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U3A Writing: Robert

John Ricketts tells another tale of his time as a headmaster in Africa.

Many years ago I had a man working for me who was the cousin of the King. I know that sounds very grand but it was not as important as it appears. Robert Lewanika was a cousin of Lewanika III, the king of Barotsis.

His grandfather was King Lewanika I but again that’s not quite what it appears. The old king had many, many wives, almost as many as Solomon, and Robert’s grandmother had been very far down the line when it came to importance. Though his father was the King’s son he was a very minor dignitary. Robert showed me a very old newspaper cutting showing a blurry picture of the King in his Royal Barge being paddled by a group of dignitaries. Robert pointed to one fuzzy head as being that of his father.

In his youth Robert had done something which had given him good reason to flee the Barotsiland and settle in the land of the Tonga whom he despised. He once said to me “They used to be our slaves.” He had married a Tonga woman who had died shortly before I met him and he had no children.

We used to have six weeks break in December/January and one day a the end of November Robert came and told me that he wanted to go on a visit to his homeland which he had not seen for nearly thirty years. During all the time he had been a civil servant, (he was the school caretaker) his record showed that he had never taken a day's leave. So he was due for as long as he wanted. He was also due a pass to cover his journey, so I set about arranging it.

Now it was not as simple as it sounds and it took me a lot of phone calls and letters before the journey was arranged for Robert and his bicycle. The first pass was easy; a return rail pass from Kalomo to Livingston. (The Victoria Falls). From there Robert had to ride several miles on his bike to the start of the Saw Mills Railway. This was a private company which cut timber and carried it to the sawmills where it was made into railway sleepers. A couple of times a week a carriage for passengers was attached to the train. This was used mostly for the workmen but it was possible for others to ride. The third part of the journey was by river steamer along the Zambezi which went into the heart of Barotsiland. From there Robert could ride forty miles or so to his village. I gave him a month’s wages in advance and he set off, telling me that he would be back towards the end of January when the schools were due to open up again.

We spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of January on holiday at Nyasaland (Malawi) and when I returned I was surprised to find Robert already back. Robert had never been a bouncy light hearted fellow but now he seemed sunk in the depths of depression. I immediately thought that the holiday had gone wrong (which I think was true) but when I asked him what was wrong he burst out with “I’ve lost my bicycle.” After a lot of questioning it appeared that on his way back he put his bicycle on the sawmills train but at the end of the line it just was not there. I was frightened by the trust he had in my ability to get it back. He believed in me much more than I believed in myself.

All the bikes had a licence plate, a small round disc which was attached to the frame, which varied in colour each year. Fortunately Robert knew his disc number. After many phone calls the bike was found and I arranged for it to be delivered to our end of the railway. Elizabeth, my wife, wanted her hair doing and the nearest hair dresser was at Livingston, several miles away. I arranged to kill two birds with one stone by taking her to the hair dressers and leaving her there while I took Robert to collect his bike, a round journey of some hundred and seventy miles.

The postscript to the story happened a few weeks later. Robert went down to the local beer hall on his bike which he parked outside. When he came out it was gone. A friend had borrowed it. In his drunken state, the friend had fallen off and rolled into the ditch leaving the bike in the middle of the road where a lorry ran over it. When Robert told me what had happened I exploded with anger, thinking of all the trouble I had taken with the blasted bike. “What did you do ?” I demanded, thinking he would have gone to the police. “Nothing,” Robert replied looking puzzled. “He’s a friend and he didn’t do it on purpose.”

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