In 1964, not long before his 19th birthday, my father set off for Bechuanaland – or Botswana as it would shortly become.
At the time, the country was about to hold its first ever free election, in preparation for their upcoming independence. My dad’s job – after two months of training in Zimbabwe and Swaziland – was to travel from village to village explaining how the voting process worked and encouraging people to register. He had a Land Rover, an interpreter, a couple of African assistants and a public information film to accompany his talk.
People are people the world over, and most of the locals weren’t wildly excited by the prospect of a dry presentation on electoral process – much as I suspect would be the case if one tried the same thing in my North Yorkshire village in 2023. But the Land Rover did have a loudspeaker on top, and he found that if he transformed himself into a sort of mobile disco on arrival, people were slightly more receptive to his democracy chat. Word travelled faster than he did, and his arrival in a new settlement was usually greeted with immediate demands for ‘Twist, boss.’
In a cupboard back at my family home, we have a shoebox full of the old reel-to-reel tapes that accompanied him on his journey. When I listened to a few of them recently, I discovered an eclectic mix of Beatles albums, jaunty African jazz recorded off the radio, Disney songs, and the Rodrigo classical guitar concerto (one of my all-time favourites, as it happens). A couple of reels contain crackly recordings of impromptu village sing-songs, or curious children bickering amongst themselves with the microphone held too close to their faces – interspersed by the clipped BBC tones of the British Information Services educational content that he was casually recording over.
Here’s one of my favourites. I love the idea of some 19-year-old ex-public schoolboy motoring into town and blasting this out of his car speakers as an opening gambit. Honestly, what must those Botswanans have thought?
In six months he covered more than 7,000 miles and gave his talk on electoral process 76 times. Some days they drove from dawn to dusk, others they stopped and watched the wildlife for hours. He slept by camp fires and was surprised to find that it snowed in Africa. One evening, deep in the Kalahari, he arrived at a compound to be greeted by an English couple in immaculate evening dress clutching gin and tonics, like something from the 1920s.
When he wasn’t on the road, he lived with a couple of eccentric government veterinarians who were researching the transmission of foot and mouth disease between wildebeest and domestic herds. One of them wore spurs to ride his bicycle and began each day by leaning out of his bedroom window and taking a pot-shot at an elephant skull at the far end of the garden with a .22 rifle.
‘It’s a wonderful country,’ my dad told the Yorkshire Evening Post when he returned home in October 1964 to start university. ‘You take life as you find it.’
I grew up on stories of Botswana, and I don’t suppose there was anyone who ever came for dinner at Glebe Cottage who didn’t hear the one about the guinea fowl and the elephant gun. There was always talk of him taking us on safari one day, but unfortunately that wasn’t where the thread of his life led. He died in 2006, and never made it back to Africa.
But I did. This year I turned 40, and when I really thought about it, I realised I didn’t want a party or any other big celebration – I wanted to see Botswana. So I booked a two-week camping safari, and had the time of my life. I thought about the old man a lot, and I was glad he’d finally led me there – nearly sixty years later.