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The Scrivener: Disappointed

Brian Barratt had a puzzling and annoying experience when he arrived in Australia 44 years ago.

It is 44 years since I watched a Customs Officer in Sydney empty my suitcases, throw my clothes in a heap on the counter, discover two small boxes of 35mm coloured slides, and carefully hold all 72 of them up to the light to see what they depicted. They included photographs of jacaranda, bougainvillea, chameleons, chongolulus, spiders, open-cut mines, copper smelters, termite mounds, charcoal burners, Mosi-oa-Tunya ('the smoke that thunders', better known as Victoria Falls), Lwena dancers and their masks many aspects of life in Kitwe and other places in Zambia. I had put them together as a set to show my new Australian friends.

This experience was both puzzling and annoying, and a disappointing welcome to my new country. I had no idea why he was so interested in my photos. Could it be that word of my political activities had preceded me? I had, after all, been on the fringe of the movement which led to the Independence of Zambia, previously the British colony Northern Rhodesia. Although I was not a member of UNIP (United National Independence Party) I had been asked by Dr Kenneth Kaunda's ruling party to stand as a candidate in local government elections.

I was on my way to Perth, Western Australia, to manage a new branch of a Sydney company. My boss had warned me of the parochialism that existed in WA, where people referred to the rest of the country as 'the eastern states' in a somewhat derogatory tone. I was told to play down the fact that I worked for an eastern states company and also to keep quiet about being British.

When we had set up the new shop, potential customers came in to have a look round. I well remember the elderly headmaster of a local school who came to browse. He eventually engaged me in conversation, and heard my accent.

'Are you from the eastern states?' he asked.

'No,' I said, carefully but pleasantly. 'I'm not from the eastern states.'

'You must be from the Old Country, then?' has asked, meaning Britain.

'No, I'm not from Britain.' This was technically not true, because I was born in England, but I deemed it to be the right response under the circumstances. The old chap, now trying to trace my accent, continued just a little impatiently.

'Where are you from then?'

'I'm from Zambia' I declared, in a nice friendly manner.

That was the end of the conversation. A frown wrinkled his brow; a look of total incomprehension spread across his face; he grunted, and wandered away without a farewell. I knew from his response that Zambia was outside his knowledge the usual reaction was, 'Oh, what was it like in South Africa?' and I had to explain that Zambia is not in South Africa. The same sort of thing has happened in recent conversations in Melbourne.

Then again, I shouldn't go on about people not knowing anything about Zambia and its political history. I just happen to have lived there for eight years, so it is an important part of my personal life-story. People in Australia are more interested in Asia than in Africa. The Customs Officer in 1968 wasn't interested in Zambia, by the way. Someone told me later that he was looking for pornography. Poor chap. He must have been pretty disappointed.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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