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U3A Writing: A Soggy Christmas

No eletricity...no dinner...rain coming through the bedroom roof....

John Ricketts tells of a soggy and dismal Christmas Day in Africa.

We were married in April 1957 and on the first of May I took up the post of headteacher in a small country school. The school was on a copper mine at a place called Kansanshi in what is now Zambia.

On 7th December when they blasted they broke through to an underground river and by noon the next day there was several hundred feet of water in the mine. The mine was abandoned and three days later I had only three children left in the school. This was also closed and I was transferred to a school a thousand miles away in a town called Kalomo.

We packed up the car and set off. Our first stop was Chingola, a mere 120 miles away where Elizabeth, who was six month pregnant, was to stay with friends and then travel to Kalomo by train. Everyone thought that this was a good idea because of her condition but the real reason was that our dog was always car sick and we couldn’t stand this for another nine hundred miles. The plan was that I should drive down, get there a couple of days before Elizabeth, get the house ready and meet her off the train.

In those days there were very few tarmac roads and it was the rainy season. Many of the roads were sheets of mud. I hit a bad patch and skidded off the road and hit a rock. I managed to get back on the road but found that the radiator support had broken and that the fan had cut a swathe in the water tank. After hours of labour I managed to cut a pole which I fixed underneath to support the radiator. I plugged the cut with bread which soon baked hard and stopped most of the leak. Some water continued to escape and I had constantly to stop and fill up the radiator. There was plenty of water lying about so that was not difficult until the battery started to give trouble. This meant that I could only stop at the top of hills so that I could start again by running down.

Eventually I reached Monze. Only seventy miles to go. But I was three days late and Elizabeth would have arrived the day before and would have found me missing. There was no way I could get in touch with her and I knew she would be worried sick. Still only another hour an a half. I pulled into a garage and filled up with petrol. As I tried to drive out, I found that the only gear I could get was reverse. I backed up the car park of the hotel where I had spent the night and soon had a crowd round me. Someone was going through Kalomo and offered to take me. I piled all the stuff from the back of my Ford into his brand new Chev. I gave my Ford V8 to a farmer who was standing there if he would tow it away.

I found Elizabeth at the Kalomo Hotel where she had spent the night. I don’t think that I have ever been more warmly welcomed. We went to the house where we unpacked. My good Samaritan would not take any reward for his help though we remained good friends.

It was a government house furnished with the basic necessaries, bed, wardrobe, chairs, table etc. We were horrified by the kitchen. There was no stove and no fridge. The only means of cooking was a cast iron wood stove in the corner. There were electric plugs everywhere by no electrical goods. It was Christmas Eve so we would have to manage with what we had.

While she had been waiting for me Elizabeth had found the shops and so went to buy some basics. Joanna at the bread shop allowed us to borrow a trolley. Her brother the butcher wanted to sell us a chicken (all the turkeys had long gone) but as the chicken was running round his back yard we decided that our Christmas dinner would have to be beef. We filled the trolley with groceries and went back to the house.

Lighting the stove was not as easy as I had anticipated as the wood was wet. But after an hour or so I managed to get it going and we boiled water and had a cup of coffee. When we had drunk it we felt a bit better.

About six o’clock it started to get dark. Elizabeth tried to switch the lights on. Nothing happened.

“It’ll just be the fuse,’’ I said and went to the fuse box which was completely empty. “I don’t think there’s any electricity.”

“There must be said Elizabeth they have lights and things at the hotel.’’

“They’ll have their own generator” I told her.

We ran to the shops which were just closing and managed to buy a dozen candles. We had to empty a couple of bottles of wine to stand them in. After a meal of sandwiches we went to bed early. Elizabeth cuddled up to me and I’m not sure that she didn’t cry herself to sleep that night.

A crash of thunder woke us both up and I got up and pulled back the curtains. We both loved the magnificent electrical storms which we had out there and lay watching it through the window. The lightning flashed across the sky and the house seemed to shake with the crash of thunder. High winds followed and we drifted off to sleep to the drumming of rain on the roof.

I woke as the first rays of the sun lightened the sky. I immediately had a feeling that all was not right. I sat up and reached out to pull back the mosquito net. It was saturated. I realised then that the bed was wet well. The wind had lifted part of the ridging on the corrugated iron roof and the rain had been dripping in on to the mosquito net, running down it into the bed.

What a start for Christmas Day.

We washed in cold water. There were hot taps but only cold water. Further exploration revealed a tank at the back of the house which had a grate underneath to heat the water. I tried to light the fire but the wood was so wet from the rain during the night that it just would not catch. In the end I gave it up and turned my attention to the stove in the kitchen.

I managed to light the fire in the stove and I helped Elizabeth to plan the menu. We started with soup (from a tin) followed by roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding. Then we would have our cheese and finish with tinned Christmas Pudding. The mere thought of a good Christmas dinner cheered us both up. Elizabeth prepared the beef while I peeled the potatoes.

When she put the beef in the oven Elizabeth said “You’d better put some more wood on because the oven doesn’t feel very hot.

I went outside but all the wood I could find was soaked. I put it on anyway, thinking that it would soon dry out with the fire that was there already. The potatoes on the top were boiling and Elizabeth looked at the beef. It looked the same as when she had put it in two hours earlier.

I got the tin of soup and went to the drawer where the cutlery was and looked for a tin opener. No tin opener. At the back of one of the cupboards I found a screwdriver and managed to make two holes in the top and to get the soup out, but getting the Christmas Pudding out of a tin with a rock and a screwdriver proved impossible. At four o’clock we had our Christmas dinner; soup followed by slices of fried beef and watery potatoes. Cheese and pancakes. The only thing we had plenty of was good wine and we went to bed well oiled feeling very sorry for ourselves.

Early the next morning there was a knock on the door and standing there was a stocky fellow . “Hello, when did you arrive?” he said. “I’m Bob Tay, I live over there, if there’s anything you need just say.”

From then on everything changed. The trouble had been that nobody knew we were there All our neighbours had been at a party in the boma which had not finished until three o’clock in the morning. Everyone rallied round and after that dreadful start our seven years in Kalomo proved to be some of the happiest days of all our married life.

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