About the Authors
was born in 1944, in Blackburn, Lancashire, United Kingdom.
He received his primary schooling at Redland Hill House, in Bristol and
secondary schooling in Clifton College, Bristol and St Peter’s, in Bournemouth.
In 1960, the family moved to Bristol where he embarked on a training
scheme in the aircraft industry but left this to enter tertiary education after
which he taught in secondary schools and university.
I am grateful to my wife, Mary, who contributed her memories, thoughts and reflections. Without her assistance and encouragement, our story would never have been written.
was born in 1946, in Talgarth, South Wales, United Kingdom where she grew up and
received her primary schooling. She
then attended Brecon Girls Grammar School and, after completing the VIth
form, entered tertiary education in Bristol followed by a career as a primary
teacher and deputy principal.
John and Mary
now live in retirement on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, close to their
daughters and granddaughters with annual visits from their son and family who
currently live in Dubai. Mary does some tutoring and still derives much pleasure
from helping young children with their reading and with mathematics. John is
still involved in language acquisition and use, continuing his research into
academic vocabulary as well as being active in formal examinations for speaking
Since we left Africa, Rhodesia has become Zimbabwe and Salisbury has become Harare but in both cases, we have used names as befit the context.
Had we known that on two occasions in the future, we would be looking down the barrel of a gun, perhaps our anticipation, hopes and aspirations for our venture abroad would have been a little different! As it was, in the warm, sunny early afternoon of 6 September, 1968, Mary and I were standing on a deck of the SA Vaal as it departed Southampton for Cape Town. A liner leaving her berth and setting off on a voyage is a spectacular sight and to the two of us – in our early 20s and married for only eight months – it was an experience that hitherto we had only read about or seen in films. To say we were overawed would be an understatement. Not so, however, our families, standing on the quayside, waving goodbye, knowing that we would be away for three years.
We had been teaching for a year in Bournemouth and had both enjoyed our work immensely, but being at the bottom of the salary scale seemed a less attractive alternative to a contract overseas. There was also a measure of impatience, mostly to have a family and get on with life, the latter so characteristic of youth! To begin our teaching careers in September 1967, we had been fortunate to secure posts in the same school – Mary in the primary section while I was in the secondary – and we could not have wished for a better start. My head of department was Mike Fry. Mike was a born teacher and he nurtured my progress with great commitment and dedication, passing on his considerable experience, knowledge of pedagogy and teaching methodology, which only years later did I fully appreciate. Youth again! Mary’s principal was Miss Coar and her guidance and help was as valuable to Mary as Mike’s had been to me. We were so fortunate to have had such a start and those around us must have thought we were foolish to forsake our positions and head into the unknown world of the expatriate. Of course, we did not see it that way! It was an adventure … we were pursuing our future, perhaps fulfilling our dreams … we were going to live and work in Africa!
Seven months before we found ourselves on the Vaal, we had applied for joint teaching positions in a school in Canada and I had answered an advertisement in the press for teachers for various countries in Africa, as part of the aid programme overseen by the British government. Zambia seemed a good choice but we were probably influenced by the tourist brochure describing ‘Zambia in the Sun’, complete with pictures that accompanied the information package. The lure of Africa was altogether too much to resist, especially when read in the depths of winter, in a small flat in Bournemouth with minimal heating!
I duly applied, expressing a preference for Zambia, and was pleased to receive a reply and an invitation for an interview in London so, at this stage, both of us first mentioned our plans in school. I talked mostly to Mike Fry, who told me about two colleagues who had been in Africa and returned to the UK when their respective countries gained independence. Eric Wainwright was Head of History, had a great sense of humour – essential if you teach – but a rather heavy smoker. He had been in education in Kenya (living next to a golf course!) for 18 years and from the day I told him of our intention to try to go to Zambia, he regaled me with the most amusing anecdotes of his life in Africa. His first comment, on being told of my interview, was ‘That should get your knees brown!’ This turned out to be true but all his storytelling did was fire enthusiasm for what we were planning. Eric and his wife lived opposite us when we had our first flat, in Queens Park in Bournemouth, and, several years before, had been in Kenya as a teacher and then as an inspector for the Ministry of Education. He had a health scare shortly before the end of that academic year and I was saddened to hear that he had died a year or two later.
Another colleague, Mrs Brockington – I never knew her first name – had been in Zambia but I had fewer conversations with her than I did with Eric. She talked of the wonderful time she and her husband had had (it was Northern Rhodesia, then) and was also full of encouragement for our venture. Other colleagues seemed vaguely interested, or perhaps they were just being polite. Mike, however, was disappointed and I really felt that I was letting down the department, the school, the Head and Mike himself. This feeling was entirely self-generated and at no time was I made to feel that I had let anybody down. Mike did talk of promotion prospects but these seemed so far in the future that I think he knew we were not likely to change our minds. I suppose he also entertained the possibility that I might be rejected at interview! Appointing a teacher only to find that that teacher is leaving after one year is always a source of disappointment to a school administration. In a school with a conscientious and caring senior staff (which we certainly had), so much work goes into that teacher, especially if he or she is inexperienced, that to accept a resignation is disheartening, as I was to discover for myself, fourteen years later.
On the day of the interview, I took the train to London and duly reported to reception at Stag Place. I was directed to a waiting area upstairs and almost immediately invited into an office. I was nervous, not because of the interview (these have never made me nervous) but because I might not be accepted, and Mary and I had, by this time, really set our hearts on our plan. The interviewer was most affable and took great care to ascertain that we were sure we wanted to go abroad, to Africa and for three years during which we would not see our families. He asked if I had any questions and I do not recall asking anything, probably because I had learnt so much from Eric and Mrs Brockington. I collected my train fare reimbursement (probably different nowadays!) and went back to the station for the return journey to Bournemouth, to await the outcome of the interview with as much optimism as I dared muster. I have always tended to think that the more one hopes for a particular outcome, the less likely it will eventuate. I suppose it is a way of preparing for ‘the worst’ but it is quite illogical.
A week later, and about four months before we found ourselves on the Vaal, two letters arrived on the same day. One was from a school in Vermilion, Canada, offering us teaching positions, and the other was from the UK Overseas Development Administration, known as the ODA, an arm of the British government that allocated and oversaw aid projects to various countries. The letter from them confirmed a three-year contract and my posting to King George VI High School in Kabwe (formerly Broken Hill), Zambia – a day school for, but not confined to, local pupils. The offer was subject to a satisfactory medical examination and chest X-ray and the receiving of injections against Yellow Fever.
Decision time! It was strange that both offers should arrive on the same day but making a decision between winter on the Canadian prairies and the tropical climate in Africa did not take us long. We really had had enough of the European weather and wanted to experience something completely different. Zambia it was to be!
With the Letter of Appointment from the ODA came various items of paperwork of which the most interesting was a little red book with the rather splendid title ‘The Preservation of Personal Health in Warm Climates’. We still have it! It was first published by The Ross Institute of Tropical Hygiene in 1951 and contained detailed information (and some rather graphic photographs of various tropical afflictions) on how to remain healthy in the tropics. Of course, we were convinced that the continent abounded with venomous snakes and read the relevant section with much bravado – almost certainly more than we felt! While interesting and definitely helpful reading, it probably served more to fuel our enthusiasm for our adventure than to help us stay healthy. We did, however, make sure that our families never saw it!
Included with the letter was a travel advice from the Crown Agents, informing us that we should arrange flights but may, for an additional cost of £11, travel by sea should we so wish. The Contract of Employment with the Government of the Republic of Zambia (or GRZ, as carried on the number plates of government vehicles) permitted us to import a car duty free on a first contract, so the lure of a sea passage and a drive from Cape Town to Kabwe was more than our sense of adventure could resist. We had thought of taking our 1958 Ford Consul but it was not really up to a journey across a large part of Africa, unless we spent quite a lot of money on it. As the school year in the UK ended, we spotted an advertisement for a 1965 Ford Zodiac, to be sold on behalf of a bankrupt farmer. After seeing it, we offered £440 (all we could afford with a little help from Mary’s mother) and to our delight (and surprise) the offer was accepted. It was a more suitable car for our trip and, of course, much younger. Things were moving ahead!
Leaving our schools was, as always, upsetting, as was a farewell dinner with my parents and Mary’s mother, but by that stage everybody was sharing in our excitement … or at least, seemed to be sharing in it! We hoped they really were! It must have been difficult for them. When you leave ‘home’ to work overseas, there is always the doubt in your mind that you may never see a particular family member again. It is natural, of course, but that does not make it any easier and little did we know that this would be the last time we would see my grandmother. She would succumb to illness, ironically a week before we were due to arrive back in Britain at the end of the contract.
We had spent the summer travelling and camping in Poland, not only for a holiday but so Mary could meet the family, especially my other grandmother. Our car journey took us through France, Germany – East and West – and thence into Poland, although our transit through the East/West German border was not without incident. In 1967, the Cold War was well underway and we all had real fears of the communist regime so one never quite knew what awaited a resident from the West on entering the East. After a short wait in the office, all formalities were attended to by the East German border officials but with a certain detachment and certainly no smiles! In view of what we all now know, of course, they had little reason to smile. The ‘corridor’ through East Germany to Poland started outside this post, with the autobahn reduced to a single lane, delineated by barbed wire and watched over by armed guards in watchtowers. After a mile or two, it reverted to the full autobahn. We never found out if it were true but were told that our time of departure was recorded so the authorities would be aware of when we should be expected to arrive at the Polish frontier.
Relieved that our entry had been straightforward, we returned to the car and drove away only to realise that I had left our passports on the desk, at the border post. A single-lane road ahead, barbed wire on both sides, nowhere to turn and strict time constraints brought on a state of no mean panic! I pulled into a bay adjacent to a watchtower and attracted the attention of one of the guards, trying to explain that we had left the control point without our passports. As he descended the steps, I was expecting the worst. Was I now to become another pawn in the Cold War, along with spy-flight pilots and captured espionage agents? Such was our suspicion regarding the Iron Curtain that I was sure I would be clapped into jail for a few years, at least!
The guard, however, was quite affable (perhaps this was a regular occurrence) and he directed me to leave the car, walk back to the control post, retrieve the passports and come back immediately to the car. I am happy to say that we were soon afterwards on our way and relieved that I would never be walking through Checkpoint Charlie as part of a prisoner exchange! The remainder of our holiday passed without incident, as did the return journey to Dover although we were careful not to forget our passports again when we transited East Germany.
Once back in Britain, we had a week or two of preparations for our departure to Africa, which was, by this stage, very close and very real. As required, I had taken the car to Southampton docks four days before we were due to leave, to be loaded on board. On the day we were to sail, therefore, we and the other members of our families left Bristol in two cars – my parents’ and Mary’s brother’s – the weather sunny and warm. Looking down on the quayside from the deck of the ship, we probably, for the first time, appreciated in full what we were doing and no doubt our families thought the same. Now we are older and retired with our own children and grandchildren, we can truly imagine how difficult for them it really must have been, especially as 1968 was not a time of (relatively) cheap air fares and mass foreign travel.
My father had escaped from Poland in 1939 and, after a difficult journey to Greece, had embarked on a ship that took him to Liverpool, whereupon he joined the RAF. Apart from this occasion, neither he nor our mothers had been outside Europe so going to Africa for three years must have seemed, to them, like Victorian exploration all over again, with the attendant health risks. We did learn later that my father felt it was something we had to ‘get out of our system’ and that we would be ‘back to normal’ after the three years. Little did they know! Little did we know!
Between accepting the position in Zambia and our departure, Mary was often asked how she ‘felt about it’, the implication being that she was going because I was. In reality, she was just as excited as me and the thought that I would earn enough to enable us to start a family was an added incentive.
I had always wanted to work abroad but, when we married, I assumed that those plans would not eventuate because she would not want to leave her widowed mother. When I did broach the subject, she was, in fact, very enthusiastic because it seemed to us both that, if we remained in the UK, it would be a long time before we could really get on our feet financially, and this would delay any thoughts of a family. Once the die was cast and we told her mother, to her credit she made no attempt to discourage us but acceptance must have been very hard for her. Overseas contracts now, almost without exception, provide for annual return fares to the country of recruitment, but forty-four years ago we did not have this luxury and we accepted it – willingly! We were, after all, going to Africa, which to us was still the dark, mysterious continent. At one stage, on board the ship, we were enquiring as to which side of the road they drove on in South Africa as we had not thought of that before we bought the car. We were relieved to hear it was the same as Britain! Today, of course, we would ‘Google’ for every little detail but we were quite happy to discover new information as we travelled.
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