Wednesday 7 December 2016 Adèle Geras

I am posting the link below to Lantana Publishing's page about the book which has just been published. It's called A WISP OF WISDOM, and brings together many writers and a wonderful illustrator in a volume which was created to raise money for the Cameroon region but which we all hope will be enjoyed by readers in the UK as much as by their African counterparts.

This will tell you about the origins of the books and let you know which writers are involved. The illustrator is Emmie van Biervliet

Here are the illustrations for my story.

But what I want to do here, briefly, is talk a bit about my experience of Africa. I've never visited the Cameroons, but have lived at different times in Nigeria, The Gambia and Tanzania. Also, although I can't remember it, I spent some months in Egypt as a young mother used to tell stories of how she carried me in her arms up and down and up and down to stop me crying and waking the neighbour in the next door room (we were in a hotel) only to discover the next day that he was completely deaf.

When my father was posted to Nigeria in 1950, I was 6. My mother looked up Nigeria in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and was horrified. She said to my dad. "But Laurie, there are two pages of diseases you can get!"Nevertheless, to Nigeria we went. I remember nothing but good things. I went to a wonderful school attached to the University in Ibadan. That was where my teacher and my class gave me the book, OUR ISLAND STORY, about which I've written a blog post on the History Girls. We then moved to Lagos and I can remember tradesmen coming to the door of our house with the most wonderful crocodile and snakeskin shoes and bags. Then we went to Onitcha, where there were fields of lilies outside our house and where the bats came out at twilight in such numbers that we had to retire to the safety of my parents' double bed under the mosquito net to avoid them. I am terrified by the very thought of bats to this very day. Then in Kaduna, near Kano, I did get one of those diseases that my mother dreaded: jaundice. I wasn't terribly ill but I remember going to the doctor and giving some blood from the inside of my elbow. I've not been keen on intravenous stuff ever since...he had some difficulty finding a vein.

Below is a photo of me and my dad taken around that time.

My parents then went to the Gambia. My father was Assistant Attorney General in what was then a British colony. Here I had a really wonderful time, whenever I visited. By this time, about 1956, I was at boarding school and used to go out every summer for the long school holidays. I usually flew on BOAC, on a plane exactly like the one seen recently on THE CROWN on Netflix, taking the young Princess Elizabeth to Kenya before she came to the throne. In those days, pilots used to invite children to visit the cockpit to have a go at flying the plane! The exclamation mark is intended to express my wonder, both at those innocent times and at my own daring. I am now flying phobic and haven't been up in the air for 20 years.

There was the sea. My father was permanently dark brown and loved lying in the sun, on the sand, stretched out with no Factor anything on his skin. I've always been very unkeen on the sun and have worn a hat and cover ups on the beach even when I was extremely young.

The Bishop of the Gambia was a friend of my parents and one day, he took me to visit the sick. We went to a part of what was then called Bathurst where Africans lived. It wasn't a shanty town but it was different from the houses where the Government officials and Colonial staff lived. I was struck by the contrast in the way our lives were organised. This was the first time I'd ever thought: how come we live like this when they live like that? How come they are servants in our houses? Because you couldn't escape that this relationship was what was common and the injustice of it was clear. I was present at a moment just before Independence from Colonial Rule was happening all over the Continent.

I wasn't thinking about such matters. I was busy falling in love. Dakar, the French colony, was next door to Gambia and somehow young men who were much more glamorous than what I'd been used to in England appeared at parties in the Club: French men! Young cadet soldiers, mostly. They were older than me by some years. I was fourteen and fifteen when I started going to dances at the Club, and the first person I fell in love with was eighteen. These dances were innocent affairs by today's standards. My father would drive me there and wait till the fun was over, often very late into the night. He read back numbers of Punch and the Illustrated London News in a quiet room and then drove me back to town when the dancing was done. He had no objection to my flirting with these men, but had no intention of letting me drive home with anyone who'd been drinking.

When I returned to school, I always took with me a huge biscuit tin full of peanuts, roasted at home. Gambia was famous for its groundnuts, as they were called, and I loved them. I still do. They didn't last long when they were shared out among my friends back in England.

When my father was in Gambia he invented a method of voting that cut out corruption. I'm not at all sure how it worked but it involved different coloured marbles being dropped into an oil drum. Here's a picture.

His idea was hailed as a real break through at the time and I wish I'd paid more attention to how it operated. I imagine each candidate had his colour...and it was 'his' in those days...and you put an appropriately- coloured one into the drum to indicate your preference. This method or a variant of it is still being used. It's just ousted Gambia's ruler after years and years in favour of a young man who used to work at Argos in Kilburn, I think. Good luck to him and I hope Gambia thrives under his rule.

From Gambia we went to Tanzania. Then, in 1960 or so, it was still Tanganyika and it was the most wonderful place. I loved it. Here's a picture of me on our verandah.

That's the sea behind me and Zanzibar is so close that I could smell the cloves and cinnamon from where I was sitting when the wind direction was right. Julius Nyerere was our next door neighbour. My father was by then Chief Justice and oversaw the handing over of power at Independence. FREEDOM was the slogan of the day: UHURU!We used to sing a song to a calypso kind of tune:

"Uhuru, uhuru, this is what we're going to do:

No more work and no more tax,

We'll sit in the sun and just relax!"

I did a few Saturday jobs while I was there on my summer holidays. I led guided tours in French to the jute factory and other local sights for tourists on the cruises stopping in Dar-es-salaam, and was a bit offended to be told I had a Belgian accent. I also read some poetry on the radio to help students up country who were studying for British Ordinary Level School Certificate. One of the poems was Balder Dead by Matthew Arnold.

I've not been back to Africa since 1962. It's changed enormously since then, of course, but these are some of my own memories. I hope very much that everyone who buys A WISP OF WISDOM will enjoy the stories written by me and my co-contributors.


Sally Prue said...

A wonderful opportunity, grabbed with both hands.

Penny Dolan said...

Loved hearing this part of your wonderful life story, Adele. Thanks.

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Unknown said...

I am glad to know who invented the Marble voting system. The name of your dad will be good to know.

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