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U3A Writing: Kansanshi

John Ricketts tells of his first glimpse of the “school’’ in an African mining town. John had been appointed the school’s headmaster.

We turned off the main road near Solwezi towards Kansanshi and after a few miles the mine came into view. We stopped and asked directions and were sent to the mine office. From there we were directed to the manager’s house, as it seemed no one knew anything about our arrival.

When we explained who we were the mine manager’s wife invited us in, told is that he husband was not available, gave us tea and cakes and said that she would try and find the keys to the teacher’s house. After a search she came with the keys and told us to follow her car and she would lead us to our new home, which turned out to be a big prefabricated bungalow. When she found that we had no supplies she said she would send us some and then departed. That proved to be the only time we actually saw her and we never met the manager in the eight months that we lived there.

The house consisted of a large sitting room, three bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom/toilet. It was constructed on the same principal as a child’s building set. A concrete base had been laid into which a number of upright metal posts had been set. These were joined at floor and ceiling level by struts. Into the grooves in the uprights, wall, window and door units were slotted. Interior wall were fixed into the floor and ceiling struts.

It was obvious that such a house could be erected in a very short time and removed also, as it was to be twelve months ahead. The result was that the whole place was soulless - efficient but sterile. The furniture was basic utilitarian with no frills. The floor had had a skim put on it which had been polished. The lounge was deep red, the bedrooms green and the kitchen and bathroom black. We were hardly enchanted by the house but when I tried the taps there was a never ending supply of hot water and the electric stove and fridge were in working order.

The first thing we wanted was a good wash so we filled the bath and had a good soak. The second thing was to see the school of which we were the staff. We had no idea where the school was and the only way to find out was to ask someone. The house seemed to be the last but one on the road. We had no very near neighbours as, so I learned later, each house was built on half an acre of ground. Elizabeth and I walked back along the road to the next house and knocked nervously. We jumped back as a furious barking came from the other side of the door of the house which identical in every respect to one we had just left. A female voice quietened the dog and the door opened about six inches and a voice said “Yes?”

We explained who we were and told her that we wanted directions to the school.

“It’s at the mine club.” She told us through the crack. “but you’ll never find it by yourselves. Anyway it will soon be dark. I’ll tell you what, Mick and I will be going to the club later on and we’ll take you. It’ll give you the chance to meet a few people. We’ll call for you at eight o’clock. OK?”

The mine club turned out to be a long single storey wooden building divided into three. The first room contained a snooker table, the second a bar and third a had rows of chairs with a cinema projector at one end and a screen painted on the wall at the other. The room was filling up for a screen show.

“We have films once or twice week” Mavis informed us. “They’re not bad as a rule, quite recent films.”

“But where’s the school” I asked.

“This is it. They move the desks out onto the stoop every afternoon and bring them back in the morning. But if it was Friday the room would be used on the Saturday and Sunday as a club.

We returned on the Monday morning and found that the chairs had been moved out and the desks moved in. There were two teachers’ desks, one at each end with the desks in between. So we had to share this space which wreaked of tobacco smoke and beer fumes between two classes of children from five to twelve. We had gone to the schoolroom very early on that Monday but we had not done much when the children stared to arrive.

Our fears that we might be faced with absolute chaos proved unfounded. The children were as interested in us as we were in them and we got on very well. The different age groups meant that the children tended to work individually or in small groups. They knew what they had been doing and could show us where they were in their textbooks. They showed us their timetables and for the first few days we followed them and things went along very well.

We had wondered about going to Mass in such a remote area and on the Saturday after our arrival we spoke to our neighbours, Mavis and Nick Marshall asking if there were any Catholics on the camp. They told us that a little further along there were some French people who were Catholics. We went along and introduced ourselves and asked about Mass. We were welcomed with open arms, particularly as Elizabeth had asked in French. In fact they weren’t French but were from Mauritius and were French-speaking. They introduced themselves as Marie Veronique Faidherbe de Maudave and Serge, her husband. They told us that a priest from a mission came to say Mass at a road building camp a few miles away where a lot of workers were Italian, just once a month and that he was due there the next morning and that they would take us.

The next morning they took us to the road camp. It was a caravan village with whole families living together. I later found that the children were getting no education and recruited some for the school though it proved difficult because they only spoke Italian.

After Mass we were invited to join the people for lunch and spent most of the day there. The priest suggested that we might like to visit the mission and go to Mass there on some of the Sundays that he did not visit. He said we would have to stay overnight because the Mass was at eight o’clock in the morning. We made arrangements to do that. Before we left the Italian camp we were given a present. One that we were not very keen on receiving - a small brown and white mongrel pup which had been given the name Delilah. We felt we could not refuse after the welcome we had been given and Delilah became an integral part of our household.
In front of the mine club there was a cleared area surrounding a huge fig tree where the miners parked their cars when they visited the club. We used this a school playground. There had never been any sort of organised games for the children, and we used the space for games of rounders in which all but the smallest children took part. As school finished for the day at 12.30 we had plenty of time for outdoor activities and we started to teach the children to play tennis on the tennis courts.

In a mine camp so far from town the miners had to make their own amusements. The management had built two tennis courts and had started to make a golf course. An area had been cleared using bulldozes and five holes had been laid out. The greens were black, being made of oiled sand which was smoothed. In addition to the usual clubs in the bag you carried a scraper to remove any footmarks in the sand. On one occasion we had to scrape out elephant’s footprints. Some people went fishing and some people went hunting in the surrounding bush. Serge was a great hunter and I went with him several times. Many of the older boys and some of the girls owned guns and had learned to use them.
Kansanshi was the oldest mine in the area and had been in production before the Europeans entered the country. The fig tree outside the mine club had been used to shelter the slave miners who had dug the copper in ages past. The bark of the trunk was full of scars. When one dug into these scars one found the remains of chains which people said was where the slaves were secured at night. There were stories of strange sights and sounds in the workings which later on were greatly exaggerated and which appeared both in the local press and the overseas papers under the heading of ‘The Ghost Mine’ or ‘The Haunted Mine.’

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