British Empire Article

by Betty Riddle
Nursing Sister, Tanganyika

Nurse in Other Lands
Little Bromwich Hosptial
I started my career conventionally enough. I trained for 2 years in a Fever Hospital in Little Bromwich, Birmingham. It was a really old building but little did I know how invaluable such training would stand me in Africa. Fortunately, with the coming of all the wonderful antibiotics, Diptheria, Scarlet Fever, Small Pox, just to mention a few, would be wiped out in Europe, but alas not so in Africa - or at least not in the Africa of the 1950s. My experience in the Fever Hospital meant that I was able to help all the young doctors coming out to Africa but having never seen these diseases for themselves.

I also trained at the Children's Hospital in Birmingham and the General Hospital there. I was fortunate to see the first iron lung in operation. A young woman had one of her lobes of lung removed - the first operation of its kind to be performed. The surgeon in charge was Mr Samson. It was a clumsy machine pumping up and down but we all dreaded that the wretched thing would stop for some mechanical reason. On one occasion it did stop when the electric generator broke down and everything was thrown out of sync. Alas, the patient slipped away - a pioneer for greater surgical feats to follow in later years.

I trained also at Queen Charlotte's hospital in Marleybone Road. This hospital had been given by Queen Charlotte when she had seen a single girl deliver a baby in a ditch. I also remember the Jubilee Year when King George and Queen Mary passed our hospital. We had put out stands outside the hospital and joined in the festivities. Of course, this was all years before the NHS and before the Second World War disrupted so much of our lives. It was in this post war period that I decided to embark on a new adventure in my nursing life.

The Journey to Africa
Africa, vast continent, where man's soul is his own, where the African's wonderful philosophy outshines the sun itself, where disease is rife striking black and white, big and small. This, then, was the place I had chosen with the aid of a pin, closed eyes and fate.

My journey started as we sailed down the Thames that drizzling afternoon. Mixed were my feelings as I was leaving England, embarked for the first time. In the tiny cabin I found ample space for my personal luggage and I quickly settled in, unpacking all.

Never did I think a person could be so sick over so little. Why had I left terra firma? Thoughts tumbled and tossed each other as the ship ploughed those awful seas that memorable night. Article clashed against article, cases met mid-cabin and reverted with the sway of the ship. Would the night never end? Worse to follow! Heavy seas were expected in the Bay of Biscay so for four days I was cabin bound, existing on biscuits and water until we came to Marseilles to land the casualties. Yes, there were many broken bones on that trip; the Captain said the worst for 27 years, so giving hope to comfort the weary.

Once firmly on land again, knowing I couldn't face that return trip, I just had to go on but not before I had seen all there was to see of Marseilles. How I loved to see the mimosa growing on the hillside, and all the almond trees alive with blossom. Surely, I thought, we can't be just four days away from England.

On then to Genoa, Italy, whose jolly people, the salt of the earth, I took to readily enough. They showed me round, on to trams, buses, etc. and I missed little there. Port Said, - little said the better. I found all on shore aggressive and an English woman's anatomy not her own. I was glad to return to the cleanliness of my cabin. I liked the Suez Canal, but was disappointed in it although, even yet, I wonder how those big ships navigate its waters so easily and smoothly. Then into the Red Sea past the place where the sea divided to allow Moses and his tribes to pass over. What a hot sea! Humid but so smooth that one could forgive its heat, flies and sunburn, sit in the shade and watch the flying fish dart through the air and some big fish that tarried in the blue translucent waters awaiting its prey.

To Mombasa! We had to stay here for six days so, stupid-like, I thought I would venture off alone, and knowing no Swahili, I went off in a native's boat over to a stretch of land I saw in the distance. Landed, I felt less like David Livingstone, hero worship of whom had brought me to these foreign shores. The natives all went their ways and I was stranded. The little African children came round in dozens, trying to sell me parrots, monkeys, nuts, etc. I was beginning to get panicky now. How to get back? What a clot I was! Seeing one of the African boats, I showed the man there two shillings and with gestures that would have equalled Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, I got into that frail craft and have been fascinated ever since by them. I finally got back but once aboard ship never ventured out again.

Nurse in Other Lands
Dar-Es-Salaam Harbour
The land that promises nothing but gives plenty, from disease, experience, surprises, shocks and recoveries, - here we came at last, slowly sailing into its beautiful harbour, peaceful waters, shores graced with slender palms, white sands fringed with the ever colourful bougainvillea, - balm indeed for any bruised heart. This, then, was the promised land! No regrets as yet for having burned my boats behind me. I wondered what fate had in store for me or what Africa had to offer. Many lessons I have learnt but have I given anything to the Africans?

Nurse in Other Lands
Tanganyika Mail Train
The Tanganyika mail train, that great puffing monster that slowly eats up the wide open spaces known as the bush, must be travelled in to be believed that we actually live in this year of grace and not in Queen Victoria's time.

The Africans love travelling free as far as they dare, and later on I had to look after so many of their mutilated bodies because not having paid, when they knew the Inspector was about, they quietly dropped through the windows with little thought regarding their torsos. The platform was a colourful sight, with enough material to please any artist, and flies in plenty to satiate an army of spiders. The European was allotted her compartment or sleeping berth, and the African his accommodation into which crowded anything between thirty to forty people.

Time to depart, we started slowly out of the station, watched by hundreds of envious Africans whose colourful display of Kangas gradually faded into the distance as we gathered speed. Having a keen eye for beauty, my appetite for the visual stimulation I encountered knew no bounds. I had read so much about scorched Africa that I couldn't believe the tropical scenery spread about me, - vivid green, banana trees laden with bunches of green fruit, maize six feet high out of which flew birds of every colour, and as I learned later - getting to know it better - danger in every form, from lions, snakes, etc. Beauty is but skin deep here. Each station averages about one hour apart and each one is like the other, with crowds offering fruit, coconuts, carved animals, baskets, etc. Each stop an hour's wait before we departed with lightened purses. Wonderful rate of exchange for the tourist; if I had plenty of money I would make full use of it this way. I must say I love travelling but the journey became rather wearying as the sun struck down with its full strength, so I was lulled into slumber and back-fired into consciousness as we drew in and out of each station, until I reached my destination and future friends. (Morogoro). The place of mountains, - a beautiful sight, peaks hidden in the descending haze, well covered with fir trees and plentifully supplied with waterfalls. They afforded me pleasure in my homesick moments and great joy when I found my mountaineering feet.

Nurse, Tanganyika
Uluguru Mountains
Having been met by homely friends (strangers) I was quickly acquainted with the rules and regulations of Europeans. "Don'ts" and "do's" from the well-wishers, so that I quickly found myself armed with a houseboy, cook, dhobi (wash boy), shamba (garden boy) and ayah (housemaid). To pay them was one thing but to feed them and their many hangers-on was another vital point which had to be battled with every day. I had to work, then, to keep and feed my army of servants. Those few weeks of "getting to know them" needs no mention; their last thought was work, their first subs on salary not yet earned. Having successfully glided over these pitfalls, I was next acquainted with the number of dead the African had to bury. My cook - that old rascal - must have buried the entire village and dutifully resurrected each corpse in turn by the time I caught on.

Medicine was the third item. I gathered the African by then thought it grows mysteriously near every European, only to be asked for to be received. My houseboy came to me during the first few days. "Madam," he said, "the cook has stolen some pills out of your cupboard." I asked him to show me the jar from which they were stolen. Ah!, I thought, strong cascara in concentrated form, known to the Army as No. 9. Serve him right for stealing; he will be back for something to ease that troubled stomach before long. The wait would be rewarded. Back came Ali, holding his stomach, looking most accusingly at me. He was dying, he had diarrhoea, had I any medicine to heal him? "Yes," I said, "I had." So, taking him to the cupboard, I handed him two more of the same tablets. "Oh no, Memsahib, not those!" "Yes," I said. He was very persistent but so was I. The house boy fetched him some water and the reluctant Ali dutifully swallowed the pills. We didn't see him for two days after that and then for weeks he complained of weakness of unknown origin.

My dhobie made up his lack of earnings "by acting as a porter (we lived near the station) so, having washed and placed the washing over the line (no pegs, Bakali said none were needed), he departed from his work with every coming in and going out of the mail train, only to return when his pockets were lined with coppers, and got lazier and lazier until I finally had to tell him to go. He thanked me very much and we parted great friends. I must say he was an excellent wash boy and his dry cleaning an art im itself.

My informers, those everlasting bores one meets in every walk of life, who know everything yet know nothing, informed me that life at the hospital was wonderful. Salaries high, no night work and every weekend off! Oh joys untold - an easy life at last!! Why, oh why, didn't I check up first? I applied for a temporary post as nursing sister, thinking I should have a long wait. Little did I think I should be rocketed into nursing quicker than it takes a rocket to hurl into space. Within two days of applying I was accepted because the one sister was off duty and the two hospitals were left uncared for. Blow followed blow; the salary for all certificates was thirty eight pounds each month. On call alternate nights, no time off during the day and when the Sister-in-Charge, who was for ever off sick, was off duty, then on continuous call. Miss Nightingale couldn't have had a keener sense of duty than this idiot, to accept such terms but accept I did. I never regretted it for the patients and experience I gained, - wealth untold in the annals of nursing. Things that couldn't happen anywhere but Africa.

Tanganyika Map
Morogoro Map, 1958
Colony Profile
Further Reading
The Slope of Kongwa Hill: A Boy's Tale of Africa
by Anthony R. Edwards