First impressions

I had been up since 5 and it was now quite light enough to see. The sun rose about half an hour before we were due in to Plumtree. The old engine was working hard to pull us up a long steady rise and I had to slit my eyes to avoid flying smuts as I leaned out of the open window as far as I could. John had told me that the train would run along right beside the school - I couldn't wait.

Well - it wasn't much of a station! In fact, like many other places we had been through, there was nothing to see except a dusty old siding, the name "Plumtree" and a tiny little ticket shed. At this time of the morning it was deserted, except for the railway official who was walking up to the engine looking important and a dog lying asleep by the fence.

I was wrong - there was one man on the platform. He seemed to me to be typical of the white man in Africa that I knew from books and films. He was standing under a tree, wearing khaki shorts and a shirt, with a white pith helmet on his head, and deeply tanned arms and legs. As the train stopped, the man moved up towards us and my heart nearly jumped out of my throat. It was John!

John showing Nan the hut where he was born

'But you're supposed to be in Bulawayo…' I said.

He just grinned as he reached up to give me an embarrassed and very quick hug. I suddenly had to make arrangements to get off the train quickly. The important man told me I couldn't take any of my luggage as it was in bond for customs clearance in Bulawayo - still another 75 miles on. I pleaded for some overnight clothes at least. Finding a rather tatty old paper bag, I stuffed in a few essentials and as the important man was whistling and waving on the platform, rushed down the corridor. John loved the idea of my coming off the train clutching only an old paper bag after such a long journey.

He gave me another quick hug as I jumped down onto the platform. I looked into his beloved face and his eyes… and all I could think of was that I hadn't remembered how blue they were - or how thick and black his eyelashes were. In spite of all the letter writing, we felt enormously shy and formal. I couldn't believe that I was at last seeing him again in the flesh. I was face to face with the real person… not the person I had created through months and months of letter writing.

We walked slowly up the dirt road to the home of some old Hammond family friends, the Forresters. They welcomed us with open arms and had laid on a huge breakfast of fried eggs and bacon. After all his descriptions, most things seemed comfortingly familiar. My sheer exhilaration at being here kept me sparkling although I was foolish with nerves. I felt they must all think I was pretty different and probably a bit pampered coming out from England and I wanted to show I was just as tough as they were and that I could cope with anything. Oh Nancy! Little did you know!

The Hammond family in 1914 outside the dining room hut.

From l to r: Ian, Bob, Harrie, Patrick, Bob Snr, John, Jean

Sheila asked whether I'd like to "tidy up" and pointed to an outside toilet way down the garden path - or an enamel potty behind a screen in the spare room. I was secretly terrified that I'd meet a lion en route, but I couldn't quite bring myself to use the potty… or let her know my misgivings. So I declined the offer.

John planned to show me round the school before we left for Bulawayo. After all the photographs and word pictures, it was remarkably familiar. I could imagine the childhood that John had had, and where certain events took place… and could see the enormous strides that had been made since his parents had first taken over in 1906.

It was nearing midday and I needed to find a toilet or a PK in Rhodesia - short for piccanini kia, or little house.

I spotted one under a nearby tree and discreetly took my leave. To my horror the seat was running with fierce-looking, inch-long ants. I couldn't! We were due to have lunch with a housemaster, Eric Turner, and his wife, so I thought my chance would come there. They had a solid-looking house but again she pointed miles down the garden. No thank you, not after seeing those ants. I decided to wait until we reached civilisation, or perhaps to ask John to stop on the way so I could pop behind a tree.

Off we set on our way to Bulawayo. I soon realised that nothing was going to persuade me to get out of that car! No gracious elms or friendly hedgerows… no green fields or country pubs… this was wild animal territory and I was filled with stories of adventure and near misses in the three-hour journey to Bulawayo. Most of the road was pretty rough - dirt and very corrugated. I felt every increasingly uncomfortable bump. Then bliss. We moved onto a real Rhodesian "special" - the strips. These were amazing inventions, unique to Rhodesia, and were designed to keep men in employment during the depression. The government couldn't afford to tarmacadam the whole road in a country of this size, so it simply tarred two strips of about 12-inch width - one for each wheel. As something approached from behind or in front of you, you took your life in your hands and lurched off the edge of the strips - hanging on for grim death with two wheels on the outer strip as you passed in a great swirl and rush of dust. With the torrential rainfall they have in Africa there always seemed to be a drop of at least six inches between the tarmac and the dirt road. John was as skilled as the other drivers hurtling past and he chuckled at my, not quite so tough, alarm.

We arrived in Bulawayo as it was growing dark. Soon our lights picked out the name of John's sister's house, "Azulikit". I sighed with relief. After all the raw Africa I had just been through, this was a very English suburban name. It held endless promise.

An attractive young woman came out to give me a warm welcome. Jean was dressed in a tailored pink jacket and skirt. We were ushered in and I was shown my room. But by this time, I was in extremis!

'Could I go to the toilet?' I whispered as soon as politeness allowed. 'Of course,' she said and led me down the passage. She opened the door at the end and pointed out into the dark!

I couldn't believe it! Added to which, there is nowhere as pitch-black as the black of an African night. It was now a nightmare. 'I can't see it,' I said in as brave a voice as I could muster… 'No problem,' she said. 'Sixpence will show you.'

This was a nightmare - with a little indignity thrown in! Sixpence came with a little tiny lantern and I followed him, feeling vulnerable and stupid, down to the end of the garden in this the blackest night I'd seen, stumbling and barking my shins on every conceivable object.

The welcoming committee to check out the headmaster's new wife!

I didn't dare look in case there were worse than ants on the seat, but by this stage I had no choice. Sixpence waited patiently outside while I finished. I looked for some sort of flushing mechanism but there didn't seem to be one anywhere.

I was relieved, in many more ways than one, to be back inside the house!


John’s early life:

Wagon trekking during the holidays was a highlight. They used an old wooden wagon with 16 oxen in the span. Their driver was a great old character called Casimoro - and he not only knew every one of the oxen by name - but also each of their idiosyncrasies, including their likes and dislikes. Casimoro would spend hours each evening, gazing into their eyes and stroking their noses - preparing them for what lay in store for them the next day. He was invaluable.

They trekked early in the morning, outspanning at midday and then trekking again until late in the afternoon. At night everyone would cut huge piles of grass for bedding and shape it up under the wagon for shelter. The softness and smell of that grass was heaven - its occupants, sometimes, less so. Beetles were the least of the problem - snakes and hairy caterpillars the worst. Every time they stopped, Harrie would make scones to feed all the hungry trekkers. It was a leisurely life, close to nature and they’d take turns to walk or ride on the wagon - usually travelling about 20 miles a day. The greatest problem was ensuring that there was enough water for the oxen. On one occasion travelling to Tjolotjo from Plumtree, there was a spell of over 30 miles with absolutely no water. But they had prepared well and were carrying plenty of water in huge drums on the wagon. However, as they slept one night and silent as the dark around them, a group of Bushmen came and pinched all the water. Nobody heard a thing. Not the cattle, the dogs or Casimoro - who was distraught and vowed to catch them and string them up. They then had to do a forced trek, which was hard on man and animal alike. But with Casimoro having great discussions with the oxen the night before, they made it… with the moon guiding them to the banks of the Gwaai River. The animals drank gratefully and the family sat on the banks in silence, watching every ripple on that water for crocodiles. It was too late to be watering the cattle safely and to lose one of the oxen at any stage of the trip was a disaster. They also had to keep an eye open for wild animals - lion and leopard mainly. But apart from a few scares, they escaped with oxen, dogs and people intact. Aunt Eila and Jean tried hard to make the wagon more comfortable for Harrie because she really loathed every minute of it. They would take the seats out of the old Ford motor car before they left and prop them up on the wagon, but unfortunately they didn’t really sit level on the floor and she kept falling off!

John remembers her trying to sleep with an umbrella positioned in such a way as to keep the moon off her face. None of this extreme pioneer activity matched her upbringing and she never quite got used to it.


Prophetic words …

John Hammond's report to the Native Education Department in 1944:

'It is so tempting to just put 40 into a class and cram them all with facts.’ John was reacting to a hard day of trying to be fair in his assessments of who should attend. ‘They’d probably get through their exams all right, but that would give them expectations they’d be ill equipped to meet in other areas. I cannot believe that is the right way to go.'

‘We have to insist upon teaching the whole person… so that he understands that he can certainly expect more as a result of his education, but that with those privileges come big responsibilities to those who have not been so fortunate.'

'If we just create a sausage machine and churn them out, literate, numerate and precious little else, I’m afraid there could be absolute anarchy in 50 years or so, as everyone jostles for power.'


The daily concerns of a headmaster ...

... a troublemaker - As Ignatius began to blossom moving from his sullen non co-operative slouch,to a youngster with purpose, he encouraged his mates along with him and by the time they came to leave school they were useful and contributing citizens. In advising Head Office, John wrote:

No doubt they were attempting to gain influence and cheap popularity amongst the other boys by resorting to misbehaviour because they lacked the ability to make an impression in any other way. I look upon it as a failure on the School’s part merely to take the easy way out and refuse to re-admit these boys.

It can generally be found that there is something in their make-up, which, if discovered and cultivated, will lead them away from their anti-social attitude to the general benefit of all their work. It must be the school’s task to find this particular crack in the hard crust, which these boys like to build around themselves. The task assumes enormous proportions in a large school - particularly where European staff have to watch their social relations with the African staff. It can only come through the African staff and prefects assuming more responsibility for discipline, for moral standards and for that teacher-pupil relationship on which any good school must be built. It is only when looked upon in this light that the true significance of our primary and secondary schools in the future of the African race can be evaluated.

Mzingwane and a magnificent Messiah:

As we approached the Beer Hall that night, we realised that the milling throngs we were trying to hoot out of our way, were all heading in one direction - to the Beer Hall! There seemed to be thousands of people everywhere. We eventually made it through to the hall about ten minutes later than we had planned to start!

The huge choir was dressed immaculately. Smartly ironed khaki shorts and shirts with ties and polished and shining faces. They had been drilled not to look at the audience, not to smile but to have a pleasant and relaxed look on their faces - and to watch the conductor! In these conditions, that was a huge task - but they were magnificent.

The noise was incredible. Great shouts and roars of laughter would erupt all over the place. The air was thick with a fog of cigarette smoke. I didn’t think we would ever make ourselves heard - or seen.

Gresham took up his position and looked over at me hoping this would drop the noise level. Not a chance. He did it again. Nothing. This was going to be chaos. For the third time he took up his stance.

I found to my horror that my sustaining pedal was not working. I signalled frantically to him to wait. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t see anything. There must be something wedged under the pedal. I reached down to see if I could dislodge it and found a drunken patron sleeping peacefully with his head in such a position that the pedal would not depress. I tried shaking him to wake him. No reaction.

A fourth time, Gresham stood ready to go. We had to do something, as we couldn’t expect the boys to maintain their composure for much longer. I struck up as loudly as I could without my pedal and played the whole of that stirring introduction - without anyone hearing a single note.

I looked at Gresham. He took no notice and raised his arms for the first chorus.

The deep-throated roar of a hundred virile young voices burst across the room.

There was a startled reaction. Everyone stopped talking and turned to look at the stage. The only sound for the next few minutes was the rustling and scraping of a massive crowd of people all finding a place to sit, and ending up with rows six deep standing at the back and down the sides and central aisle. You could have heard a pin drop.

It was as though they were holding their breath… until we got to the Hallelujah chorus. Suddenly the audience could not contain itself and to a man it rose to its feet clapping and laughing and joining in the hallelujahs. It was the most magnificent experience. It was as much as I could do to keep playing. Gresham’s eyes were so full of tears he could hardly see what he was doing.

‘Hallelujah,’ they shouted. ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hal - le - lu - jah!’

The choir was superb. Absolutely disciplined and singing marvellously through it all. At the end of the chorus, Gresham waited with his arms outstretched until the huge crowd was silent once again. John’s authoritative voice cut through the silence with his narration. The performance continued - in absolute silence. We reached the Amen chorus. Again, the audience rose, but more subdued this time. As it drew to an obvious conclusion, again the audience joined in the singing, again they clapped and stamped and roared to the most stunning climax of sound and emotion. As the final notes died away and the tumult of applause and shouting took over, the grins started. One by one the boys allowed themselves to enjoy it - the soloists, John, Gresham and I all grinned and turned to applaud the choir. They had excelled themselves and what was more important they had loved every moment of it.

I thought the acclamation would never stop. But at last the choir filed off the stage.

The lights came on and I bent to gather up my score. My friend was still lying under the pedals - with the most beatific and peaceful smile on his face.

Prophetic words and politics …

‘ They are not here, nkosi. Their television people have brought their cameras, but the cameras are still. However much truth we speak, they will not be satisfied. Do we have to take them to the graves of those who have been killed? But then they will not believe the Nationalists have killed them. If we show them the damage done to the churches, the dip tanks, the schools – will they be satisfied? I don’t think so.

‘ I believe they wish to hand us over to the Nationalists and there is nothing we can do to stop it. And look, we have, every one of us, come from the farthest places in the country. But there is nothing we can do to stop it.

' The old man took John’s hand in his, and his eyes shone too brightly as he said, ‘Nkosi, if they do not listen to us, this is the death of our society as we know it.

’ He turned slowly, to move off to the next session. As he drew near the entrance into the main hall, John saw the old chief pull his shoulders back, put his chin up and march in for another round of talking. They were not going to give up easily.

The daily concerns of a headmaster in a developing country ...

... the teachers: There was now going to be no suitable school at all for the teachers’ children as Standard IV at Essexvale School was closing down. Long and protracted negotiations were taking place to get the London Missionary Society’s school at Matshetshe to move closer to Mzingwane. The closure of the Essexvale School would have an adverse impact on attracting the calibre of teacher Mzingwane needed.


... an inappropriate curriculum: Then came an extraordinary suggestion from Head Office. The boys were to be taught a “foreign” language and the recommendation was that this should be Swahili.

Why Swahili? If a foreign language must be taught what is wrong with what we are already doing with English? This will be the very much more suitable lingua franca in the future. IsiNdebele does have its limitations as a literary language, but even if the time devoted to its teaching were a complete waste of time I would press for its retention on the timetable. One has only to look at our Southern neighbour to realise how large a part language can be made to play in nationalistic politics. African nationalism may be but a newborn babe, but to stop the teaching of the local native language is to disadvantage a people. Ultimately, English must be the future language of both black and white.


... the weather! The rains had come with a vengeance and John came home absolutely filthy one day.

‘We have a real problem. The new dam wall has not been consolidated and the last storm brought the water right over the wall. I’ve just had the whole school and staff out trying to fix it and hopefully we can hold it. Another storm like that will finish us’