“Do they speak English there?” It was the first question I asked when my fiance and I decided in 1966, to go to Zambia in Central Africa as volunteers with CUSO. I figured if I spoke the language it would easy to integrate into my new life in Africa. Little did I know.
A few days after we arrived in Lusaka I was given my assignment for the next two years. I was to teach mathematics to high school students. I always loved math in school but I hadn’t had a course since first year university. Yikes! I’d have to really brush up on my skills. However, nothing could have prepared me for my first lesson, “rapid calculations in pounds, shillings, and pence”. I don’t know what the students thought of me. I kept asking how many pence were in a shilling and how many shillings were in a pound. I’ll tell you that the calculations were anything but “rapid” that day.
At the high-school I learned that I was the “form mistress”. ??? Hey,at 21 and married only a few days, I had never been the mistress of anyone or anything. There were no “grades” or “years”, but Forms 1 through 5, and I was the mistress of Form One C!
After a couple of days we were going to have an assembly in the gym. No problem. What could be different about that? All of the teachers filed in and took our seats on the stage facing the unnaturally quiet students, waiting for the arrival of the principal. I thought it must some kind of joke played on unsuspecting new teachers but the arrival of the principal in cap and gown followed quickly by all of us standing to attention soon put me in the picture. This was to be the way all of our weekly assemblies were conducted. I was in a different country!
The next few days and weeks were full of misunderstandings. I was told to go to the Building Society to deposit my pay check ($84 Canadian/per month). I would have thought it was a hardware store or a building supply company but it is a sort of credit union! Mince was hamburg. A biro was a ball-point pen. To spend a penny was to go to the bathroom. Petrol (which was rationed to 10 gallons a month) was gas. We even had to remember to drive on the left side of the road.
About a year after we arrived, Zambia switched over to the metric system. Now there would be Kwatcha and Ngwee, instead of pounds, shillings, and pence. For the general population, there was very little access to radio, the use of telephones was extremely limited , and of course, TV was almost non-existent. So the government encouraged “each one teach one” to get the message out about the currency change. It actually worked out quite well and everything went smoothly.
I came to love and appreciate the African people. When we returned to Canada after two years, we had one large suitcase and a baby girl, our daughter Michelle who was born halfway through our sojourn there. But the memories of our time there will always be a part of me.