine and drink his tea. The strawberry barrel on the step of the verandah was his and he tended the berries with love. He served my family with integrity and would do so till he drew his last breath.

Nikka’s predecessor was a man called Rankin and to Rankin our little white family owed everything, including our lives.

Rankin came into our family’s life as a young man aged sixteen in 1901. I can only assume that he was given this Rankines name because his name was unpronounceable to my great grandmother’s tongue, and that the fated expedition of James Knight in 1721, who died in Rankin Inlet whilst trying to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic, had been on her mind.

One night, my great grandmother also sixteen years of age and pregnant in 1901 was home alone. Her husband, my great grandfather George William Dunn, was away on a business trip. Mildred and George owned a trading store not far from the town of Gwelo, and life was exciting. There had been a lot of unrest since the start of the Matabele Rebellion 5 years before. Most of the country side was quite now, but there were a few hot spots and Mildred and George were in one of them.

Mildred was coming to the end of her long hectic day and was looking forward to her supper and climbing into bed to get some much needed rest when a knock came at the door. Standing there was a troubled young man whom she had seen before. He quickly explained that all was not well and that the Ndebele warriors or ‘impi’ were about to raid and kill all the white people in the area. He had come to help her.

Mildred and Rankin made a plan. Rankin was given a shotgun and posted at the backdoor of the store. Mildred stationed herself at the front door. If anything was to happen the code was to scratch on the floorboards as a dog would do if it had an itch.

Sure enough, later in the night the scratch came and the impi attacked. Rankin and a very pregnant Mildred both armed and with a plentiful stash of shot, fought the warriors off. I don’t know how long the battle took or how many Ndebele lost their lives, but I do know that the ‘cavalry’ arrived the next morning and all was committed to history. Rankin had saved the life of this young woman and her child. He had saved our family.

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