My Zambian Memories

David Talbot

Senior Teacher, Chamboli Secondary School: September 1966 – November 1972

As the plane gradually lost height on its final approach to Ndola airport I could see the African bush beneath the plane’s wings, stretching away into the distance.  As far as I could see there was nothing except a few trees and red earth together with small mounds which I later found out were termite hills.  The bush stretched away  until it disappeared into the dusty hazy horizon in the early morning sun.  The  night flight had been uneventful and in a few minutes we would be landing for the start of brand new life.  My heart began to beat a little faster.  What was it going to be like ?

Ant HillWe had boarded the plane, a DC10, at a very small Gatwick airport compared with the vast acres it occupies now and settled down for the overnight flight.  There was only one stop, at Entebbe in Uganda, where we were able to get out and stretch our legs in the terminal building before continuing on to Ndola.  (The same building which, not long afterwards the Israeli army raided and rescued some hostages who had been imprisoned there by a group of terrorists).  

When we landed and taxied to a standstill by the terminal building which was a complete contrast to the modern buildings at Gatwick, and consisted of a series of nissen huts, we wondered what we had come to.  The ‘plane doors were opened and the heat hit you as you went out onto the steps. We made our way across the baking hot concrete and into the terminal. After gathering our hand luggage together we went outside into the early morning sun where the heat hit us once more.  Despite most of the country being on the central african plateau at around 4,500 feet above sea level it was very hot indeed.  We were only a few weeks away from the hottest and most humid time of the year, which would come in October and November and was called locally, the “suicide months’.  Needless to say, as well as the heat there were the smells too.  And everywhere it was brown and dry with dried grasses and red soil bordering the airfield, it was at the end of the dry season and the rains too, were some weeks away.  I just stood and stared around me.  All those pictures of Africa I’d seen had now come to life with flat land stretching away towards the distant horizon, the only relief from the monotony were the huge termite hills and stunted trees. A herd of elephants would have completed the picture, but you can’t have everything, they would come later. 

The scenery alongside the road was interesting for us new arrivals, very flat and no sign of any hills.  The local africans had cleared most of the area of trees and converted the timber into charcoal.   You could see lots of beehive shaped structures which had smoke coming out of the top where the charcoal was being made.  I was fascinated  also by the enormous ‘anthills’ which dotted the open countryside.  Not strictly correct in the description as they had been by built my millions of termites over hundreds of years.  There were many african women walking along the side of the road dressed in long colourful cloth dresses, which I later learned were called ‘chitenges’. Most of them  had a couple of toddlers in tow, as well as a baby in a sling round their shoulders.  Most also appeared to be pregnant. And as if that wasn’t enough, many of them had enormous loads on their heads.  Some would be carrying bundles of wood, others large tin containers of water and If they were with a man he was always walking ahead of them and certainly wasn’t carrying anything.  I was to learn as time went by that the woman to the man was nothing more that a chattel to provide babies for him and cook, clean, and  look after their bush gardens. A true male dominated society – they hadn’t heard yet of sexual equality in Central Africa.Woman carrying firewood and baby

Soon we arrived at the outskirts of the city of Kitwe.  The only reason for its existence was the copper mine which dominated the skyline as we entered the built up area.  Just outside the city boundaries it was pointed out to me the rows of houses built alongside the road and stretching away into the bush  where I would be teaching. It was called Chamboli Township and had been built on a large area where, in the days of colonial Northern Rhodesia some years previously, there had been a world scout jamboree.  As most africans weren’t able to pronounce ‘‘jamboree’ the nearest they could get to it, apparently was “chamboli’ and the name stuck.

First impressions of the city as we passed through were very favourable, in fact it was nothing as I imagined it would be.  There were wide roads, plenty of trees, modern buildings and shops.  I don’t know what I expected but this was much better after the bush that we had driven through. . 

On Monday, at the ungodly hour of 7.15 am, I was  driven  out to Chamboli Secondary school a couple of miles out on the Ndola road.  We had to drive through the township to get there.  It was fascinating to see the enormous anthills most of which had been left in place when they had built the houses.  Some of the gardens round the houses had banana plants, mango trees, avocado and paw paw trees, others were simply beaten areas of red earth.  There were usually toddlers crawling around on the ground and older children playing with them.  What cooking was being done was in the open air over small charcoal stoves.   Barefooted african women in their colourful ‘chitenges’ were making their way along the side of the road laden with the inevitable load of some sort on their head.

The houses in the township had been built by Anglo American, the company which owned  the mines in the area (and throughout southern africa) to house their workers.   Even though they were quite small – they had two rooms, a living area and a sleeping area, they were a vast improvement on some of the shanty towns which had sprung up in many places since independence.  It would have been fine, however, if you were simply a couple but inevitably the families who lived there were quite large with at least four or five children, often more. Birth control was a western aspect of life which wasn’t part of their culture and which some years later would lead to the horrendous  rapid spread of Aids throughout Africa.  Another part of their family life was the fact that the extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins would also drop in and expect to be accommodated.  Water at that time was fetched from a stand pipe nearby.  All very primitive but compared with many of the people living in the shanty towns, where the houses were made out of scrap metal, bits of discarded wood and canvas they were luxury.

I met Mr Namutabo, the headmaster, and he made me very welcome and  he took me round the school. It could not have been further removed from the hallowed portals of Marlborough college or Wycliffe college where I had been offered jobs or indeed of any school in England, state run or private. 

The school was built on the edge of the township and consisted of a series of low lying buildings in red brick with asbestos roofs.  There were about eight or nine blocks, each one consisted of three classrooms with small store rooms at each end.  Along the classrooms ran an open covered corridor which enabled you to get to another classroom in the same block dry if it were raining, but you had to run like mad if you had to get to one of the other blocks if you wanted to avoid getting soaked. 

Inside the classrooms there were no ceilings, the rafters being uncovered leaving the asbestos roof exposed and when it rained (and my how it rained at times) it was like being inside a drum, the noise was horrendous and it was quite impossible to teach.  The walls were bare brick  and the floors just concrete. There was no hall or gymnasium so assemblies had to take place in the open air. 

I was told by Mr Namutabo that prior to independence there were only a few secondary schools in the country and virtually all the pupils attending them were white, education for the few africans who were lucky enough to be selected stopped at the end of primary school.  Since independence, however, secondary education was, in theory open to everyone – as long as you could pass the entrance test and even then there were only places for the top 10% of the primary pupils, the rest having to leave and find themselves a job.  With unemployment running at around 90% of the work force it is obvious why so many youngsters wanted to go on to secondary education it was the only way they could safely guarantee themselves a job. 

When I arrived there in 1966 there were only six classes in the school, three form I and three form II.  At the end of form II the pupils had to leave, but at least the successful ones had a certificate to help them find a job. Many were accepted at the local teacher’s training college where they would study for a year before becoming a qualified primary teacher.   

Gradually, as time went by the children stayed on right through to the end of year eleven   when they could sit the overseas school certificate set by the  Oxford and Cambridge Examination Boards.  This enabled them to go to Lusaka University.

But the first day for me was very interesting indeed.  To see and meet with the children all neatly dressed in their school uniform of blue shorts, white shirts and tie.  I soon realised what lovely youngsters they were.  They greeted me so politely, they smiled a lot and I will always remember that first morning the white teeth shining back at me as they said ‘good morning’, with broad grins on their faces.   Having all passed the selection test they were obviously very bright.  All of them spoke English as their second language, most of them belonged to the Bemba tribe and spoke cibemba at home with their parents and amongst themselves.  For them to learn science, maths, humanities and all the other subjects in what was for them a foreign language filled me with admiration.  I can’t imagine English kids learning their lessons where the teacher only spoke to them in french !

At an early assembly one of the big differences between the UK and Zambia was in the notices that the head gave out.  Instead of warning the children about speaking to strangers or the dangers of crossing the road without looking he said that recently down at the river a young boy had been taken by a crocodile when he was with his mother who was washing her clothes. He warned them to keep a very good lookout  when they went swimming or were near the water’s edge.  Apparently the crocodiles would wait until they saw a small child, dog or other animal then rush at them, grab them and take them under the water to drown them.  Then they would find a hollow bank, push the body in until they were nice and ripe before eating their prey.  As the River Kafue, a tributary of the Zambezi was only some 800 metres from the school it was an ever present danger.

It was in the school grounds where  I met my first ‘chungalulu’.  Scurrying along in the sand was what I can only describe as an enormous millipede.  About the thickness of my little finger and about six inches long its body was black, segmented and it had dozens of legs.  It looked horrible but apparently quite harmless and we would see them everywhere we went.

I was told that discipline was not a problem in the school.  The pupils realised that if their behaviour wasn’t up to the required standard they would be asked to leave which would be disastrous for their job prospects.  I was also told that getting them to work was also not a problem – the biggest difficulty was actually stopping them working as  very often they presented far more than was ever asked for.  How they ever got their homework done in the cramped conditions where they lived  was a mystery to me.

As I had started well after the term had begun I was given only a half time table to begin with.  But what I did like was the school day – first lesson at 7.30 and school finishing at 12.45.  This meant of course, that every afternoon was free.  Obviously the day was designed with the heat in mind because for most of the year, by lunch time, the temperature was usually in the low thirties.  In October and November before the rains started, however, they would rise to the top thirties and the humidity increased.  Because we were south of the equator the seasons were reversed so that the ‘winter’ months were May, June and July.  Then, overnight, the temperatures would go down to around five  degrees and on one or two mornings I actually had to scrape ice off  the windscreen of the car, but by lunchtime the temperature had reached twenty six or so and was as warm as the average summer day in England.  The reason the heat was so reasonable was that despite the fact we were well into the tropics  being plum in the middle of the central african plateau we were 4,500 feet above sea level as I mentioned before.  It is recognised that the climate in that part of africa is just about perfect for us fair skinned europeans.

The next few weeks were hectic.  I bought a car, a VW Beetle, which cost around £450 so we became mobile and I could get to school without relying on other people.  We got to know the town, we found the two department stores, CBC and the OK bazar, the Parklands area where we could go for bread and vegetables, where to eat out and then one evening, we went to the cinema for the first time.  This was nothing like going to the cinema in the UK.  It was always a social event to go out to the ‘Biascope’ as it was called there.  It wasn’t a casual affair, one always dressed up in a suit complete with a tie or in a dress safari suit complete with cravat and long trousers!  One of my first purchases were knee length stockings and desert boots which the expatriates who had lived there for some time all wore. .

School went well and as the head had promised there were no problems with the students.  Physically they were much larger than their British counterparts as many of the pupils had no idea of their true date of birth so you could have boys over six feet tall in the first year (year 7) and many of the girls were fully developed young women.  Sadly some of them became pregnant whilst at school and had to leave to have their child.  It was a great pity because the country needed educated women, for far too long men had dominated their tribal society.   

The staff were an interesting group of people and we all got on very well.  In addition to the twelve or so from England there were about half a dozen from India and a couple of black South Africans who couldn’t get decent jobs in their own country because of apartheid which at that time was at its height.. 

Chamboli High School - KitweThe first term passed very quickly.  I got to know the students very well, learning how to pronounce their names.  Their christian names were no problem but surnames like Ndlovhu, M’kuwana, Sinyangwe, Kalimukwe, Kapuka and so on took a lot of getting round.  When I called the register the youngsters would laugh at my attempts to get my tongue round the difficult words, but in a very kindly way – they all had a tremendous sense of humour, particularly enjoying the ‘ slipping on a banana skin’ type of joke.

Assemblies were held out doors, there not being any building large enough to hold the whole school.  The biggest difference between English pupils at assembly and the africans youngsters was really noticeable when they sang the hymns.  Whereas the kids back home hardly opened their mouths the african children, as well as singing at the top of their voices, they would harmonise naturally with the rich basses of the older boys combining so well with the high voices of the girls.  When I first heard this rich sound the hair on the back of my neck prickled, the sound was so moving, hymns had never sounded so splendid for me in the past.

At the beginning of November the heat became very oppressive.  Humidity increased and clouds started to appear in the sky.  Suddenly the rains began.  Usually around 4.30 in the afternoon when the heat had built up the heavens opened.  I don’t think I will ever forget the smell of the land after those first rain showers, so clean and fresh.  It made you want to go outside and stand in the rain as it came down.  The rain also triggered the exit of the termites from the anthills. They had been waiting patiently for the rain to fall and as the first drops hit the ground millions upon millions of flying termites took to the air rising up in clouds into the sky to mate.  When they had done what they had to do they returned to earth where their wings dropped off.  At night, like moths, they were attracted to light and you could see them flying around the street lights.  Invariably there would be a group of young boys collecting the fat, juicy insects and stuffing them into empty Coke bottles. I couldn’t understand why they would want to do this but I was told later that they would take them home and fry them in oil to eat with their mealie meal porridge, they were considered a delicacy apparently and an excellent source of protein.   I must say though, I’d rather have a steak!  At first the rain was nothing more than a sharp shower but as the days went by the showers turned into longer downpours which were very heavy indeed.  It was now obvious why there were such large drainage ditches alongside all the roads – without them the houses and the roads would have been flooded.

The first year passed very quickly and at the beginning of the next school year, out of the blue, I was appointed Senior Master.  I was delighted with the promotion which came in only my second year of teaching. The school expanded too, with six classes joining us instead of the previous year group which was only two.

We desperately needed a playing field so we contacted the mine construction department who we asked to help remove some rather large termite hills and they sent a bulldozer along and made short work of clearing an area large enough for a football pitch.  It was only up to the boys then to plant the grass which we did and were then able to have our own football team.

Mr Namutabo left and he was replaced with Mr Chiko.

Work at school continued to be enjoyable, the children were a delight to teach and it was rewarding to see the school grow and on one memorable occasion we had a visit from the Minister of Education Simon Kapwepwe.  We had displays of dancing, singing, play acting and of course he inspected their schoolwork and expressed his great satisfaction with the progress the students were making.

Not long after that at the Copperbelt Agricultural Show the school Sea cadet corps, a recently formed club had a display and had the honour to be inspected by the President of Zambia, the highly respected and much loved Kenneth Kaunda.  It was indeed a red letter day for all the boys concerned.

The six years I spent in Zambia passed very quickly and I was very sad to say 'goodbye' to the school and to all my friends.

For me it was the best time of my life – to help the youngsters of Zambia, to experience the culture of Zambia.  Thankyou everyone !

David Talbot

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  11 comments for “My Zambian Memories

  1. July 29, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Am in Kitwe for business went to see school after last being there in 67 / 68. Fond memories, remember Mrs Swanepoel. Sad to see school in state it is in, swimming pool covered.

  2. David Talbot
    July 19, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Dear Rahul,  
    How nice to receive your message re Kitwe and your father – I'm sorry to hear that he has passed away, I remember him very well.  Yes, we all enjoyed Chamboli and Kitwe I have so many fond memories of teaching there – it was so much more satisfying to teaching in the UK !
    Good to hear that Brian is still going strong – my email address is if you would like to pass it on to him. If you have not yet found my videos of Kitwe then if you go on to YOUTUBE, my channel is davidgeorge222, you will see some early film of the school and the city…..
    Best wishes, thanks once more,
    David Talbot

  3. Rahul Patel
    July 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Hello David,
    Very interesting reading about your time there.
    My father Vinod (vinubhai) Patel was your colleague. He was there from January 1966 to July 1978.
    Sadly he passed away in 1998. But he remembered  Kitwe as fondly as you do
    We are also in touch with Brian Ponter who was also there at that time. He now resides in New Zealand

  4. David Talbot
    July 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    Dear Karen, thank you for your comment re your grandad.  I do not remember him  …  Was he at my school Chamboli ?  He could, of course, been at Kitwe High or Mukuba … Both quite large secondary schools in the town. Would love to help if you have more information. I dont know if you have picked up my videos on YouTube  which will show you something of what it was like in the sixties …my YouTube channel is "davidgeorge222".
    thanks once more for your interest
    David Talbot

  5. Karen Stow
    July 8, 2012 at 2:07 am

    Hello David. It was very intersting reading about your time at the school in Zambia. Apparently my grandad was there in 1966, teaching. His name was Alfred Gerald Ridley. I don't suppose you remember him at all do you?
    Kind Regards

  6. April 29, 2012 at 8:10 am

    I'm a bit late catching up with John Talbot's memories of Chamboli Secondary School. He arrived in Kitwe at about the time I moved to Australia. Although I dealt with many schools I do not remember one called Chamboli. Was it a new name for what used to be the Northern Rhodesia, later Zambia, Educational Trust Secondary School in Kitwe? I do remember Mr Namutabo, a gracious gentleman who took over from Mr Sydney "Sam" Levinsohn, as Headmaster.

    The Zambia Educational Trust, financed by the mining companies, also built Kalulushi Secondary School at Mufulira. The first Headmaster was Mr Edward Nickerson who was later called by Dr Kaunda to serve as a representative of the country in London. The headmaster of Chikola Secondary School was Mr Glyn Stevens, who retired to the UK. I well remember being one of the "VIP" guests, sitting up on the stage, at Speech Day!

    So many happy memories of my years in Zambia.

  7. Claire Goodwin (nee Holloway)
    September 26, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    David, You arrived in Zambia just after I left. I arrived by train from Capetown with my mother and brothers following a two week sea passage on the Sterling Castle from Southampton. My father had flown out 3 months earlier. It was 1956, and I was 7 years old. My 5 year-old brother burst into tears when he saw that my father was still white ; he had been so looking forward to becoming a little black boy!
    My parents were both teachers at The Frederick Knapp School in Boma Street, which we three children also attended. We returned to the UK on long leave for 10 months in 1960, which I hated. We were all delighted when my parents announced that we would be returning to our beloved Kitwe!
    I then went to Kitwe Girls High School (now Helen Kaunda School). My father was head teacher at Valley View Primary and Fred Knapp during this time, and worked hard to ensure a smooth transition to integration in formerly 'white' schools. As independence approached we were all hoping to stay on, but my father evntually had to resign as my brothers were by then at school in England, and existing teachers were not offered the same employment status as newly arrived ones. This made the situation untenable, so with much regret he resigned. A few weeks later the existing teacher status was reversed – but too late!
    We all found it very hard to adjust to life back in the UK, and missed our home so much. I think the place where you spend your childhood is always the home of your heart, and so it is.
    I have always hoped that one day I would be able to return to Kitwe and to Zambia – but so far have not managed it… I would love to revisit some favourite 'haunts', both in Kitwe and further afield: Kundalila Falls, Shiwa Ngandu, Lake Chilwa and Banguelu, Nsalu Cave and Kafue Game Reserve to name but a few…

    • August 7, 2015 at 1:23 pm

      Hi Claire
      Your mother taught me (Std 1a 1963) and your father my sister ( Std 4a 1963 ). Mr Potter was the head master at the time. Funny thing is that I remember the names of all my teachers from reception till we immigrated to South Africa at the end of the 1963 school year. The school was in good nick and had a good reputation . Amazing how memories stick over the years. I feel fortunate to have been able to experience my first years of school in that context.
      Ashley Bell.

  8. martin davies
    November 17, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    David,  Martin Davies here I have really enjoyed reading you tales of living in Zambia.  I too lived in Kitwe a few years earlier it was still Northern Rhodesia then.  I attended Kitwe Primary School  as a pupil from 1959 thru 1962.   KPS was as you mention at that time an exclusively white school.  As the 60s progressed with war in Katanga & rumblings in the air that ex pat white professional miners would have no place in a post-independence copperbelt my father decided to move before the rush for the door that was expected  when independence arrived.  This process of Africanization did in fact occur and the production of copper collapsed a result.  We moved to other mines in Africa were we were more welcome. 
     You mention flying out to Ndola on a DC-10.  Might you be mistaken? The first flight of a DC 10 was on August 29, 1970.  Might you  confusing it with the similar sounding British built VC 10 which was built expressly for Empire routes especially airports at high altitude with short runways like Ndola.  The VC 10 began service to Ndola in April 1966. The east African service was from Heathrow as I recall.  I had the pleasure & privilege of flying a VC 10 on an overnight flight Nairobi (via Frankfort) to London Heathrow in  Dec 1966.

  9. Editor
    October 27, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    As we reach for our dreams, we stand on the shoulders of our parents, teachers and those who have inspired our lives.

    Like the earth beneath our feet, you are often taken for granted and rarely acknowledged.

    Our gratitude ought to be, and on reflection is, limitless.

    – John Sendama snr.

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