At the age of seven I was sent to boarding school 500 milesaway, in what my mother would say was “the back of beyond”, in the Usambara Mountains in Northern Tanzania. The school was run by Roman Catholic priests and was situated 4500 ft above sea level. To get there you had to drive up a treacherous dirt road escarpment, which was a ten mile climb from the nearest tarmac road in Mombo.
Once at the school, the nearest village was Soni and the next biggest village was Lushoto, which was ten miles of bumpy dirt road through the most stunning African scenery. The area was lush, foliage grew everywhere and if you knew what you were looking for then it was a haven for wild orchids and African violets.
Once I had been at the school for a couple of terms, Mum wrote to me and said she had started communicating with a man called Brother Paddy MacNamara at Gare mission near Lushoto, who was collecting wild orchids and violets.
Mum said she would be coming to visit me at the next half term break and Aunt Lu (Aunt Lu was a renowned orchid expert) would be her traveling companion, and we would be taken on an expedition through the forests by Br. Paddy as he knew his way round the jungle. I was delighted by this, not because I had any interest at that age in plants, but I was rarely visited at half term as it was a two day trip for my parents to get there so half term visits were rare.
Well Saturday lunchtime rolls round and there is Mum to greet me along with Aunt Lu together with Aunt Lu’s African garden assistant who had been brought along to climb trees and get the hidden treasures down to ground level.
Ms Mather and her sister Lu
We checked in to the Soni Hotel and had bread and soup for lunch, that was all the hotel had as it had been raining heavily and the food lorries hadn’t been able to get up the escarpment so the whole area was on rations. I remember Mum wasn’t too impressed with the soup but she was so excited about meeting Br. Paddy that lack of food was a minor inconvenience. After lunch off we set to Gare mission, this should have taken an hour but took longer as Mum insisted on stopping every half mile as she thought she had “spotted a new specimen”.
We eventually made it to the mission where we picked up Br. Paddy and headed off into the real jungle. During the course of the next three hours we got stuck in the mud numerous times as Paddy directed us deeper into the forest, fortunately the locals had a habit of appearing from their mud huts to help push us out of the mire. The cost of this was a bag of my candies, which didn’t impress me at all. Mum wasn’t bothered by this, as every time we got stuck, this was an opportunity to rummage through the foliage. The evening ended with Mum, Lu and Paddy breaking open the brandy.
The following morning Br. Paddy provided a picnic breakfast and off we went early to a place that Paddy called ‘World’s End’. Why we asked? I’ll never forget him saying, “If you forget to brake then it is!”. Well after getting stuck a few times and finding new specimens we finally made it to ‘World’s End’. Basically the mud road was a one way track and if you didn’t know when to stop then you would have driven over a 2000 ft sheer cliff! The views were the most spectacular I’d ever seen aged seven. Mum spied a new specimen just out of reach over the cliff growing on the edge so Aunt Lu’s garden assistant went over the edge with Paddy keeping hold of his legs to stop him going over – that for me was the most exciting part of the weekend. We headed back to school late that afternoon with all the bags on the back seat as the trunk was full of new unidentified specimens.
Mum had a great weekend and if she were alive today, she would be absolutely delighted that her efforts to conserve African Violets are still remembered and celebrated. Thank you Francine.