British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Jane Shadbolt
Not a Wisdom Tooth
The Loliondo Hills
The Noble Army of Martyrs has included me in its ranks for many years, ever since my marriage in fact. Membership almost went with the job description of a Colonial Service wife. It was taken for granted that one would be a splendid little woman, bravely coping with hardship and isolation, always ready with hospitality for all-comers and bearing and raising children with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience to one's husband.

By the time I was into my third pregnancy, in 1958, I found that my martyrdom was taken for granted and I began to gild the lily with a few little extra sufferings. I let it be known that I had toothache, though I may not have mentioned that it was very mild. We were stationed at Loliondo, on the Serengeti, at the time two hundred miles across the grassy roadless plain to the nearest hospital or dentist, so I did not expect my bluff to be called. I just hoped for another credit for being cheerful in adversity. I had reckoned without my husband's strength in problem solving, however, and I paid dearly for my bid for admiration.

One morning in the rainy reason my husband appeared in the house mid-morning saying "Get your stuff together, Baghwan Singh is going to Arusha and will take you to the dentist".

The Indian shopkeeper took a monthly trip to the nearest town for supplies, and he was at the door with his five-ton-lorry, ready for the journey. At that point I should have admitted that my toothache was very slight and not worth a ghastly bumpy ride in the rainy season. I did not argue with my husband in those days, as I do now, I was much too intent on being the perfect wife, so in ten minutes I found myself climbing up into the lorry, parting with two tearful little girls and wondering why on earth I was going.

Baghwan Singh and I could only communicate in Swahili, our only common language, so conversation did not flow too freely. Something else did, however, and that was the contents of his lunch tin which was beside me. After a few miles I felt a puddle seeping through my skirt and found that I was sitting in curry. Turmeric is a strong dye, and mixed with the blue of my skiit it left a khaki stain on my rear which could be open to a very unkind interpretation. We moved the tin down onto the floor and thumped along for several more hours.

Not a Wisdom Tooth
Road to Ngorongoro
By late afternoon we came off the Serengeti and began the ascent to Ngorongoro. There is a notorious sticky patch of black cotton soil on that hill and it was raining again. We were soon bogged down to our axles. I was not much use to Baghwan although I did my best to dig while he jacked up the lorry. Soon it was getting dark and desperate. Not only would we not reach Arusha that night, we would probably have to sleep in the lorry. Then the first of two miracles happened (the second came at the end of the trip). The light of a vehicle appeared behind us, the first we had seen since we left. Lather James, a Roman Catholic priest whom we both knew, came out of his Landrover and offered help. It was so totally unexpected and such an answer to prayer that I would have put Lather James forward for sainthood. He took me up to the District Office at Ngorongoro while the rest of his passengers helped Baghwan on his way. I had a meal and a bed for the night from the District Officer's wife and next day I rode on to Arusha with Lather James. I had always rather fancied Lather James but I doubt whether my tubby shape and stained skirt posed much of a threat to his vows.

My poor appearance was brought home to me at the hospital where the nurse at the desk, after hearing of my need of a dentist, phoned through, "there's a woman here who wants to see Mr Martin", as if I should really have used the tradesman's entrance. I didn't like her any better when she put down the receiver and said "I'm sorry, Mr Martin is on two weeks local leave!"

You may well wonder why we had not phoned ahead to make an appointment, regardless of my hasty departure. The only communication between our home and the outside world was a daily radio session with Monduli, the head office of the whole District. This took place very early each morning. I did have help from that contact from now on, however, because someone from Monduli who had to be at the hospital looked out for me and took me back there in the evening. Meanwhile I booked in for my confinement in four months time, though I could have done that by letter of course. It hardly made me feel that my journey had been worthwhile.

The Townsends at Monduli made me very welcome. I was starving hungry but I had to wait as they were going out to dinner at a nearby tea plantation and I was also invited. My journey back was also arranged. A Veterinary Officer was going to Loliondo the next day and would take me, but he was leaving at 4 am so as to go the long way round and avoid Ngorongoro. I decided to enjoy the evening as the next day promised to be pretty grim.

The dinner party was wonderful. The house was an elegant old German colonial building with large high ceilinged rooms filled with vases of long stemmed Persian roses. I had been lent a very becoming dress by Helen Townsend and felt very happy. We came back to their house at midnight and my alarm seemed to ring almost as soon as I fell asleep. The rain was lashing down and it was pitch dark as we drove off. The Veterinary Officer was a South African called Peter Anderson and he liked to smoke a rather heavily scented tobacco. After a few miles I had to ask to stop so that I could lose the previous night's meal. For the rest of the journey I was hollow with hunger.

Not a Wisdom Tooth
Mara River
We promised ourselves that we would stop in Nairobi for some food but by the time we passed through it was after lunch and the friends we called on gave us a dainty afternoon tea! The few miles of tarmac around Nairobi soon ended and we went back to muddy earth roads again, on into the Rift Valley and into Masai country again at Narok. There were still many miles to go and it was still raining as darkness fell. We had the Mara river to cross before we entered Loliondo district, and it would be swollen. The ford where the track crossed would be well under water. We were both rather quiet by now, weary and worried.

About midnight we approached the river, and here the second miracle happened. Lights shone across the water. We climbed out of the car and heard my husband's voice calling us. He had guessed that the river would be swollen and had come to meet us. He had been waiting for hours as we had taken much much longer than any of us expected because of the mud.

Peter and I had no idea of the depth of the water or the strength of the current but we held on to each other and headed for the headlamps opposite. I think we were too tired to be frightened so we just went on and reached the bank, wet to our waists but safe. The whole journey back had taken on a nightmare quality, but it wasn't over yet. About ten miles from home we came upon an upturned car, with its wheels in the air in the road before us. We walked towards it in silence, expecting to find bodies either in it or under it. There were none, they had escaped through one of the windows, whoever they were, and had walked away.

I remember leaning wearily against a wall when we finally reached home at 2 am and my husband saying, "whatever is the matter with you?'' I'm afraid the splendid little woman image had slipped for a moment. But I suffered no ill effects and the baby boy who was born later that year is now a Colonel in the Royal Marines so perhaps this was the first part of his training.

Colonial Map
1955 Map of Loliondo District
1955 Map of Arusha District
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 83: May 2002


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