I'm back from a couple of days in the north of the country, about which more anon.
First I want to talk about a literary form I've just recently discovered: the naive autobiography of the former white colonist in Zambia. ("Naive" here just means an autobiography by someone who's not a professional writer.) I posted last week that there's not a lot of literature about the colonial experience in Zambia. And that's true -- while there are plenty of novels about white colonists in Kenya, Rhodesia or South Africa, I haven't found a single one yet about Zambia. But there are a fair number of first-hand accounts, and some of them are pretty good.
The most interesting so far is a book called "WIth Sword and Chain", by the last white Mayor of Lusaka. (The title is a pun, and less alarming than it sounds.) That deserves another post, if time allows.
A very close second is an unpublished book, written as a series of articles online, called "A Fireman in Africa". It's the story of the guy who used to be the fireman at Lusaka Airport. And it's really interesting.
Raymond Critchell, born 1927, went into the British Navy just in time for the end of World War Two. Got out a couple of years later, and answere an advertisement to work in Rhodesia. He came to then-Northern-Rhodesia in the early 1950s; he'd live there through independence, not leaving until 1974.
You cannot have -- I did not know this! -- an airport that receives regular international commercial flights, without having an airport fire service. Mr. Critchell expands:
Civil Aviation throughout the world takes safety very seriously, which explains why people who fly and maintain aircraft have to be much more highly qualified (and need to undergo continuous training to keep their licences) than do people in any other form of transport.
Whereas sovereign governments set the standards for the various organisations, services and public facilities they provide, such as police, army, health, education etc, those for Civil Aviation are set by an international body, The International Civil Aviation Organisation, with its headquarters in Montreal... Foreign airline operators will not route their services through any country where the host country cannot conform in all respects to the safety levels set by ICAO for the provision of e.g. air traffic control services, communications, meteorology... accident investigation, and, of course, the provision of rescue/fire services...
From its early days, the Airport Fire Service was seen as a bit of an expensive white elephant by those holding the purse strings. We had to be there in order for the airport to operate, but to the powers that be we hardly ever seemed to do anything, yet another case of people not knowing what we did, until we stopped doing it. The order of the day seemed to be for the necessary appliances to be purchased and a qualified person or two put in charge and that was about it. The ‘Fire Station’ would be a small corner of an existing aircraft hangar or some other structure that did not have to be paid for. Uniforms were almost invariably a boiler suit and a beret, which had to serve as protective clothing also. Training was entirely based on the knowledge and experience of the Fire Officer on duty, and his ability to pass this on to others. In other words, there was a mountain to climb... Down in South Africa, the Jo’burg airport authorities actually deployed the duty fire crew as baggage handlers. Our chief officer down in Salisbury, a South African himself, fortunately resisted doing this in the Federation although it had been suggested.
As it turned out, working as a fire officer in an African airport was fairly full of incident; interested readers can turn to Mr. Critchell's full account. But a couple of anecdotes caught this reader's eye:
We had a couple of incidents with the WENELA flights. This organisation, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, recruited labour for the South African Mining industry from Nyasaland, using DC3 aircraft. The men recruited would be flown down from Lilongwe or Blantyre to Johannesburg through Lusaka, where there was a staging post on the airfield to accommodate them overnight, and reverse this at the end of the contract which was normally for one year.
Those travelling down were usually first timers, and climbed out of the aircraft at Lusaka wide eyed and relieved looking. Most had never been near to an aeroplane before. On their return, after a year down in the big City, they were completely changed. Smart suits, sun glasses, big hats, ghetto blasters, the lot, plus suit cases full of presents for their families, and the insouciant manner of the well travelled.
They were accompanied by a flight attendant, usually an elderly ex – Askari. On one occasion, during the flight leg to Lusaka, somewhere beyond the point of no return, i.e. that point in a flight when it is quicker to keep going than it is to turn back, one of the ‘rookies’ decided to cook a meal and lit a fire on the floor of the aeroplane with some sticks he had in a bundle of his belongings. The attendant nearly had a fit and the pilots up at the front end weren’t too chuffed and declared an emergency landing for Lusaka.
In the fire station watchroom we monitored air to ground radio traffic and so heard some of the commotion up there at first hand.
To make matters worse, the attendant did the right thing of trying to put the fire out (in the face of some opposition from the ‘cook’) but unfortunately the only extinguishers carried in those days were the literally quite lethal CTC hand pump type. The liquid in those is carbon-tetra-chloride which is quite dangerous at normal temperatures, but very dangerous when heated, such as when putting out a fire. It works very well at putting out fires, but in an enclosed space will put out any thing else, like people, as well. Probably to improve the atmosphere, which by then would have had people choking; the attendant opened a window, which is in fact an escape hatch over each wing through which to escape following a heavy landing or ditching on water. The effect of having a fairly large hole suddenly opened in the side of the plane in mid-air does horrible things to the temper of the crew, and not surprisingly they were thoroughly hacked off by the time they landed.
What strikes me about this anecdote -- besides the fascinating glimpse of South African labor recruitment practices (all the way up to Malawi, and then use a plane? Why?) -- is the fact that carbon tetrachloride, a tolerably deadly chemical, was considered fine for use in a commercial plane.
Anyway. Here's another, from a bit later:
Towards the end of the Federal era, we were subjected to a bit of sabotage rather close to home. A complete new annual issue of the ‘chocolate’ uniforms was destroyed by battery acid, and, perhaps more worrying in its implications, the wheel nuts down one side of a crash tender were loosened. The wheels coming off several tons of fast moving machinery don’t bear thinking about. The local CID investigated, without result. The advice from Salisbury was to fire the lot and start from scratch, which brought the words baby and bath water to mind.
There were no further incidents but we were left with the uncomfortable feeling that we had someone within who harboured ill will to a dangerous degree and we had to increase our own safety checks.
A "crash tender" is the specialized fire engine used at airports. The saboteur presumably wanted to destroy the country's only one, and possibly kill anyone riding in it as well. Zambia's independence struggle was much less bloody than that of some other countries in the region, but there were some very nasty incidents.
And the nastiness didn't stop after independence:
Before leaving the ‘grot’ jobs behind, there are a couple that occurred near to my time of leaving and so I do not know what the sequel may have been. People living there after 1974 may know.
The first of these involved an overland bus on its way back to Lusaka from Malawi. This was I think just before Christmas 1973. The incident occurred, late at night, at the immigration check point near to the Luangwa Bridge. The bus was full to capacity. According to survivors’ statements, when the bus had stopped, a petrol tanker lorry pulled up right alongside. Two men got out of the lorry and went off into the bush at the side of the road. There was a very violent explosion and the badly damaged bus was enveloped in the ensuing serious fire. The petrol tanker was almost completely destroyed by the explosion. There were many fatalities. The injured survivors were eventually cared for in the nearest Mission Station. News of the incident did not reach Lusaka until early next morning.
I was asked to attend and investigate as it was not thought to be a ‘normal’ fire/explosion. It was soon evident that a quantity of man-made explosives had been packed into the two fire extinguishers carried on the petrol tanker and these were detonated by a timer of some kind.
Evidence was collected and brought back to Lusaka for forensic examination. Eventually I attended the High Court to give evidence and a finding of murder against persons unknown was given. I have often wondered if the guilty persons were ever found.
In 1974, there would have been several plausible suspects. #1 would probably be Portugal. The Zambians were giving shelter to the black nationalist independence movements fighting against Portuguese rule in Angola and Mozambique. The Portuguese did not take this well. At one point they blew up the Luangwa Bridge (mentioned above), effectively cutting Zambia in two for most of a year -- it's a large bridge over a deep gorge, and the only paved road connecting Zambia to Malawi ran over it.
A close second suspect would be Rhodesia; the Zambians were also giving shelter to the guerrilla groups fighting Ian Smith, and the Rhodesians never hesitated to cross the border to hunt them. (At one point, they sent a commando team all the way to Lusaka in an attempt to kill Joshua Nkomo.) Given some of the stuff Smith's government got up to later in the Bush War, firebombing a crowd of civilians in a foreign country seems perfectly plausible.
That said -- Jesus Christ. Next to a bus?
Okay, the next bit is long, but... well, here's what decolonization sometimes looked like on the ground:
It was now, sadly, that things began to go pear shaped. I started to see young men arrive at my office bearing a letter from a relative, usually a senior member of the government, which ‘obliged’ me to give their nephew a position either as a Fire Officer or as a cadet. For many reasons I was unable to ‘oblige’. For a start, I had no idea of their medical condition, not to mention the feelings of our existing men who were hoping to fill any promotion posts themselves. Also the establishment was at full strength with a waiting list of applicants numbering over a thousand. In general, I found some Africans had a rather naïve approach to education and tended to overvalue what they had. Some really seemed believe that a Form II education would qualify them to become a Minister.
It seemed that our Department fell into disfavour. We were the only one to still have a large element of European staff and with alarming speed we found that our Director was given very short notice to leave, followed quickly by the deputy Director and one of the senior operations officers, a former training captain with a large international airline. A new Director arrived, and it soon became clear that his brief included the removal of the few remaining European staff as soon as possible. My cadet scheme was taken out of my hands and outsiders were admitted into it. Without having set foot in a fire Station they were sent off for training at the Air safety Centre in Beirut up in the Lebanon. Not surprisingly this was a failure and the seeds of discontent amongst the men who had been bypassed were there. There is an aspect of working with Africans, at that stage of development that was not as widely recognised as it should be. Some thought needs to be given when putting someone in a supervisory position as the giving of orders to another of greater age or seniority in his own tribe can upset ties of culture and kinship, and sometimes create animosity between different tribes. Whilst nepotism was becoming widespread, it was not popular with those who did not have important relatives.
At the training school, matters were taken over by ZASTI who now controlled all aviation training, causing upset and conflict. The catering was taken over leading to the loss of our catering staff and was replaced with plates of deep frozen European style food on trays that had to be micro waved. These were the same as the meals supplied, by the same contractor, to all airlines using the airport and completely not to the liking of our men who had previously enjoyed plentiful traditional food of their choice.
[Airplane meals every day? Good gracious. I'm just old enough to remember what plane food was like back in the 1970s. "I even like the chicken, if the sauce is not too blue."]
In the light of these changes, particularly the change in attitude at the top, now apparent, that seemed to be aimed at disposing of the old hands; both Paul and Ian resigned and left the country. Their draft manuscript for the Training Manual never saw the light of day as no one at the top, to whom everything now had to be referred, seemed to care anything about it. Changes were also evident at the airport fire station. Two new fire officers arrived from India and were obviously close to the new director who had apparently recruited them. The situation out there went from bad to worse causing Tom Crow, the Divisional Fire officer and several of the expatriate station officers to resign and leave too. Soon most of my officers, friends and colleagues had gone. Out of the 25 expatriate officers that I once had, there were now 3 of us left. The other two were planning to move and one went down to Swaziland where he became a Chief Fire Officer.
Up at head office, the European staff in all branches were falling like autumn leaves and it was made obvious that my absence would be preferred to my presence. As it happened, I had a residence permit, having lived there long enough, and so I was not given the 48 hours notice to leave bit like some of the others. But the pressure was on and I was no longer in control of the fire service. Requests of mine were ignored and instructions countermanded. Staff were appointed without my knowledge and posted to stations without reference to me. The writing was clearly on the wall and I was obviously going to have to go. One day, when things had come to a head, I informed the Director accordingly, and gave him my notice of resignation. He was clearly pleased.
I must say here that, in principle, I have absolutely no quarrel with being Zambianised. For some years I had been working towards that very end and our Cadet scheme would produce the first Zambian CFO within a few short months. The intention was that after the short period at the training school on returning from the UK they would be appointed as station officers for Lusaka, Ndola and Livingstone. In three months time the best would become Divisional officer at Lusaka international and after a period of gaining experience there would move to HQ and ride ‘side saddle’ with myself for three months before being promoted as chief. This would ensure a well briefed handover and the incumbent would be familiar with operational matters at all levels as well as ongoing matters such as contracts with overseas suppliers and correspondence with other organisations etc. which would be difficult to deal with if he was just dropped in at the deep end, as actually happened.
I was obviously disappointed at the way this particular matter was dealt with, and a few years later, when the man that took over after I was hurried away, Jerome Katyamba, (the cadet I was in fact recommending) asked me to meet him in London when he was over in England on official business, I gained some idea of the difficulties that he faced and was facing. Although I really did feel sorry for him there was absolutely nothing I could do to help him. I have not maintained contact since, and until I became aware of the existence of GNR in late 2006, I had not looked over my shoulder during the intervening 30 odd years. I guess I did not want to know what they had done to something that I had put so much into.
We bowed to the inevitable and held a family indaba. The options of where to go were limited. Going south was not one of them as both of our sons could have found themselves conscripted into the army and possibly facing some of their former school mates in a bush war.
[Considering the history of Rhodesia over the next few years, this was probably a good call.]
For various reasons we all opted for the UK in the end since it would at least give us jumping off ground for a new life. The eldest son was 20 and well into his studies as an engineer, which he was now going to have to give up, to his deep regret and distress. The second son was 18 and had just left school with 8 ‘O’ levels. There were no ‘A’ levels available in Zambia. Efforts to find a career for him proved fruitless. At one interview I took him to, the message was spelled out plainly. It was not enough for him to be a Zambian (which he was) he would need to be black, a card holding member of the ruling UNIP (government party in power) and, preferably a member of the Bemba tribe. We gave up trying.
Our daughter was 16 with two more school years before her finals. It was an incident at her school which gave me the final push to leaving. For some time, the standards had been falling with the exodus of teachers. Their replacements came from other countries where they did not speak English and the results were noticeable. A similar situation was noted in law enforcement and in health. We were burgled six or seven times in our last few months there, had already had a car stolen from outside the house and had cars broken into in town with property stolen. There was no concern shown, nor apparent attempt to do anything when these were reported.
The matter that I found especially offensive was an instruction for all pupils to attend the arrival of a visiting head of State, where they were to line the airport road somewhere between the airport and State House to offer a spontaneous display of affectionate loyalty when the president and his guest drove past. Flags would be provided. Bring your own refreshments as you might be there for several hours.
When I went to the school to tell the headmistress that my daughter would not be attending, I was warned that dire consequences would follow as she would be sending my name to the Minister of Education. I informed her that I was removing my daughter from school with immediate effect and we would continue her education at home.
The honoured guest on that particular outing was Romano Ceausescu, president/dictator of Romania. He ran an evil oppressive regime in his own country that did not deserve any applause from anyone, and certainly was not going to get it from my daughter. It would not be that long after his visit to Zambia when he and his wife were both dragged out and shot to death in the courtyard of their palace by their own ‘spontaneously adoring’ public.
-- Actually, it was Nicolae Ceausescu, and it would be 15 years later. But I can hardly blame the guy for getting the details mixed up 30+ years after the fact. And Ceausescu liked travelling to Africa; he made half a dozen trips there in the 1970s.
And so we began the sad business of selling up. With so many expats leaving at the same time, it was a buyers market and we watched our precious belongings go for a song. There was only one way out of the country in those days, by air, and the cost of airfreight was prohibitive; somewhere in the order of ten shillings, or one Kwacha per 1lb weight. The only road route out was over the aptly named Hell Run, some 1250 miles of unbelievably rough road where breakages and theft from lorries was so high that it was impossible to insure goods in transit to the coast.
-- This gets into Zambia's history again. A couple of years earlier, and they could have sent their stuff out through Angola by the Benguela Railroad, but by 1974 guerrilla action in Angola had rendered this impossible. A couple of years later, and they could have sent it on the Tazara Railroad -- built with Chinese aid, to connect Zambia to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam, and completed in 1976. But in 1974? Nope, nothing but the Hell Run (which is still called that today, though the road is much better now).
In the end, we had just the one crate a little larger than a tea chest to go by air, but we still had no address for its destination. Eventually, a colleague who was due to leave three months after us saw our plight and offered to let us stay in his house in Herne Bay until he needed it for himself, in return for paying his mortgage in lieu of rent whilst we were there. Gratefully, we accepted, made out the paperwork for our crate to go off now we knew where to send it, and looked up where this place called Herne Bay was on the atlas.
Those were sad days watching our precious belongings go off in the back of a stranger’s truck. Marjorie in particular was distressed to lose a beautiful glass fronted display cupboard that her brother, a cabinet maker down in Rhodesia had made for her for a wedding present, and also a carved camphor wood chest she had before we were married. Marjorie and our elder son had to sell their cars, a pair of Minis, and I had to let my beloved 220D Diesel Mercedes go. I actually got the same sum back as I had paid for it new some six years earlier. Everything we received had to be paid into our bank account. The exporting of currency was illegal and in fact no country outside would accept it as legal tender, as we found out to our dismay when we had finally boarded our aircraft, and were told that we could not even buy a drink with our loose change.
I found that my life insurance policy, and those I had taken out as education policies on each of the children as they were born were not transferable and had to be disposed of as ‘Sold up’ back to the insurance company at a considerable loss. The money from that also had to go straight into the bank account, access to which would be denied to us as soon as we left the country and we were told we could make application after one year for a small part of it and thereafter we could apply annually for a bit more.
A similar arrangement existed down in Southern Rhodesia as we found after we were living in the UK. Marjorie and I had been left a sum under the will of Marjorie’s Aunt who had been killed in her home down there. We could not have the capital for 12 years, but could have the annual interest once a year. With the devaluation of the dollar it soon became more expensive for them to write out and airmail a cheque than the value of the cheque itself. We also found that my Federal pension suffered the same loss of value, until they, as did the Zambian Government, reneged on their pension arrangements and just stopped paying them.
[I'm guessing this would be due to the Bush War, which basically bankrupted Rhodesia. Subsequent foreign aid helped a recovery, but apparently retired civil servants and their pensions were not a priority.]
If I remember correctly, one of my last monthly Federal pension cheques, after the effect of devaluation on our non indexed pensions at that time, came to about thirteen shillings. I had planned on framing that one and hanging it in my garden shed alongside my Certificate of Federal Service, signed by Sir Roy Welensky but I learned that if the cheque was not paid into the bank, cancelled, and eventually returned to the payee, they would assume I had shuffled off this mortal coil and stop paying any more cheques. At that point in my life thirteen shillings a month was not to be sneezed at.
And so, we were coming to an end, but not, the end. My family were obviously distressed at being made to leave their homeland, as I was my adopted one. We were now homeless, unemployed, with myself unqualified for any job outside of the Aviation fire service, income-less, uninsured and denied access to our savings in our bank account for a whole year, and we were soon going off into the unknown to build a new future somewhere, somehow, without the faintest idea of where or how to start. The future was not the brightest...
However, I did leave my mark there and I am proud to have helped Zambia to develop and make progress. In fact, to blow on the trumpet again, put her right up in the front in our particular line of business.
I'm going to keep this passage in mind the next time I'm inclined to feel sorry for myself.
Anyway. If you're interested, the rest of Mr. Critchell's story can be found here. Short version: they flew into Cyprus at exactly the worst possible time, but got out alive, and he eventually found a second career. As of late 2009, he was living quietly in retirement in Britain. From distant Lusaka, I will raise him a glass.