In 2007, I began teaching mathematics and physics at this school in Bratislava. My son Paddy began attending in year 4 although he was ten years old. He had missed out on many years of education in Swaziland and could not read or write. He had probably only had a year of schooling. I was impressed that the school had been prepared to take him on. We lived a short walk away from the school in the northern suburb of Dubravka.
The school was staffed by a mixture of British and Slovak teachers. It was increasing in popularity and had a new principal. I taught mostly mathematics. The physics I taught was to the 11-14 age group. I taught HL mathematics for the IB Diploma too. The salary was excellent. The students were from many different countries. One of the biggest groups was the Koreans. The parents worked for Kia cars or one of the other Korean manufacturers that had relocated to Slovakia. I taught children from the UK, France, Germany, Slovakia, Russia, Serbia, Spain, China, the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, amongst others. I like to think that I made the lessons entertaining. I liked to try different learning styles and avoided formal lesson planning like the plague.
I loved teaching physics to the young ones. They were very interested in science practicals and we had a lot of fun. I designed a website for Key Stage 3 Physics. We built electric motors and we had great success designing model houses to see who could make the design that kept the heat in the most. I never enjoyed teaching as much as I did at this school.
In 2008, I bought a house over the border in Hungary. The idea was to save money on rent and buy an affordable home in the countryside. It was a 45 minute drive to work in the morning and really not at all bad. The house was in the sleepy village of Halászi. In 2008, the border controls came down and Hungary joined the Schengen area though it seemed that the Slovak police took about a year to realise this. I lost track of the number of times we were stopped crossing the border. For a while, we took an alternative but parallel route back home because of this hassle at the border crossing. Another reason for moving to Hungary was the overt racism that my son had received in Bratislava on numerous occasions. One on a crowded tram, a young man began making a monkey impression at my son. It was clearly directed at him. I did not react because when I get angry, I can lose control. I don’t like to do this. On another occasion in 2008, we were in a small supermarket called Billa in Dubravka and I could tell that my son was upset. I urged him to tell me what had happened and he did not want to tell me. In the end, he told me that a woman had pushed him out of the way. He pointed her out to me and I let her have it. Then there were the looks that people gave us. You may say that it’s just a look but I called it ‘the look of disgust.’ People stared. It was just rude. Paddy liked to ride his bike and I would not allow him to ride ahead of me in the park because I was concerned about his safety. He had been called ‘nigger’ by some youths in a park once, with me within earshot. Of course, unless we were walking close together, people assumed that we did not know each other. We were required to go to the ‘foreign police’ once a year to have our resident permit renewed. When I went the first time, the policeman at the desk looked at my son and asked if he had a passport. I felt like saying ‘No, I smuggled him into the country in a suitcase.’ I never experienced problems like this in my three years living in a village in Hungary.
The school knew of the difficulties I had but chose to ignore them and offered no support to me. When you are constantly faced with these difficulties, it has a detrimental effect on your psyche. When my son Paddy got into trouble. the school was not interested in taking into account the difficult background he had. They made no exceptions for him. They were just concerned about how the other parents might react.
I don’t want you to think that we had a bad time in Slovakia. The school was a very safe place and great for my son to grow up with. There were many lovely Slovak staff there who really went out of their way to help.
The headmaster at Lewes Grammar at the time was Roy Mead. He was a very authoritarian figure and ran the school how he saw fit. It was a small school and still is. There were only two forms per year with each form taking about 14 boys. It had a junior department on the other side of town and a girls’ school just a few doors down on the High Street. There had been a boys’ grammar school on this site since 1714. The school was founded in 1512 at Southover near Lewes. Lewes is the county town of East Sussex and is surrounded by the South Downs, the chalky hills that run parallel to the south coast.
I joined in the summer term of 1979 aged 12 years old. I was very shy and didn’t make friends easily. I was collected with about twelve other boys in a minibus driven by one of the teachers. I was so shy that at first, I waited in my mother’s canary yellow Ford Escort Estate for the minibus to arrive at my pick-up point near St. Johns Park a short walk from home. I’d had an extended Easter holiday because I had left my father’s house at the end of March where I had been living with my two brothers. I returned to live with my mother and stepfather of my own volition because I was being emotionally abused at my father’s house. The first day at my new school was on 8th May, being the day before Margaret Thatcher’s new parliament assembled for the first time. I had not spent much time with my mother in the preceding twelve months and I was upset and homesick for the first week or so. I fought back tears each morning before lessons started.
In 2006, I was living and working in Swaziland. I was teaching mathematics and science at a well-known school in the capital city, Mbabane. I also helped out with a community service project which fifth and sixth forms were involved in. At Mbabane General Hospital on the children’s ward, Ward 8, was a single room where abandoned babies, handicapped children and young adults were housed. There was a row of cots, a table and benches and a television in a metal cage that was left on permanently during the day. I took the school children down to the hospital on a Friday afternoon in a minibus and we usually took the residents of the ward to Coronation Park to play. These children weren’t sick for the most part but desperately in need of human interaction.
There is only one government children’s home in Swaziland, a country with tens of thousands of orphans. It does not take handicapped children. There are several private orphanages funded by evangelical Christian churches as well as organisations such as SOS Children’s Village and these do a great job. However there are not enough of them.
The young boy pictured above in all eight photographs was one such child and had been left at Ward 8 for almost two years with little contact from his family after he was orphaned in 2004. I found out a little about him. He always seemed lively and curious however it was obvious that he suffered from ill-health.
I knew that the future was bleak for him if I did not do something. Another teacher at the school had recently adopted a baby from the same place and so I thought why shouldn’t I do the same. I made arrangements to foster the boy as well as another boy who was in the same situation. So started a long journey.
I asked about the possibility of fostering at the hospital and they were happy for me to take the two boys home for the weekend. I did so. I very quickly realised that I would like this to become a permanent arrangement. Arrangements were made for me to visit the offices of Social Welfare. A very kindly lady called Babazile Sigwane was my social worker. After a couple of visits with her, she suggested that I go for adoption. I would not have done this had I not known that I could get British citizenship for my adoptees. I looked into this and as I was resident in Swaziland at the time, the adoption was the responsibility of the local authorities. Swaziland and the UK recognise each other’s adoptions and so after I adopted Sikhumbuzo as he was then known, I applied for British citizenship at the British High Commission in Pretoria in early 2007. The smaller boy in the top set of pictures had a more complicated situation. His father’s location was unknown and he had been physically abused by his step-mother. He had an open wound on his head that was healing when he was with me. He grew very attached to me and it was very sad that I was told that it would not be possible to adopt him. I tried my hardest but it was not allowed. The reason stated to me was that the father could not be located however it had been over six months since he had had any familiar contact so I think this was not a valid reason.
So I adopted my son in December 2006. In June, we left Swaziland for the UK. I had already secured a new job in central Europe due to start that September but in the meantime, we spent the summer in England staying at my mother’s place. In August, we both moved to Bratislava in the Slovak Republic where we remained for four years. My son attended the same school as I worked at. In 2008, I bought a house and things were looking good.
There was a happy ending to what happened to the other boy I could not adopt because he did find a place at the Lighthouse children’s home. It is a very well-run orphanage with a system of house mothers who are responsible for a small number of children. It is a very caring environment and the children grow up in a family atmosphere. I send regular parcels of clothes and books to him there and keep in touch.
What I couldn’t understand about the situation at Ward 8 was the fact that the nurses seemed so apathetic and disinterested. A lot of toys had been supplied and were stuffed into a cupboard and never taken out. The walls were bare. Food was very basic and the older children slept on old mattresses on the floor with no-one to ensure their safety at night. There was a playground at the back of the hospital just behind the room which housed these children and the grass was overgrown. Our plan at the start of the project was to cut the grass and paint the swings and slides so that they could be used. But this was discouraged as the nurses wanted us to take the babies off their hands in the afternoon.
In July and August of 2001, I drove from Bulawayo to Cape Town and back in a friend’s old 1960s Land Rover passing through Botswana on the way. My mate Tim Cherry had bought it from new, but it had seen better days. A worker employed by Mike Barry’s father was unwell with a heart condition and I was asked if I could help take him down to the family’s farm at Tulbagh, about 100 miles north of Cape Town, where he could get better treatment. We left Bulawayo and headed out towards Plumtree on the Botswana border, but not before spending several days trying to get the old Land Rover roadworthy. I had been told by the owner that it was serviceable, but this was far from the truth. It would not start, had a flat spare, almost bald tyres, brake lights that did not work as well as poor brakes. The rear fuel tank leaked, the fuel pump was on the blink, the electrics were decidedly dodgy, and you could see the road through a big hole in the floor. The windscreen wipers did not work either.
Once we got the worst of the problems fixed, it took several days to drive down to Tulbagh and we ran out of diesel a few times. The fuel gauges did not work, and we did not realise at the time, but fuel was draining from the rear tank. We slept in the vehicle on the way down. In figures 25 and 26 we see Maurice and Mike about to pull our Land Rover out of the mud with a tractor on their farm in the hills surrounding Tulbagh. The farm had extensive vineyards and a beautiful old farmhouse in the Cape Dutch style. The little town of Tulbagh had some fine cafes where you could sample the delights of milk tart, an Afrikaans speciality.
The Land Rover gave us a lot of trouble along the way. The battery went flat and wouldn’t charge, fuel leaked, and we often had to bump-start it. An electrical fire started in the dashboard. I spent a lot of money on repairs. Rachel and Mike were trying to make a success of a bed and breakfast business they were running. I heard later that Maurice died of a heart attack some weeks after we left Tulbagh for Cape Town. It was very sad.
Mike and Rachel had a turbulent relationship. Mike was a mechanic by trade and very skilled at fixing cars, trucks and tractors. I visited them both in early 1998 with my current partner Leonard who was from Cape Town. Rachel was very histrionic and went barmy when we stripped off and swam in the dam. She used to scream like a banshee at the farm workers and complained if Mike used one teabag per cup. Her driving was terrifying and she paid little attention to traffic lights. She was very erratic. The business was not exactly a success because they were quite a long way outside Tulbagh itself. Rachel had the daft idea of calling the guesthouse The Duck Pond. Nontando and I were among the first guests to stay. However, after a few days, Rachel turned around and said that she wanted us to contribute to our stay. I had been buying food, cooking and paying for wine. Whenever Mike had more than a couple of glasses, Rachel went into full banshee mode. She was like a fishwife when she got going. I told Nontando that I was leaving and did not say goodbye to Rachel, I was that annoyed.
Rachel and Mike subsequently married and had a daughter despite Mike’s numerous affairs and infidelities. Some years later, I heard from Nontando that Mike had committed suicide in Bulawayo after Rachel had returned to the UK and told him that he would never see his daughter again. He had gassed himself inside his car. It was a tragedy.
After Tulbagh, we drove along the garden route stopping at Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Plettenberg Bay, Tsitsikamma National Park, Port Elizabeth and Coffee Bay finishing up at Durban. After this, we visited Pietermaritzburg where I started a skydiving course which was cut short when I badly twisted my ankle. Travelling with Nontando was not without its difficulties. She tended to wander off with Andy after she woke up in the morning when we were camping and not come back for hours. This was very frustrating. When we stopped by the side of a main road to check the Land Rover, she let Andy, who was three years old, wander unsupervised in the road.
My first job working overseas was in 1996 with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). I was recruited to teach mathematics and physics in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo. I had done a little travelling up till then and had spent a month in South Africa two years previously. I had gone out to visit Jack who lived there at the time. I liked the wide-open spaces and the excitement of discovery. Although I was in my late twenties, I was still discovering who I was. I had been interested in working overseas for some time.
I travelled out on a British Airways flight to Harare with overweight bags one day in early January 1996. I had little idea what Africa in general and Zimbabwe, in particular, would mean to me in time. The induction training lasted about three weeks and was located at a development centre called Silveira House about 20 km to the east of Harare. We received some language and cultural training and got to meet the other volunteers. They were a mixed bunch and all in their early twenties. Most had been recruited as teachers. There was a shortage of maths and science teachers in the country at the time. It had been only sixteen years since independence and Zimbabwe had an impressive literacy rate compared to neighbouring countries. The only dark stain was a less than glorious human rights record, notably the retribution against ZAPU in 1983 lead by the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade which lead to massacres and appalling atrocities against civilians in Matabeleland, who were seen as opposing the leadership of Robert Mugabe.
I started teaching at the school to which I was posted in early February 1996. It was called Mzilikazi High School and the headmaster was Mr Cuthbert Chiromo. For the first few weeks, I stayed with an elderly white couple, the Pagets, in a suburb (called Suburbs) about two kilometres to the south of the city centre. I lived in a granny annexe attached to the house and ate my meals with them. I was not allowed to use the kitchen and had to ask if I wanted anything. I used to get a lift to town every morning with Mr Paget and walk the rest of the way to school. Mr Paget had a maid and her family staying at the back of their house. He used to give his maid’s children a lift to school. I never forget how he used to yell for them at the top of his voice when he was ready to go. My school was on the opposite side of town, near Mpilo Hospital. At first, I walked back home but after I developed heat stroke one day, I decided that this wasn’t such a great idea so I would take a taxi. Now, a taxi doesn’t mean the same as what you are probably thinking. It meant sharing the cramped back of a Ford Escort Estate or something similar with perhaps seven others. And cost Z$2.00 or 20p.
My teaching was split between A-level mathematics and physics. The equipment was extremely limited, but we made do. The school laboratories had at one time been well-equipped and the detritus of old and broken lab equipment cluttered the cupboards. I also taught a top set maths class of fourteen-year-olds. I had no prior teaching experience and was comfortably naive in my lack of appreciation of the difficulties in teaching generally. All the volunteer teachers had been sent on a short training course in the UK and mine had been a week or so based at a school in Abingdon as I was living in Oxford at the time that I was recruited.
The classrooms were bare and dusty. I used to buy my own chalk because the chalk provided by the school was of such poor quality. The days were long. I taught one class in the lower school, which operated on an alternating biweekly timetable running from 7.30 to 12.30 on one week and 12.30 to 5.30 the next. This system was called ‘hot-seating’ and ensured that all children of secondary school age had a place. The A-level classes had a weekly timetable.
The headmaster ran the place with an iron rod and corporal punishment was in use. The students were petrified of him as were the staff because he held a lot of power over them. He was hardly ever seen in the staff room. He had his morning tea brought to him in his office, which had an electric heater on during the winter months. His desk was orderly. Anxious parents who could not afford to pay the school fees lined up outside his office for an audience. With me, he faked an air of false conviviality. The deputy head, on the other hand, wore torn shirts, had a ramshackle office with stacks of disordered papers on his desk and had a drink problem.
A fellow teacher called Claire taught Biology. Claire was from Hull and liked everyone to know it. She was very opinionated and got very annoyed if you contradicted her. She told me that she was having problems with a group of fifth form boys and had complained to the headmaster when she felt that she could not deal with it anymore. The headmaster called her in with the boys concerned and beat them in front of her. He then made them crawl on their hands and knees and apologise to her. She wanted to leave the room when he said that he was going to beat them, but he would not let her. She spoke to the boys afterwards and said that she had no idea that they would be beaten and humiliated in that fashion. They said that it was alright, and they did not mind.
There are a lot of misconceptions about living in ‘Africa’. A friend of mine wanted me to give him my best pullover because he thought that I wouldn’t need it, after all, Africa is always hot. What got me first was the climate. Bulawayo, like Johannesburg, is on a plateau. The sun can burn all year round. In winter, the temperature at night-time can drop to a few degrees Celsius but it does not feel that cold because the air is so dry. In the summertime, there are many thunderstorms. By mid-afternoon, there is usually a downpour. This clears the air and is very welcome.
When I moved to Zimbabwe, the economy was doing relatively fine. There were about ten Zimbabwe dollars to the pound. There was plenty of food in the shops. Of course, there were poor people and beggars in the streets, often looking filthy dirty and emaciated. But most people had enough to eat and transport was affordable. As an expatriate, Zimbabwe was very cheap. Soon after starting work at Mzilikazi High School, the government doubled the salary for teachers. I was earning enough to support myself and go on holidays to neighbouring countries so long as I was careful. There was a good health-care scheme. Medication was subsidised and to see a doctor was free. Bulawayo had a range of good cafes and shops that seemed a throw-back to the fifties. Haddon and Sly was a classic example. The shop displays were very old-fashioned.
Figure 1 Bulawayo.
Haddon and Sly was an old-fashioned department store, and it was like walking around Woolworths in the 60s. It had a popular café upstairs, but the service could be unbelievably slow. Last time I visited in 2013, it had been divided up into tiny units and was unrecognisable. The window displays were from another era.
You could buy luxury goods such as olives, imported beer and so forth if you looked. There were good locally grown coffees and vegetables could be bought for very little at the market on Fourth Street. To get about town, we would catch a Rixi Taxi. It cost just a few dollars to ride a couple of miles from the big supermarket where we did most of our shopping back to Parkview. Some of the taxis were very dilapidated. Once, when my mother and stepfather were visiting, we caught a taxi that had a problem with the accelerator cable. The driver had connected a piece of string from the carburettor and controlled the engine speed by pulling on it. The string passed through the driver’s window.
After a few months, I began sharing a house in Parkview with three other volunteers, one Australian and two British people. The Australian lady worked as a physiotherapist at Mpilo Hospital. One was the biology teacher Claire at my school whom I mention above. Stephen was a qualified teacher from Bristol. He was a very entertaining and outgoing man with a very wide range of interests including sculpture, and not a VSO volunteer but the boyfriend of one called Nita who taught near Gokwe. He taught at Evelyn Girl’s School and said that the staff were snobby and complained if he did not wear his tie properly. He suffered from low blood pressure and had to wear it loosely. He was rather eccentric and unconventional. There was a big public swimming pool on Samuel Parirenyatwa Street where we went in the summer months. Stephen used to swim up and down in a snorkel and fins. I never really worked out why.
Claire and I weren’t the only white teachers at my school. There was Siân who was Welsh and married to a Zimbabwean man in the military and a Russian lady, also married to a Zimbabwean, who rarely spoke to us. Both were in the science department. Tea was served daily in the staffroom, without milk. If you wanted milk, you had to bring your own. Some samosas could be bought from a nearby shop but sometimes they were so salty that they were almost inedible.
Most of the VSO volunteers in Zimbabwe at that time were employed as unqualified teacher. There was a shortage of teachers at that time partly due to the low salary. Shortly after I arrived, the salary was significantly increased. VSO mostly recruited to the rural areas where teaching staff were hardest to retain. Headmasters had a lot of control over their staff. They could recommend to the Ministry of Education that a teacher be moved to another school. This sometimes happened as a form of punishment. For example, a French teacher who dared to speak out during a meeting where the headmaster and officials from the Ministry of Education were present said that there was a shortage of furniture and what was going to be done about it. He was moved to a rural school as a result of that.
I bought a bicycle and rode to school each day. It was about three kilometres away. I had wicker furniture hand-made for my room. I listened to the World Service, ordered the Guardian Weekly by airmail and enjoyed the peace and quiet at weekends. It was a quiet suburb except when the buses to Harare topped nearby on the Harare Road and I could hear the calls and whistling of the conductors touting for customers.
Our landlord was Tim Cherry. Tim had emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1960s to join the British South African Police when he was still a teenager. He studied law, joined the Air Wing of the Rhodesian Army during the bush war in the seventies and has lived there ever since. Tim had a lady friend called Nontando. She knew many of the VSO volunteers and helped us settle into the country. She joined us for many of our outings to nearby Matopos National Park. In 1998, she had a child with Tim. I have kept in touch with Tim and Nontando ever since.
Matopos National Park is a favourite place of mine. It is a national park in the granite hills about 40 km to the south of Bulawayo famous for its balancing rocks. There are lodges near Maleme Dam which we used to go and stay at. As residents, we got a great deal and they were kitted out with a fridge, electric cooker and running water as well as proper beds and furniture. There are cave paintings and beautiful scenic walks, warthogs, hippos and fish eagles. The fish eagle makes a characteristic squawk – one long rising call followed by four shorter descending tones. It’s a very eerie and haunting sound. It is not possible to swim in the lake because of the risk of contracting bilharzia.
Figure 2 Maleme Dam in Matopos National Park.
I once camped with friends Rachel and Mike next to Toghwana Dam, another lake in the Matopos to the east. Mike had an African drum which we were playing. It attracted a hippo which did not take too kindly being disturbed. We had our tents pitched on open ground next to the lake. Before we went to sleep, we decided to put the tents up on the rocks nearby, which was a good decision because in the night the hippo came out of the water and trampled the area where we had been. It was a lucky escape. A young German doctor was visiting a little while later whom we took to Matopos and he refused to believe it.
I met Dr Willy Legg in the first few months of my time in Zimbabwe. Dr Legg worked at the hospital at Gwanda, spoke fluent unaccented Ndebele and was openly gay. I met him through Bugles, the Bulawayo Gay and Lesbian Society. Willy Legg was rather overweight, and in his fifties when I first met him. I stayed at his house in Gwanda on a couple of occasions and we did have a brief fling, but this did not last long. He was into Hinduism and could make chapatis from scratch. He had lived in Zimbabwe all his life and had a typical ‘Rhodie’ accent. He showed me Khame Ruins, Gwanda and beautiful places I would not have found otherwise.
Most teachers taught by rote. Students took examinations in the third year of their secondary education which were set locally. The mathematics examinations were ridiculously hard for such an age-group and I don’t know what they hoped to achieve by this. Students set O-levels in the fifth year which were set by examination boards in the UK however this changed a few years later. We had a visit from an Education Officer from the Ministry of Education during my stay. He observed some lessons. He bragged that all his students passed with A-grades and we could do the same. It was patently not true as no school in the country ever achieved such results, especially when many kids came to school hungry. It was common for girls to faint from hunger. But this made no difference to him and he lectured us. Claire from Hull challenged him on this and got annoyed with me and the other teachers that I would not do the same. But when someone is in a position of authority like that in Africa, you do not challenge them. Certainly, no black teacher could get away with that.
Figure 3 My fourth-year maths class at Mzilikazi.
Discipline was poor but punishment was harsh. Boys could be beaten with a cane by any teacher although it was only supposed to be the headmaster who did this. During assembly once, which was held outside due to the lack of space, some boys at the back of the crowd began throwing stones towards the front. There was little that even the headmaster could do because if he had yelled and shouted, he would have lost face.
Once, a girl of about fourteen in my maths class asked me if I could help her with something. She then began describing how she had certain personal medical issues, and could I help. I realised what the misunderstanding was. I was known as Dr Evans because of my PhD and she thought I was a medical doctor.
Figure 4 Faye Letts on the left before she left for Rhodesia.
Faye Letts, pictured here on the left before she left England for what was then Southern Rhodesia, was the librarian at Mzilikazi High School. When I joined the school, she was already in her sixties but had been living in Zimbabwe for over forty years. She was plump, about five feet five inches tall and looked about ten years older than her years. She played the piano at assemblies, which were held once a week in a draughty hall, and I think she also gave religious instruction. She was a lay preacher for the Methodist church and very devout and eccentric. She was originally from Benfleet in Essex.
She used to threaten the children with a stick, and they enjoyed provoking her. She drove a white Datsun Cherry to school and lived in a small apartment on the northern side of town. She could best be described as idiosyncratic. In searching the internet, I came across this announcement of her passing in February 2003 in the Zimbabwe University Libraries Consortium newsletter.
“She was born in 1937, trained as a teacher in the UK. She taught at Oriel Girls High in the early 1950s and then came to Mzilikazi High School, Bulawayo in 1971 where she was a teacher-librarian. She was one member of the association who always gave us ideas as to how we should run the Branch.”
The majority of VSO volunteers in Zimbabwe were in their twenties and were mostly a heavy-drinking lot who seemed to think they were on an 18-30 holiday to quote the VSO Field Officer of the time, Jane Adisu. I remember hearing about some of the exploits such as sleeping with prostitutes (despite the warnings about HIV). One fellow VSO teacher related how he had got drunk with another teacher at his rural school and found a half-eaten mouse fried mouse in his pocket the following day.
I visited a volunteer called Claire (not the same Claire I shared with) who taught at a small rural settlement 120 km south of Bulawayo. I visited her one weekend and took two buses to reach her. The volunteers in the Bulawayo area and further afield used to frequently come and stay for the weekend. I also visited Stephen’s girlfriend Nita, who taught at a school near Gokwe. It was a long journey to reach her school from Bulawayo, being 430 km from the city. My friend Tim Cherry was flying that weekend and he took me up to Kwekwe then I caught a bus to Gokwe and on to her school at Mateta. The settlement had no electricity and water came from a handpump. At night, the stars were spectacular. We went for a drink at the local bar and got very strange looks from the locals who did not expect to see so many white faces. I was glad to be living in the city as I think I would have been bored living in a rural settlement.
In Bulawayo, on the weekends, I went for coffee and cake at the National Gallery on Main Street or Haddon and Sly department store, and for a while, I hung out with some white Zimbabweans I had met. They all drank far too much. We socialised at a bar opposite the British Council near the Town Hall called The Terrace. The local beers were Bohlingers, Lion or Zambezi. They were very variable in quality. Shops closed at midday on Saturdays. Takeaways were available at Chicken Inn but were a little expensive on a teacher’s salary. Maureen was in charge of the British Council and was a useful contact. She tried to scare us by showing us horrific photographs of what AIDS could do to the body. We could also receive phone calls and use the computers there. I called home fairly regularly. It was possible to buy a phonecard, but the calls were expensive. I mostly wrote letters home.
It was known by the VSO volunteers that I was gay, and I was the target of some homophobic slurs by some of the male volunteers, behind my back of course, including from an Asian British VSO volunteer who was very quick to get angry when he heard racist comments from white Zimbabweans. There was a priest who taught at one of the boys’ schools in Bulawayo who I met through Faye Letts. He had the hots for me and kept on bothering me. This carried on for some time. This was unwanted attention. He invited me and a couple of the other VSO volunteers to his house one day and went on a racist rant about black Zimbabweans saying that they had barely come down from the trees when the white man arrived in Zimbabwe. One day, he was dropping me off at my house and his hand wandered onto my leg. He had been inviting himself over to my school on pretexts and so I write to him telling him that I did not want to see him again. I knew what he wanted, and I was not interested. It was not just that but his racism more than anything that bothered me. He gave me the creeps.
At the end of my second year in Zimbabwe, people in my house had returned to the UK and I was left on my own. I was finding it difficult on my own in the evenings, so I decided to tell the school that I was leaving once lessons were over and exams had started. They were not particularly happy especially since I had taken a bit of an extended holiday in August when, to fit in with the schedule of some friends who were returning to the UK, arranged with them to drive from Cape Town to Windhoek in Namibia and back to Zimbabwe via the Caprivi Strip. I arrived back at school several days late and made excuses that I had been ill. The truth was that I had been very ill with a chronic cough in Namibia, but the lateness was planned.
Bulawayo was quite a polluted city and I suffered from the dust and pollution at certain times of the year. I frequently had a bad cough, and this developed into a racking and debilitating cough if left untreated. I had symptom of asthma ever since I had lived in Oxford. I used to ask the kids not to sweep the classroom, which they liked to do at the beginning of a lesson, because it kicked up so much dust.
When I left Zimbabwe, I decided to spend a few weeks in South Africa. I flew down to Cape Town. Some of us VSO volunteers had met up in Cape Town previously and had a lovely time travelling along the Garden Route.
On a previous trip to Cape Town in 1996, I had hooked up with a coloured man by the name of Franklyn. We had spent some time together. I met his family and stayed over at his house. He behaved as though he was in the closet to his family. His parents hardly spoke to me and I felt that they knew what was going on. We were having sex in his bedroom which adjoined his parents’ room. It was very weird. He found me a place to stay with another gay friend of his in Bo-kaap, an area of Cape Town walking distance from the city centre and famous for its Muslim residents and unique architecture. I forget the name of the man I stayed with, but he was a skilled dressmaker and had clients visit for fittings. I was paying him rent and he did not turn out to be very friendly, expecting me to stay in my room when he had clients. It was when I was staying there, at the end of 1997, that my sister Emma came out to visit me. We hired a car and did a big tour of the Garden Route as far as Plettenberg Bay. It was on that trip I think that I discovered that Franklyn had been or was married and had a four-year-old child. I could not comprehend how someone could lead such a double existence.
I met Leonard at a café on Long Street after Christmas in December 1997. He was friendly and charming, about eight years older than me and from a Jewish family. He owned a house on Faure Street in Gardens. Leonard had a lot of well-connected friends, for example, the former mayor of Cape Town and a lesbian couple who ran the boats to and from Robben Island. We began seeing each other and visited Rachel and Mike on their farm at Tulbagh in January.
I stayed with Leonard from the end of December 1997. I applied for a job at a state school in Cape Town and was offered the position, but all depended on getting a work permit. We began looking into this but there was no guarantee that I would be able to secure a work permit based on my relationship.
Leonard’s family were wealthy, and he owned a lovely house in a desirable suburb of Cape Town called Gardens. Leonard was a complex character and kept a large part of his life secret from me, or so I felt. He was also liable to moods and somewhat irrational and unreasonable behaviour. We argued more and more, and I felt uneasy living with him. He took laudanum, which is a solution of opium in alcohol. When he did this, he could not be roused. This concerned me. I decided to go back to the UK but did not tell him that I would not be returning. This was not very brave of me, but I did not want to argue with him.
In January 2021 I moved to the country of Georgia. Georgia is a small country bordering Russia to the north and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south and east. I had visited for a brief holiday in February 2020 and liked what I saw. I was looking for a place where the cost of living was much lower than in my home country of the United Kingdom. I am self-employed and my income is variable. In recent years, I have not done so well financially because of the high cost of living and as everyone knows, that is only going to get worse. My only son left home in 2018 leaving me free to choose my place of abode. He currently lives in Australia as it happens.
I tutor mathematics and physics for a living online so I can work remotely. Since the pandemic, online tuition has risen in popularity. I now have temporary residency in this country. I live in the centre of Tbilisi, the capital city.
Living here suits me. Though rental prices have risen since the influx of Russians escaping the draft, it is still cheaper than the UK and I don’t need to pay any council tax. I do currently pay tax in the UK still (the rules on that are quite complicated) but from next year, I should be able to pay only voluntary pension contributions. In Georgia I pay 1% tax on my gross turnover as I registered as an Individual Entrepreneur.
My work is mostly late in the evening due to the three or four hour time difference between the UK and Georgia. It is relatively easy to get flights back to the UK although there are no direct flights.
Tbilisi is a city with no clearly-defined centre. It is surrounded by hills, is oppressively hot in the summer and never gets very cold in the winter. It is easy to manage without a car because from where I live, the old city is walking distance and taxis are very cheap. They cost about $1 per km. I rent a large apartment in the area popular with embassies. The Slovakian embassy is just down the road. There are many cafes to choose from.
In 2018, I bought a domain through Bluehost and began trying to make my own website to promote my tuition business. This is where I began to run into the many problems seemingly built into the experience and aimed at making you pay more for every single element or design feature.
WordPress is a very well-known platform for designing a website. Looking back, I can’t exactly say how I managed to circumvent each problem I encountered (actually sometimes I hit a brick wall) because it was a process of trial and error. I signed up to a WordPress account and then assigned the site to my Bluehost domain name. That was quite easy. There were some issues that I had to resolve, for example using Cloudfare to mitigate DDOS attacks and protect my site. But that was fairly easy.
What is very complicated is using the WordPress control panel to select plugins to use on my site and to get them to work the way I expected. I had no idea about what AMP was (Accelerated Mobile Pages) but I have a vague idea now. I signed up to get access to the paid Basic All In One SEO plugin version and this was useful. However you very quickly discover that most of the features are only available on the most expensive Pro or Elite plugin and when you register the plugin with the provided license key, it defaults to the free version after a day or so and you have to do it all over again.
As for AMP, I think I know what it is but try as I may, I just can’t get it to function correctly. It is very unclear. Does the device you use determine whether the site viewed is the AMP version or the non-AMP version? All I can seem to see in the non-AMP version unless I select Appearance -> AMP in the WordPress control panel. It makes no difference whether I delete cookies on my device. I always see the non-AMP version of my site. In that case, what is going on? I have a PhD in physics and I still can’t seem to figure it out. Everything is menu-driven in the plugins and it is very confusing.
I read that AMP increases the speed of your site and prioritises it in Google search. So it is worth doing. But the whole experience is so off-putting.
Am I stupid or something? Or is it just that people who programme these plugins and interfaces don’t have a clue how to communicate?
It would be wrong to say that I never enjoyed teaching in schools but it’s true that in general I did not enjoy it. It all depended on the class and the school. But for the most part, I did not have an easy ride. Most often, it was not the kids but the management that was the problem.
In October 2019 I visited Oman to tutor a student privately in the family home. I stayed there until March 2020 with a short trip back to the UK in February.
Oman was oppressively hot even in the middle of October when I arrived. Daytime temperatures were typically in the mid to high thirties and it was very humid indeed.
The lad I was teaching was seventeen years old and in the final year of high school. He was not doing well and struggling in all subjects. I supported him in mathematics, English, Biology and Physics. The examinations are in two parts in the final year. They are held in January and July. However due to covid, the dates of the first examination session were postponed, often less than 24 hours before the exams were due to be taken. There was a lot of assessed work too.
He passed all his examinations in January and the examination session in June was cancelled due to the pandemic. I had disagreements with the father because he seemed unwilling to accept that his son had learning difficulties. I tried to make him have more realistic expectations but it was a struggle.
The boy had no interests apart from watching Youtube and had no understanding of the world so it was a challenge.
I recently came across this website which is a huge repository of films, television programmes, audio books, images and so forth. I listened to “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad read very well indeed by a gentleman with a hint of an Australian accent. I also watched a François Truffaut film. I recommend it whether you want to watch an old movie, read or listen to a novel or simply have a browse.
A few years ago, after a holiday in New Zealand, I fell in love with the country and really wanted to move there. I researched the options for emigrating as a qualified teacher and decided to go for it. It was a slow and expensive process. I had to get all my home qualifications certified in New Zealand, get letters from every school I had ever worked in to confirm my employment and get an expensive medical examination. I went through an agency. They offered some different schools and I decided on one in Auckland. It seemed like a decent school. I had a Skype interview for the job.
Time passed and I must have spent in the region of £2000 on visa fees and other fees. Finally my visa came through. I was quite anxious about starting in a new country even though I have worked overseas a lot in the past. There was also the added worry that my stepfather was elderly and had dementia. I had really wanted my son (who was 20 at the time) to join me but he did not seem interested. He was on a working holiday visa in New Zealand at the time and had decided to do the same in Australia. So I was on my own.
Furthermore I had not taught in schools for some years. I had instead been private tutoring and I was not prepared for the behaviour I would encounter.
I decided to have a bit of a holiday in NZ before starting work. I arrived in country about 5 weeks before the start of the new term. I met the staff as it was the end of term and they were still in school. I met one of the teachers whose year 9 class I would be taking over as she was going on maternity leave. She proceeded to tell me how I would not be able to cope with the kids in her class and went through a list of all their problems. It was all very off-putting.
I had a lovely holiday and drove all the way down to Wanaka on the South Island, stopping at Fox Glacier to see friends..
I was renting an Airbnb in Auckland while I began to seek out a place to live. I was depressed by the cost of some of the accommodation and what I could afford was very pokey indeed. The school was in Henderson, a deprived area of Auckland. In fact all I read in the local newspaper was about the high levels of crime and gang violence.
I had been taking antidepressants for many years. But I had decided to make a clean break and stop taking them. I had not realised how difficult this would be. I had also not declared this to the school (that I was on antidepressants). So sue me.
The new term was approaching and I was about to start my new job. I felt strangely detached and yet at the same time quite anxious. The staff in my department (science) were lovely and very supportive. But as I took on each of my new classes, I was concerned at the low standards and very poor behaviour. Sone kids in my year 9 class constantly tapped on the metal legs of their desks and that was when they weren’t shouting unprintable obscenities at each other. I felt that I was losing control and by the second week this was happening in two of my classes. I had to ask for help from the year 9 pastoral head. By the end of Tuesday of the second week I ended the day so depressed that I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I was mostly concerned at the reaction of other teachers as I could only see things getting worse with these classes. I was on my own in the country so I had no-one outside of the school to talk to.
I went home that day feeling empty and just knew that I couldn’t cope at this school. That evening I stayed up late thinking about the predicament I was in. I booked myself onto a flight at 8am the following morning and went half way round the world to get home again. At the airport, I had to dump a lot of my possessions as I was over my weight allowance. In the bin went my tent, sleeping bag and a load of my clothes.
I had even shipped all my worldly possessions out to New Zealand at great expense.
Once I was about to board my flight I emailed the school to tell them the truth. I was so ashamed.
The whole experience cost me the best part of £10 000. I decided to leave so abruptly because I thought that they would try to persuade me to stay otherwise.
I had to return later that year to collect my possessions which had followed me to New Zealand. I could not afford to ship everything back so when I returned, I sold most of my possessions (bookcases, books, a bed, mattresses, a whole load of kitchen appliances, furniture, lamps, my TV, a full-sized desk, you name it.) I gave away my entire CD collection and more to charity shops. I even threw away my entire collection of exercise books from my school days. I shipped a fraction of what I had sent back home. Then much of what I shipped home got pilfered by the shipping company.
It took me two years to get up the courage to write to my former head of department to apologise. She said that they had been worried about me.
It was a learning experience for me and a very tough one. Not only was it a big financial hit for me, but I had failed. I was very embarrassed about the whole thing. No more teaching in schools for me.
On my return, I stayed in a friend’s static caravan in Folkestone while I got my private tuition business up and running again.
I visited Tusheti in early September 2022. To reach this northerly region of Georgia, you drive for about 2 1/2 hours before reaching a dirt road at Pshaveli. From here, you need a 4WD vehicle to take you over the Abano Pass at 2850 m above sea level.
The weather was dry and in fact there had been very little rain this summer. The region is cut off from the rest of Georgia in the winter and only a few shepherds stay here then. Access in winter is only possible by helicopter because the dirt road is impassable.
In 2007, I travelled to the Orkney Isles with my young son who was then ten years old. We visited the little Italian Chapel on the islet of Lamb Holm, which was built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. My stepfather was stationed here for his National Service in the early fifties. It is a remarkable piece of work. Every feature is lovingly made out of whatever was available to the Italian men. The building is an old Nissen hut.
I’m a maths and physics tutor based in Tbilisi, Georgia.. I’ve lived in eight countries since leaving home all those years ago. I have an adopted son and like running marathons and ultras (35 so far since 2014). In a past life, I worked in Zimbabwe and Swaziland and learned to fly in South Africa and skydive (not at the same time). I love reading and in 2020 I got into writing in a big way for the first time in my life. My other big interest is genealogy.