The only time I’ve ever been chased by an enraged elephant while standing in the back of an antique Bedford lorry with 35 schoolgirls was very nearly my last.

This was not the last time I would bounce around in the back of a lorry with schoolgirls, nor the last time I would be chased in a lorry by an enraged elephant, nor even the closest I came to dying with my students in the back of a lorry. But you cannot beat an enraged elephant, schoolgirl, and decrepit lorry story, so I am going with that. 

It was hard times at Iringa Girls Secondary Boarding School when I arrived on a two-year teaching contract in 1982. Tanzania’s economy was in near total collapse and life seemed to be impossibly difficult for everyone. 

One morning shortly after my arrival our staff room emptied when my colleagues rushed to the outdoor market at the rumour of salt. There was salt, but it had been scraped up from a sea pond in the form of large chunks peppered with dirt and rocks. It had to be dissolved, strained, and re-evaporated in the sun before you could add a pinch to your bean stew. Another colleague travelling in the north on school break ran into a tourist shocked that the shop he had just visited had vinegar, but nothing else. My colleague demanded the location of the miracle shop and ran to buy a case of the vinegar which he brought back 800 kilometres on a bus to share with us in Iringa. Expatriates like me subscribed to the airmail Manchester Guardian Weekly newspaper as it not only provided a window on the world we had left behind, but the paper itself was of texture to use, when cut into squares, as toilet paper. I still wonder whether the journalists had any idea where their writing ended up. 

Without a family to care for, these challenges were difficult but also exhilarating in a way. For my Tanzanian colleagues and neighbours, they were crushing. There was no chance they could make ends meet with their teaching jobs; not so much for lack of money but because the necessities of life were not available. The teachers ended up cultivating every available bit of land in and around the school as we all became farmers and scavengers. 

In theory our staff housing had running water and electricity, but weeks would go by without either. Under our neighbours’ tutelage, we young city slicker greenhorns became experts at catching rainwater from the roof drains, cooking on charcoal, butchering chickens, and washing clothes in a bucket. We prepared lesson plans by candlelight, rationed batteries for our shortwave radios, and learned to appreciate the bamboo sap home brew known as ulanzi. At school, tattered textbooks had to be shared among several students who used old copies of The Daily News to replace the torn covers. In the absence of staples or paper clips the girls would pierce the top left corner of their exam papers with a pencil and then use a thread extracted from the hem of their skirts to tie the papers together. 

Post independence in 1961, President Julius Nyerere undertook ambitious projects to develop this huge and overwhelmingly rural country. The most ambitious and well known was the goal of universal primary education. He also increased the number of girls and boys in secondary school. That was where folks like me came into the picture; initially there had not been enough educated Tanzanians to fill all those new classrooms. By the time I got there, this had changed as the system was graduating a lot of teachers and did not need outside help. But my Headmistress wanted someone trained in teaching English as a second language because the girls coming into the school had been taught in Kiswahili in primary school and were having trouble making the switch to the all-English language instruction in secondary school. Fortunately for me and my conscience there were not many teachers with this training in Tanzania. 

Iringa Girls Secondary Boarding School class photo from 1984

Tanzania had similarly ambitious dreams for public health care, transport infrastructure, irrigation schemes, and electrification. Expensive ambitions for a country with a small tax base. By the end of the 1960’s President Nyerere was convinced the state needed control of what little there was to ensure that economic decisions and revenue benefited the majority. This logic led to nationalization of many of the bigger farms, much of the industrial sector, and even most of the larger retailers. 

By the time I arrived in 1982 the full impact of these decisions had firmly taken root and not much was being grown on the large state farms, little was being made in the factories, and tourism had largely disappeared. These stumbles in management of the economy were compounded by ideological tussles with the World Bank and the western donor countries, the international oil price shock of the 1970s and a war with Idi Amin’s Uganda. Without foreign currency almost nothing was being imported (except perhaps East German Sauerkraut cans, faulty Chinese flashlights, and other strange shoddy items linked to “friendship” agreements with eastern bloc countries). Strict controls on the little foreign currency available resulted in a black-market economy pegged to dollars and euros. In this downward spiral, and without a lot of ideas or options, the government doubled down on enforcement. But this led to a substantial increase in corruption as needy citizens negotiated with needy bureaucrats over the allocation of scarce resources. 

The author on laundry day

Despite its financial difficulties and eroding ethics, the Tanzanian State was still, at its core, aspirational and its bureaucratic systems sputtered along. Which brings me back to that Bedford lorry full of schoolgirls and their heavily bearded English teacher, Mwalimu Ken. As it turned out the school budget had an unused allocation for educational field trips. My Tanzanian colleagues, too busy growing maize and chasing rumours of soap, wanted nothing to do with this budget, so there the money sat waiting for unsuspecting me. 

Always desperate for an inspiring conversation topic (my students and I knew almost nothing about each others’ world, so my discussion topic ideas often fell flat), I proposed “Animals of Tanzania” and discovered that none of my students had visited their National Parks. To my safari-crazed mind, this was hard to fathom. Ruaha National Park, one of the best in Tanzania, was only 110 kilometres from Iringa Girls. I cannot recall what possessed me even to raise the idea with Headmistress Mgonja but she agreed and just like that, it was a funded plan. The idea made no sense at all: the only vehicle we had at our boarding school with over 300 students was an antique Volkswagen combi nearly always out of commission, there had not been petrol or diesel at the filling stations in months, there were no hotels at, in, or near Ruaha Park, and there was nowhere to eat. 

But the Headmistress was a force of nature. She arm-twisted her counterpart at Tosamaganga Boys Secondary School to lend us their lorry. This was progress but it would only hold 30 girls and I was Form Master for 60 girls in Form 3. It was going to have to be two camping trips instead of one. She then shamed the Regional Commissioner into allocating two drums of diesel fuel from his strategic stock. Ruaha National Park had basic dormitory facilities which we were welcome to use but we would have to be self-sufficient for food; I would have to recruit Sister Dotta to my plan.

Iringa Girls Secondary School had been part of an extensive network of Italian Catholic Missions in the southern highlands prior to independence. At the time I was too wide-eyed to wonder why villages like Tosamaganga looked straight out of Tuscany with massive brick churches, schools, and hospitals built around piazzas. It is a bit of a long story. When the Germans occupied what they called “German East Africa”, they moved swiftly into the interior to the fertile Southern Highlands which had good agricultural land, resources, and a healthy climate. To their chagrin, they discovered that the Wahehe people of the Highlands under the leadership of Chief Mkwawa were vigorously opposed to their presence. It took years of military campaigns and brutal repression by the Germans to finally impose themselves in the area. Over time they used German Benedictine missionaries to establish schools and hospitals in the Southern Highlands (and Lutherans elsewhere in the country). With the First World War Germany lost their African colonies and the Benedictines left Tanzania. The League of Nations gave the British a mandate to administer the former German colony under the new name “Tanganyika”. The British were not keen to invest much in their new territory and convinced the Italian Consolata Fathers to take over the abandoned missions around Iringa. Sister Dotta was a nun left over from that legacy living in a small convent with a few other Italian nuns who operated a health clinic. Sister Dotta was the head of our Home Economics Department. She had secret, perhaps divine, sources of sugar and flour for her students’ baking exams. These exams would then find their way to the teachers’ room at chai time. 

Sister Dotta and colleagues watching the students parade before Saturday morning assembly.

Sister Dotta was all-in on the safari idea and took charge of the menu and the bedding and, to my relief, the discipline. (The girls lived in fear of her but not of me.) We had hours of rough, dusty, and hot road ahead of us with no refrigeration, no ice, and a lot of hungry girls. Sister Dotta dipped into the Convent’s pantry and came up with giant bags of dried mashed potatoes. Breakfast would be maize meal porridge. Lunch would be too inconvenient so never mind. 

The girls had basically two clothing options at the school. The orange skirt/white blouse uniform or the one set of dress-up go to mosque/church finery. Fancy clothes it would be.

Off we went, against all odds. It must have taken at least four hours to do the 110 kilometres on the unspeakable dirt road, but we made it somehow, surely under some sort of protection pre-arranged by Sister Dotta with her boss. Mashed potato dinner was all you would have expected it to be, but the setting more than made up for it. And everything tastes better camping. 

The next morning, we all piled back in the truck and went deeper into the Park with a Game Ranger. Ruaha Park in those days had almost no visitors as it was so remote. It was famous not only for its huge elephant population (49,000 according to a 1982 census) but also for aggressive ivory poaching.

Elephants are social animals and highly intelligent with a reputation for perhaps holding a grudge. Or at least that was the impression I was left with after this trip.

Cooking over a campfire on the banks of the Ruaha river. Note the Baobab tree in the background which has nearly been worried through by elephants.

We were driving slowly on a rough and winding track when an elephant in the distance flared its ears and homed in on us with determination. Lumbering is the mode you usually associate with elephants but that gait disguises speeds up to 40 kilometres an hour when motivated. Top speed in a Bedford down a hill would not have been much more than that, but on this rough track we would be lucky to hit 20. 

Elephants will often mock charge out of a twisted sense of humour or just to set you straight. 

But park ranger was of the view this was not a mock charge and urged the driver on. Even I could tell this was not a good situation. For one thing, the elephant’s charge started from hundreds of metres away, so personal space was not the issue. Nor was parental concern as she was alone. Our fate became a question of geometry with Tembo taking the straight line as we were forced to follow a twisty track. I must have had a camera with me but not the nerve to attempt a shot as no visual record remains. 

But the story ended happily with no girls falling out of the lorry, no tusks through Sister Dotta, the road straightening out, and the elephant finally abandoning the chase. 

For a long time afterwards, I would wake up in a cold sweat imagining the headline “School Safari Tragedy Blamed on Late Canadian School Teacher”. The girls though, bore me no grudge and when I left Iringa in 1984, they presented me with an embroidered safari-themed tablecloth completed under the tutelage of Sister Dotta. 

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