1900 Learning more than she could teach

Red Dust and Cicada Songs
by Mary Bomford

Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2022
$26.00  /  9781773860916

Reviewed by Isabel Nanton


African memoirs continue to enjoy a reading vogue with Mary Bomford’s account of her five-years working as a young “idealistic CUSO volunteer” teacher in newly-independent Zambia offering another insightful perspective. Chilliwack-raised in a large family and newly-wed in 1969, she and husband Larry were given a choice of Zambia or Tanzania, vetoing West Africa as being too humid, their choosing of Zambia leading them to the up-country community of Lundazi where Mary teaches English at a school of 800 pupils and Larry instructs in agriculture on the school’s five-acre farm. Copious letters home provide an aide memoire of a time when Bomford concludes in her refreshingly honest fashion, that she learned “more than she could ever teach.”

A continent of 54 countries, each of them unique, Africa lends itself to many interpretations and with the passing of time, there is always time for a fresh reading.  Kenyan-born, I once visited Zambia in the early Seventies to play field hockey against the women of the Copperbelt, when concurrently the Bomfords were teaching in the country. Since our own sporting visit was all too brief, I was eager to learn more of that era in Zambia which next year celebrates 60 years of independence from Britain.

A shopping street in Lundazi. Photo Mary Bomford

So what did I learn? Presented in a series of vignettes, the Bomford’s experiences in the community reflect that of many expats including Peace Corps and VSO volunteers who arrived in newly-independent African countries to offer skills which initially were in short supply. Once there, expats often baulked at hiring staff to help them, but the young Bomfords appreciate they were offering Bedford (21) a job to support his two wives and two children whereupon “he kept our daily life running smoothly with home-baked bread, fires started on time, and laundry ironed free of skin-burrowing larvae.”

Integral to many an African memoir, vivid images of safari proliferate. When the rains fall, local girls tuck green caterpillars into their hair as barrettes while other memories of her African holidays seep seamlessly into Bomford’s recollections. Neighboring Lake Malawi becomes one of their favorite destinations, which I learned is 365 miles long (days in the year) and 52 miles wide (weeks). Here “in a country where time was elastic,” they go with pal Alec in search of a drum. This charming account of their procuring a traditional drum is a microcosm of the African experience and includes a day which “had begun with singing cockroaches (the size of a fist) and ended with a drum and butterflies.” Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi is a lyrical magnet yet jarring on their return there on a CIDA project in 2004, when it had become the AIDS capital of Malawi, in a country now heavily in debt to China.  Back in the Seventies though, the young teachers savor the solitude and silence at 8000’ of the Nyika Plateau in Malawi, home to 200 species of orchids.

Author Mary Bomford

On the school front, we learn that the 800 students eat nshima every single day, food providing links to back home after Mary Bomford’s first startling experience of a “fresh meat” butcher’s shop, extending on to her first homesick Christmas when tinned Brussels sprouts accompany their turkey feast.  Meanwhile, lucky CUSOs working in the capital Lusaka and the Copperbelt region get to regularly lick ice-cream cones.

While I craved a bit more about individual students taught by Bomford, there was possibly a language barrier. Still, she deftly sketches out each European teacher and later the Russians who arrive to teach science and math with whom they do not discuss politics but eat together, drink “fruity brews,” and play badminton and ping pong. On the home front, Bomford gives birth to her first son in the Lundazi African hospital where the local grannies slept under their daughters’ beds.

Chipata Airport. Photo Mary Bomford

Tension builds when a riot breaks out in the school and headmaster Manyinda’s house is torched, and while students throw torches into other teachers’ homes the Bomford’s is not a target. (Sadly, regular arson in contemporary Kenyan schools is now the subject of academic/scholarly study). Here in Zambia at this time we witness Bomford’s equilibrium – when tear gas is deployed to quell the protesters, she protects her four-month old son and plays Blowing in the Wind on her guitar. There is speculation that the riot might have been incited by CIA involvement, which brings to mind scholar Susan Williams’ recent seminal book, White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa.

Mary Bomford’s garden. Photo Mary Bomford

“The village is the place you return to once you have tasted city life,” Bomford concludes, situating her experience in a wider context and using clear, precise language to convey her half decade in Africa. More than sixty people attend an ex-Lundazi staff reunion in Birmingham in July 2003 to recognize that “Zambia had provided a landscape where we tested ourselves and met challenges we would never have had at home.” Among guests at the event was Roy from Quebec, the former Catholic White Father who spoke fluent Chitumbuka and brought a bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape to the Bomford’s first Christmas celebration: now married to the Welsh midwife from Lumezi Mission, Zambia and a father of six. Flying in from Botswana came Russians Nick and Nina who had done contract work for their entire careers, all joining a bevy  of colleagues whose time in Africa had, as Africa does, revolutionized their psyche.


Kenyan-born author and Cambridge Press Fellow Isabel Nanton is author of the Sierra Club Guide to BC, Adventuring in British Columbia (Sierra Club Books, 1996, with Mary Simpson). She specializes in writing about East Africa and Western Canada. She has reviewed books for the The Globe and MailThe Vancouver Sun, and Old Africa magazine in East Africa. Editor’s note: Isabel Nanton has also reviewed books by Mellissa FungJohn Schreiner & Luke WhittallJoe Martin & Alan HooverDiana Lary, and Kogila Moodley for The British Columbia Review.*

The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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