Braving the Long-Drop
Given the fact we're living in trying times with this coronavirus and all. I feel it's probably as good a time as any to post something with a humorous slant. Right now I'm working on a book about my boyhood and all the nonsense we got up to. One of the things I've included in the manuscript is a short narrative about our old Rhodesian long-drop toilets of the 1950s. Many safari camps across Africa still use them in some form or other, so I guess a blog post about them isn't too out of place!
Above: Although the toilet shown in the photo isn't a traditional long-drop, it is a Zimbabwe safari camp toilet. The safari operator has installed a waterborne flush toilet although it could just as easily have been a long-drop. The thatch roof on this outhouse will also attract a variety of spiders and other insect life.
Back in the 1950s most Rhodesian farms didn’t yet have running water inside the house for flush toilets, so the ‘long-drop’ was a more common type of toilet. Also known as a ‘thunderbox’, chimbuzi (Shona) or PK for Picannini Kia meaning small house in the African pidgin dialect of convenience, Fanagalo. The solitary outbuilding was normally constructed from burnt brick, with a thatch or corrugated sheeting roof. Usual earlier type seat design was a hollow wooden box structure over a deep hole. The surface of this box had a hole cut into it and, if lucky, there was a comfy toilet seat attached. A roll of toilet paper usually had pride of place on the wooden ‘deck’ as such, right alongside the toilet seat.
Most were situated at the far end of the backyard or garden, sometimes about 75m from the nearest illumination. Scary at night. Invariably too, the normally damp and smelly interiors attracted spiders, bats, bees, wasps, and periodically snakes. Often, when one was trying to use the toilet angry bees would zip through between your descending buttocks and the seat, and then from the dark inside of the drop, make every effort to sting your rear end.
Probably because of our gross irresponsibility and curiosity, our parents had also instilled in us an unreasonable fear of snakes. It was drummed into us virtually every snake was deadly and capable of aggressive attack. This unfounded belief also led to a peculiar habit whereby if there were visitors to the farm, and a woman wanted to visit the PK she was accompanied by an entourage, acting as a sort of protective escort. With hindsight I find this need for an escort amusing because the fear was of what was lurking inside, and not outside!
Before the group departure however, etiquette had to be followed, and colonial Rhodesia was a conservative country. As a result, the lady needing to use the long drop would say something like, ‘I need to go and powder my nose’. That was the cue, and all the other ladies would immediately stand up with a collective, ‘We’ll come with you’, and leaving the men talking farming, depart. Aside from the other ladies, most of the kids, and the dogs, were also included in the escorting entourage. The accompanying boys, all under eleven, sometimes arming themselves with sticks to prod the shrubbery with, and other likely snake hiding places.
By the late 1950s some of the more modern of these farm toilets had improved slightly in design, and had been provided with a comfortable wooden seat, underneath of which was a bucket. A hinged hatch in the outside back wall allowed for the removal of the bucket when full, and for an empty one to be put in its place. In those days too, we used to get a publication called the Overseas Daily Mirror and the pages often served a dual purpose. Articles on pop stars and politicians being the first to go, with the comic page lasting the longest.
The lady visiting my school friend’s farm had burst out of their long drop, her stockings and underwear in disarray around her knees, clutching her backside and screaming hysterically that she’d been bitten on her nether regions by a black mamba. Almost fainting, she was led away by the panicked entourage of other wives, and placated with smelling salts.
While the smelling salts exercise was taking place, the husbands arrived en-masse. A noisy, beer-filled group, armed with shotguns, more dogs, and sticks. All of them intent on slaying the mamba that’d had the audacity to bite a lady on her nether regions. However, and because a black mamba is an extremely dangerous adversary caution prevailed. A careful armed inspection of the premises, with torch beams being shone into dark corners, and sticks used to prod unreachable recesses soon led to the discovery of a goose sitting on eggs next to the bucket. What had led to it taking this extremely aggressive action can only be imagined.
We also heard of a farmer’s 7-year-old daughter who’d fallen into their long drop toilet. Covered in muck she’d been unceremoniously hauled up by rope, and then prodded with a garden rake and a broom towards a hosepipe and tap. It was probably the first time, although it went unrecorded, of social-distancing in Rhodesia!
Well known American safari hunting author, the late Peter Hathaway Capstick relates a humorous incident in his first book Death in the Long Grass whereby he tries to shoot a black mamba in his camp chimbuzi, or what he calls … a wraparound, grass-walled latrine or ‘high-fall’ on a bluff near the Kafue river bank. After lifting the toilet seat lid and pushing his shotgun into the hole, he describes further, ‘In a flash I leaned over the seat and pulled off both barrels, one after the other, straight down the drop-hole. The secondary results were not unlike dynamiting a septic tank while sitting on it, and I certainly got a solid dose of the basic contents of the hole’. After, as the British say, ‘purging myself’, I managed a cold shower from last night’s water, shouting to my understandably confused staff (who might have been wondering what the bwana was doing blowing up the crapper) to keep an eye out for the snake until I was no longer hors de combat from my sneak raid on the can’.
When I joined the Rhodesian National Parks department as a young 17-year old cadet game ranger, back in early 1968, my first patrol was into the Guluene/Tshefu corridor. A tsetse fly control corridor along the Mozambique and Rhodesian border in the Gonarezhou National Park. The fly-camp the game scouts took me to in the corridor, for use as our patrol base had a long-drop toilet. Imagine my surprise when I went to use it and found the ‘seat’ as such was the bottom jaw bone of an elephant cow! It was actually extremely comfortable and a perfect fit. One had to be careful though or you could've ended up with elephant teeth marks on the back of your thighs! Fortunately, we’ve moved on from elephant lower-jaw toilet seats on long-drops in bush camps, and most safari camps now enjoy en-suite modern flush toilets.