A Missionary Doctor's Autobiography

by Robert M Buckley


1. Cape to Rhodesia
2. Good Hope and
 Emmanuel Mission
3. Mission Life
4. Early Schooling
5. Further Schooling
6. Medical School
7. Trip to Malawi
8. Malamulo Hospital
9. Eventful 1953/4
10. To Lesotho
11. Kanye & Kalahari
12. Yuka Hospital
13. London & Kenya
14. Kenya & Uganda
15. Walking the Valley
16. Further Studies
17. Kendu & Nairobi
18. Hong Kong
19. England & Norway
20. Maluti - Again
21. Retirement
22. Move to South Africa
Kalahari Diary


Chapter 12

Beyond the Zambezi


Travelling by train to Livingstone, on our way to Yuka, we reached the BotswanaFederation1 border. The immigration official stamped Lilian's passport, which had the two children on it. He was unimpressed by my travel document and told me, "You are a prohibited immigrant. I should really keep you in custody, However, I will let you go, on condition that you submit your proper passport within one month." (The passport arrived in due course and there was no further problem.)

At Livingstone we had a booking on the Dakota (DC3) to Mongu, the capital of Barotseland. It was a mixed freight plane - besides passengers it carried hand ploughs, bags of cement and other miscellany. As expected, it was a bumpy flight, and we were glad to touch down at Mongu. Dr. Conrad Birkenstock was there to meet us. When I asked him if we could go to the hotel to get something to eat, as we had not brought any food with us and the children were hungry, he looked puzzled. Explaining that Mongu only had a guest house and that we should be on our way, he kindly shared his lunch with us.

The fifty-mile trip in the Bedford van, over the sandy plains, was a real initiation process. Much of the Zambezi plain was flooded for 46 weeks in the year and it was only during the remaining six weeks that road contact between Yuka and Mongu was possible at all. Every year, the first vehicle to attempt the crossing had to make a new track, as the old tracks had disappeared. It was quite easy to get lost, especially at night.

Our vehicle stuck in the middle of the Little Zambezi and several other times in the soft sand. We crossed the main Zambezi on a wooden barge powered by about 20 paddlers. It was already dark when we arrived at the hospital.

Yuka Hospital has been described as one of the most isolated Adventist hospitals. Lying on the far side of the Zambezi river, only fifty miles from Angola, it is not "on the road to ..." anywhere! Visitors did not just drop in; in order to visit, you had to make a pilgrimage!

During the few days of "orientation" Dr. Conrad tried to give me as much of his accumulated wisdom as possible, while Joy B. taught Lilian how to keep the books! Then they left, and it was all up to us. With the nearest medical colleague fifty miles away, over the Zambezi, and with no radio or telephonic link, we felt very isolated. However there was work to be done and we soon settled in.

The Klaussen family were our nearest Adventist neighbours. They lived at Liumba Hill mission, about 12 miles away, over a bumpy, sandy road. With Miss Winnie Tickton, a real veteran, they ran the school and cared for the churches in the district.

Two expatriate nursing sisters, Helen Furber and Margaret Johnson, had the almost impossible task of supervising a 64-bed hospital, with only one trained African nurse. Within a short time, we started our own training programme - mostly on-the-job but it must have been good, as we had a hard time keeping other institutions from "stealing" our graduates. It was hard to find time for teaching when we were so short staffed, but the end result was that the patients had better care and we were not called out so often.

Bats in the roof of the hospital (and also of our house) posed a serious problem. Not only were they noisy neighbours, but they produced piles of pungent-smelling droppings which gave the buildings a characteristic unpleasant odour.

Trying to eliminate these pests taxed our ingenuity to the limit. We put electric lights in the ceiling space; blocked up their exit holes with cement, and even sprayed the rafters where the bats roosted with carbolic acid but nothing happened. Someone suggested that bats didn't like the smell of "khaki-bos." I reasoned that since marigolds were related to khaki-bos, they would work just as well. After pulling up all Lilian's marigolds and stuffing the plants into the cracks where the bats slept, it seemed that the bats enjoyed marigolds. We joked that maybe they were making marigold nests.

Then someone had the excellent idea that since bats launch themselves by dropping, we could catch them in buckets as they started flying each evening. Simply by hanging empty four-gallon paraffin tins under the eaves of the buildings, we were able to catch buckets-full of the furry creatures. Gradually we caught fewer and fewer, until we had our ceiling spaces "bat-free." I'm sure some conservationists would be shocked, but then, they don't have to live with them (although they may do so by their own choice!)

Some of the ceilings were covered in a 5 - 10 cm layer of bat guano, which beside having a strong smell, also caused the ceiling to sag. In fact the "last straw" that precipitated our anti-bat campaign, was when maggots from the guano started dropping from the ceiling onto the operating table. When we replaced the ceilings, we made a haul of several bags of fertilizer which was excellent for our gardens.

During 1960, Mom wrote that Dad had suffered a mild heart attack and so we arranged to take our annual holiday and visit them. I had bought the Bedford van from Dr. Conrad and we decided to go by road. It took us three long days to get to Livingstone - as the river was still in flood, we had to take the long way around via Sitoti mission, and Sisheki. In all, it took a full week to reach the Natal south coast, where Dad was caretaker for the Anerley youth camp. I could write a whole chapter on the experiences of that trip. We had to spend one night sleeping by the roadside as we were hopelessly stuck in the sand.

We were glad that we could make the trip and see Dad, who was still in hospital. He died two months later.

When we got back to Bulawayo, we persuaded the "Union Brethren" that we needed a hospital-owned Land Rover. It was with great joy we waved good-bye to the Bedford van, with its Y-30 registration plate. I cannot say that the four-wheel drive never got stuck, but that was only when we took chances with it that we would never have dreamed of with the Bedford. At least we did not get stuck in the sand every trip as we had done before.

The following year, Jane, our younger daughter was born. As can be imagined, it would have been very difficult for Lilian to go out for the birth, so we planned a "home delivery". As the expected date of delivery approached, I became increasingly apprehensive - what if the birth was complicated and Lilian needed a Caesarean Section? "You'll just have to do the operation," she commented, matter-of-factly. By then it had become too late for her to fly out, as the airline did not allow mothers to travel by air in the last six weeks of the pregnancy.

Labour started on a Friday evening. We had arranged that the delivery would take place in the spare bedroom in our house. By four in the morning it became clear that the baby was not making progress. So we called out the theatre staff and carried the patient on a stretcher up to the hospital, a distance of about two hundred yards. One of the nursing sisters gave the ether anaesthetic and I had to deliver the baby by forceps - one of the hardest deliveries I have had to do. Difficult, not mechanically, but emotionally. Just like athletes have to "psyche themselves up" before a contest, I had to make the mental adjustment of "this is not my wife and baby - it's just a job to be done."

We praised God that everything went well and Jane Alison arrived in good condition. She is now the mother of three lively children and lives in Switzerland.

Leprosy (now called Hansen's disease) was a common problem in Barotseland, and particularly in the Kalabo district. I have been told that this was due to the fact that the Paramount Chief of the Barotse people, who lived near Mongu, had in the past banished anyone with leprosy. Almost in the Mosaic tradition, they were sent away from the Royal Village at Limulunga, across the river to the Kalabo region.

At Liumba Hill, twelve miles away, was a "leper colony" with about fifty patients and at the Hospital we had a colony with around 120 patients. They lived in grass huts, built by relatives and when they were pronounced "cured" and returned home, the empty hut would be given or sold to a new arrival. We received a small grant (I think it was 6d. per day - 2.5 pence in new money) to buy food for the patients. Gifts of blankets and clothing were appreciated, especially at Christmas. The patients were required to keep the camp clean and those that were fit worked in communal gardens, growing food to augment their own meagre rations of maize meal and beans.

One of the legacies that I left for Yuka was the "leper hospital." We solicited the funds, drew up the plans, obtained the materials and supervised the building. We imported (with difficulty) the cement but everything else had to be made or bought locally. This included bringing clay down the river on a barge to make bricks, then making and firing them.

It was good to have a proper hospital to treat our leprosy patients who needed admission.

Toward the end of our time at Yuka, in the run-up to independence, we were aware of a lot of dissatisfaction and anti-white feeling. Political activists would arrive, complete with cat-skin hat, briefcase and fly-whisk and try to hold political rallies or trade union meetings. I was not popular with the political party because I would not allow my staff to attend these meetings in their working hours. This resentment found a channel through agitators in the leper colony.

Normally we only took in leprosy patients from our own district but some months

previously I had, at his insistence and against my better judgement, admitted a young man from the Mongu region. It turned out that, beside being a leprosy patient, he was a political agitator. Gradually he fomented a spirit of rebellion among the patients and finally he asked me to meet with all the residents to discuss their grievances. I felt that I was re-enacting the story of Moses and Korah and his friends. He accused me of being dictatorial, of stealing the money the government gave for their food, of forcing sick people to work in the hospital gardens - this being "slavery." He threatened to report me to the Chief Medical Officer. I told the group that I was sad that they did not believe or trust me; that there was no extra money to buy food for them; that the food they grew in the gardens was for their own use; etc. I could sense that there was a spirit of rebellion and threats were even made against me and my family.

I dismissed the meeting, promising that I would talk to them again. That night, as I worried and stewed over the problem, suddenly the thought came "You don't have to put up with this! These people came voluntarily - if they are not happy here, they can go somewhere else." After discussing the matter with the District Commissioner the next day, we arranged for all the patients to be transported on our hospital truck, the five miles to Kalabo, where they spent the night under a large wild-fig tree. The next day he called in the ringleaders in the revolt, whom I had identified. Individually they were given a chance to voice their complaints and accusations. Then they were asked if they wanted to stay at Yuka under the existing rules or be transferred. Each of the troublemakers emphatically stated that they did not want to return to Yuka and was then told to sit to the left side, under guard of an askari (policeman).

After about seven or eight people had been processed, some declared that they wanted to go back; that they had been intimidated. They were told to sit on the right side. Then the D. C. talked to the main group of patients and they all chose to go back, stating that they were quite happy at Yuka. So all the main group and those on the right side were loaded up on the truck again. Singing happily, they were taken back to their grass huts. Those on the left were told they were being sent to Mongu and that if they ever came back to Yuka they would be arrested. I'm glad the earth didn't open and swallow them, but they never troubled us again!


1The Federation was an unhappy union imposed on Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland; these countries are now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, respectively.