'We had our meals in the convent for about a week while we got our own house up and running'

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'We had our meals in the convent for about a week while we got our own house up and running'


Frank remembers going back to Africa.


Frank Gaynor


Trinity College Dublin




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Frank Gaynor

Is Part Of

Marriage and Family


Life Story

Spatial Coverage

Kenya, Africa

Temporal Coverage


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We were called for interview to Gardiner Street in north Dublin in July 1969. There we met a man from Christians Abroad in London. He offered us the choice of Cameroon, Sierra Leone or Malawi. To help us decide he directed us next door to meet with a Jesuit priest who was home from Zambia. This priest did not hesitate in recommending Malawi, describing it as the Switzerland of Africa. Soon afterwards we were put in contact with the Headmistress of Providence Secondary School, who was hoping that I would be ready to start teaching in her school by early October. We had little detailed information on Malawi and practically no information on my employment terms and conditions when we left Dublin airport in October 1969, accompanied by our first child, Lynda, who was then three months old. Our families and friends thought we were daft and timidly wished us well. In Rome we had a few hours to wait for our onward flight. Our loose cash was sufficient for a light meal at the airport or a return bus fare to the city, but not both. We opted for the bus fare and a bottle of water. It was mid - day when we landed at Chileka airport, a few miles outside Blantyre. As we emerged from the plane into the burning mid - day sun a wave of hot air hit our faces. There to greet us, dressed in brilliant white, were Sister Bertha, the Headmistress, and Sister Marilyn, her assistant. They were bubbling with excitement and gave us a wonderfully warm welcome to this country that is known as 'The warm heart of Africa'. As we drove through Blantyre the streets were clean, and busy with cars and people doing their Saturday shopping. There were no slum areas to be seen. A few miles outside Blantyre we were on a dirt road, with clouds of dust rising behind the car. On both sides the brown soil and scorched grass suggested that it had not rained for months. In front of us was a flat plain out of which jutted spike - topped hills. Farther down the road Mount Mulanje came into view. This mountain, which is the dominant feature of the area, rises abruptly from about 700m to a plateau at 2,000m. The highest peak on the plateau is called Sapitwa and is at an altitude of 3,000m. Before reaching the mountain we turned left off the road at the sign for Chisitu Catholic Mission. Past the church we drove along a tree - lined avenue to Providence Secondary School, situated on a gently sloping hill. At the bottom of the hill was a small newly - built house waiting for us to move in. There was very little furniture in the house and no equipment in the kitchen. Sr. Bertha, still very excited about our arrival, drove the short distance to the convent to collect a selection of basic equipment that would help us get started. On the way back to our house, when the cups and plates started making noise on the back seat, Bertha looked around and crashed into a tree, damaging the front of the car and breaking a few of the cups. We had our meals in the convent for about a week while we got our own house up and running. This community of 8 to 10 Montfort Sisters came from Britain, USA and Canada. Sr. Bertha was a French speaking Canadian. We enjoyed our week dining with them and learned a lot from listening to what they had to say. Because we were Irish we seemed to be given some kind of novelty status. My home - baked jokes landed slowly. It was only on the second or third telling that the penny would drop for one or two of my listeners. The enlightened few would then proceed to try and explain the punch line to their colleagues. Nearby was a convent of local nuns - Servants of Mary. A few of these nuns were students in Providence. Compared with the Montfort Sisters, the Servants of Mary were living in second - class accommodation. In addition to the two convents, Chisitu Catholic Mission complex included Chisitu Parish Church, one primary school for boys and one for girls, a girls' secondary school (Providence), and a girls' teacher training college. A few miles down the road was the CCAP Mission (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) with a well run hospital. In the 1920s there had been a bit of a turf war in this area between the Catholics and the Presbyterians. The outcome of this was that the Catholics proceeded to concentrate on education and the Presbyterians on health. Chisitu parish was run by Dutch Montfort Fathers. The parish priest was Father Timmermans. It was from the back of his motorcycle that I first saw the local trading centre, Chitakali - a hugely unimpressive scatter of buildings, mostly small trading stores run by Asians. Chitakali was about 8km from Chisitu. A couple of kilometres farther on was the Mulanje District administration centre, called The Boma. (Boma is the local word for Government). Each District had a Boma with a number of offices, including education, health, tax and labour. Also situated at or near The Boma were the post office, police station, courthouse, prison, hospital, bus station, and one or two schools. Outside Chitakali I got my first view of the Mulanje tea estates and their well manicured green bushes. The tea estates were situated at the foot of Mulanje Mountain, in the path of a suitable rain belt, and stretched all the way to the Mozambique border which was about 50km farther on. At the time of our arrival there were 70 white families involved in the Mulanje tea business which gave employment to about 12 000 local workers. Chisitu was outside the tea growing area and was densely populated. All around where we were living were thousands of families struggling to survive by growing maize and a few green vegetables on very small patches of ground. From the hill beside the teacher training college the surrounding area looked like one huge maize farm. The maize was interrupted by clusters of houses here and there. These clusters were called villages. The whole area was tilled by hand. In the weeks before the rains started in early November, villagers, mostly women, were out from sunrise digging the hard soil with hoes. Many of the men were away working in mines in South Africa. By midday the women were back home cooking and cleaning around the house. The houses were built using sticks and mud for the walls and grass for the roofs. The construction was generally of poor quality. Heavy rain frequently came through the roof. Those who could afford to do so bought corrugated iron sheeting for the roof. This resulted in the house being dry but very hot inside for most of the year. For weeks after our arrival the daily weather forecast remained unchanged: 'It will be warm and sunny in Mulanje'. Day after day it was very hot with cloudless skies. One Sunday we drove to Mpatamanga Gorge on the Shire River for a picnic. One memory of that outing is being fascinated looking at the way hundreds of small ants quickly ganged up to try and drag a couple of our sandwiches off the rocks. Lynda, at four months, did not enjoy the outing. At one point we were pouring bottles of water on her, hoping that that would help her overcome the heat. One night we woke up to the sound of people shouting as they raced past our house heading towards the school office. A man had been caught in the act of stealing chickens in a nearby village and he was running for his life with the screaming villagers chasing after him. By the time we reached the school Sr. Bertha was already there in her night attire. She had locked the suspected thief into her office and phoned the police. As the police moved the suspect from the office to their landrover they struggled to protect him from being lynched by the mob. When the rains finally came the whole scene quickly changed. As the rain bucketed down on the hot dry soil there was the smell of water being poured on hot ash. Within days the green shoots began to appear and the nights were filled with the croaking of frogs and toads and the buzzing of various insects. There seemed to be a whole orchestra blasting away in a damp area at the back of our house. With the sound of the rain winged termites or sausage flies came out of the numerous ant hills and headed towards the nearest and brightest light, which for many of them happened to be the electricity bulb in our living room. After a very short time they lost their wings and the floor was covered with crawling little sausages. The locals were soon busy gathering up the little sausages to roast them and eat them. On evenings when it was not raining the children would do some drumming around the anthills in the hope of fooling the termites into thinking that it was raining. Frequently they would be rewarded with handfuls of wriggling sausages to take back to their homes. One night we attended a cocktail party on Chitakali Tea Estate hosted by the British High Commissioner. When we arrived back at our house we found thousands of wingless sausage flies swimming around the sitting room, bathroom and hallway. There had been a water shortage earlier in the day and some taps had been left open. By early December there was an abundance of grass everywhere and men were employed to keep the main paths clear by slashing the grass with special long blades. One night as we walked the short distance from our house to the large school dining hall our torch shone on a very large snake crossing the path in front of us. We were surprised but not scared. We frequently saw small snakes, but a snake this size was exceptional.


Irish Research Council for Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (IRCHSS)

Research Coordinator/P.I.

Dr Kathleen McTiernan (Trinity College Dublin)

Senior Research Associate

Dr Deirdre O'Donnell (Trinity College Dublin)


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