The Road to Boarding School - Train, Bus, and Plane.

Valeria By Valeria, 4th Dec 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Africa>Tanzania>Lake Tanganyika & The West

Three trips to boarding school in Tanganyika in the 1950's to 1960's, the experiences of three children, unusual and adventurous times.

First Road to Boarding School for Vivian.

My eldest brother started boarding school when he was about eight years old and I
was five. We lived up Kiboriani Mountain, in Tanzania, East Africa. My Dad had
extended the road up the mountain from the old German mission to where he built us a house and started a farm. We had a herd of donkeys and goats; donkeys for carrying stuff and goats for milk and meat.

Vivian and I, with a young tribal lad named Tabu, led a very carefree life on
Kiboriani; roaming in the bush, clambering up the cliffs to look at the view of rolling
plains below, yelling at and mimicking the ever present baboons, playing in the ponds
catching frogs and tadpoles, and making things out of clay.

I don’t remember how Vivian took the news about going to boarding school, but I
do remember him telling me not to wear his cowboy suit while he was away. He got
a cowboy suit for Christmas, and one day I put it on and went outside. Because it was
too big for me and the legs too long, I got mud caked all around the bottom of the
legs and it had taken a lot of dry scrubbing to get it off. Hence the order, “Don’t wear my cowboy suit while I’m away!”

And I remember the day when we drove him down the mountain to Kongwa School.
Kongwa was the small town where I was born, in a small tin-roofed bush hospital.
When we left Vivian outside the junior dormitory and started to drive away, he ran
after us, screaming and chasing the Land Rover. It was a dirt road, and what I
remember is dust billowing up behind the Land Rover, and seeing, through the dust, my brother running after us, screaming and crying, his blonde curls bobbing. Dad kept saying to Mum, “Don’t worry, the teachers will get him, he’ll be alright, don’t look back.”

First Road to Boarding School for Valeria.

In Africa, because many people lived in areas where there was no school handy,
boarding school was the normal thing to do. My turn didn’t come until I was eleven years old and we were living in Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. Kigoma was quite a large town, but there was no school. All the kids went to boarding school in Mbeya, Arusha, and Iringa. Vivian had already begun his senior school education in Dar es Salaam before we moved to Kigoma, and so he continued on there.

I was not happy about going to boarding school. As the time to leave home drew near, I was feeling a little desperate and started to think up ways to avoid going.
“I’ll hang on to the handle of the fridge door and they won’t be able to get me off.”
“I’ll climb our mango tree and hold onto a branch up there and they won’t be able
to get me down.”

But as Mum worked to prepare what I needed to take with me, I realised that I
WAS going to boarding school and that I’d better get used to the idea. Mum did a lot of sewing for me. In Africa she sewed nearly all our clothes, including our knickers. I kind of clung to her, sitting up on the table watching her sew while she talked to me, giving me last minute advice and instruction.

The day of departure finally arrived. All the family came to the station to see me off. Myself and Claire Macqueen were the only kids going to Mbeya from Kigoma. A teacher, Mr. Roberts-Favell, arrived on the train to be our escort. Saying goodbye to
Dad and Mum, I couldn’t stop crying. I had never been away from my family before.
Mum gave me her handkerchief to dry my eyes and blow my nose. It had my
mother’s scent on it and I kept it. During most of that term I kept it under my pillow
and brought it out at night to hold under my nose while I went to sleep.

We left Kigoma at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We were due to arrive in
Tabora at about 10 am the next morning. We said our goodbyes and Mr. Roberts-
Favell took us onto the train. The train was huffing and puffing and blowing out
steam as it prepared to leave the station. I was still crying. I don’t remember if Claire
was crying because I was too absorbed in my own sorrow. The whistle blew as we
pulled out of the station. Claire and I were in a cabin with Mr. Roberts-Favell. The
seats in the cabin could be turned into four bunks to sleep on at night, and there was a
small hand basin under the window. Claire and I sat at each side of the window
waving to our families.

We sped through dry countryside dominated by thorn bush, we crossed bridges over
dry river beds, we saw tribal children herding cattle or goats, waving their sticks about
and waving to us as we went by. Here and there we saw small groups of tribal huts,
and often the people would come running to wave at us as the train sped by. It wasn’t
unusual either to pass a goods train that had rolled off the tracks and lay there like an
incapacitated iron caterpillar, with the swollen bodies of dead cattle strewn around it.
At stations locals crowded under the train windows trying to sell things to the
passengers, mainly fruit. In Uvinza, where the eldest two of the three Bettison boys
joined us, we bought some bananas and mangos.

When night fell an orderly helped us transform the seats into bunks and gave us
each a bedding roll consisting of sheets, a blanket and a pillow. We were wearing our sports uniform; khaki shorts and a plain coloured t-shirt. We rolled into bed as we were. I started to think about my family again, especially my Mum and Dad. The old steam train made that wonderful chuff-chuffing sound, while the wheels clackety-clacked on the railway line, comforting me as I went to sleep.

I awoke with a jolt during the night; nearly falling out of my bunk. The train had
suddenly stopped, and we were wondering why. We waited while Mr. Roberts-
Favell went to make enquiries. He came back and told us that the train had hit an
elephant on the tracks, but the elephant had actually run off into the bush. The train
driver realised that it was probably wounded and could become a problem and a
danger if it survived wounded and in pain. A hunter, who happened to be on the train,
was despatched to see if he could find it and, if necessary, shoot it. But he couldn’t
find the elephant quickly enough, and the train could not be delayed any longer. We
climbed back into our bunks and our journey continued. We were up early the next
morning and went down to the dining car for breakfast.

Tabora was quite a big town and the station very busy. We got off the train and
joined a group of kids from different parts of Tanganyika, all headed for Mbeya
School. Many of them knew each other, but Claire, myself, and the younger Bettison

boy were new and we didn’t know anyone. All the kids wore the same sports uniform
that we were wearing, the colour of your t-shirt depended on which ‘house’ you
belonged to. I belonged to Stanley House and my t-shirt was navy blue. Speke was
red, Burton green, and Livingstone yellow.

We boarded another train for Itigi. We were due to arrive in Itigi at about 3 o’clock that afternoon. Two more teachers joined Mr. Roberts-Favell as escorts. Now the journey was different, more kids, more noise, more laughter, more fun. Itigi was a
small town; we jumped off the train onto very sandy ground, then walked to a small hotel where we were served tea and sandwiches before boarding our bus for Mbeya. While waiting for our bus to arrive, we snuck off and played gambling games with local Africans and lost most of our pocket money.

The bus, driven by an African driver and his co-driver, had seen better days, and the
seats were the old hard type. But we were children of that era, and of Africa where
most things had seen better days. And where ‘the roads were rough and our bottoms
tough’. The bus trip would last all night into the very early hours of the next morning.
We drove on bumpy dirt roads through the bush. Before night fell we stopped to eat
our dinner. The teachers opened up picnic baskets and handed out bread and butter,
cold sausages, hard-boiled eggs, and an orange or a banana. As we climbed back onto
the bus each of us was handed a coarse grey blanket to wrap ourselves in during the

In the darkness the bushes on the side of the road looked like grey ghosts. A giraffe ran gracefully across the road in our headlights. We passed through a village where people watched us go by, some waving to us, and one or two hopefully held up wares for sale. We passed like in a dream. As the night air cooled, we wrapped ourselves in our blankets. Some continued to sit up for a while, talking in whispers. Others decided to settle down to sleep. Some lay on the seats or put their head on a friends lap, and some lay on the floor under the seats. As the night wore on, the seats, the floor under the seats, the space in front of the seats, and even the aisles were all taken up with the bodies of sleeping children.

We arrived at Mbeya school in the very early hours of the morning while it was still
dark and the kids in the dormitories were asleep. Claire and I were in the senior girls
dorm. Our dorm matron was there with a torch to meet us. We crept in and were
shown where we could have a quick wash, brush our teeth, and use the toilet. We
changed into our pyjamas in the changing rooms, and then were led quietly to our
beds. We crept into bed, pulled the blanket up, and tried to get some sleep. I lay
looking at the dark shapes of rows of beds with sleeping girls in them. I put Mum’s
hanky under my nose and felt a rush of nostalgia. Tears came to my eyes.

When I woke up in the morning it was to a roomful of strange girls all looking at me
and at Claire, full of curiosity about us. My boarding school experience, which turned
out to be quite pleasant, had just begun.

First Road to Boarding School for Vincent.

One term, when we were due to return to boarding school, the railway line was
flooded between Kigoma and Tabora. This was my brother Vincent’s first term at boarding school, he was seven years old. Dad chartered a little missionary plane to fly us over the floods to Tabora. A family friend, Mr. Shuttleworth, would meet us there and keep us overnight. The missionary pilot settled us in, gave us some barley
sugar to suck, and showed us the brown paper bags for use if necessary. Vincent
cried when we said our goodbyes. I felt like crying too but, being older and feeling a
responsibility towards my brother who was leaving home for the first time, I held
back the tears. Besides, this was to be an exciting trip, our first flight on a plane.

The plane ride was amazing for us; we could hardly believe that we were actually off
the ground and soaring in the sky. The pilot did some crazy dips for us, but decided to cut it short while things were going good and we weren’t vomiting everywhere. I think he didn’t want to push his luck too far.

That evening in Tabora Mr. Shuttleworth served us up tin spaghetti on toast. He said
that, as we were Italian children, he would do well to feed us spaghetti. We had never
tasted tin spaghetti before. Vincent whispered to me loudly across the table, “It tastes like baked beans!” He stuck his fork in and whispered loudly again, “There’s toast under it!” I kicked him under the table as Mr. Shuttleworth smiled quietly to himself.

When dinner was over, Vincent remembered home again and began to cry. Mr.Shuttleworth turned on the lamp next to his chair, pulled Vincent onto his lap, and
read him a bedtime story. But the tears started to flow again when Vincent discovered
that he was going to sleep in Mr. Shuttleworth’s room and not share a room with me.
But finally we settled down to sleep; we would be catching our train to Itigi at about
10 am the next morning, and then the bus on to Mbeya.

When it was time to go home at the end of that term, the railway line between Tabora
and Kigoma was still flooded. There was a discussion about wether or not we should
go home for the holidays at all and, if we did the journey home, what would be the
best way for us to go. The school spoke with our parents and finally arrangements
were made. From Tabora no passenger trains were going in the direction of Kigoma
through the floods, and the aeroplane was not an option this time. So our parents got
permission for us to ride a goods train through the floods. Mr. Bettison would be our
escort as far as Uvinza, where he and his boys would leave us. Dad would meet us in
Uvinza and escort Vincent, myself, and Claire and Bobby Macqueen, home to Kigoma. Also a policeman was required to accompany us from Tabora.

The carriage we rode in on the goods train was all steel, and of course there were no
seats in it and no windows. The wide door had a part that opened downwards and a
part that opened upwards. We sat on bags on the floor or stood at the door and looked out. The top half of the door was kept open. Because it was all steel it was pretty hot
inside, but it was an adventure. We rode the train from Tabora to the small township
where the floods began. Here we got off the train to stretch our legs and use the
‘potty’ before entering the floods.

We were fooling around as kids usually do, when we suddenly noticed that the train had started to leave without us. Huffing and puffing, steam and smoke, whistle blowing, it was slowly gathering speed. Then Mr. Bettison did an amazing thing. He told us to just keep running as fast as we could after that train and he would worry about the rest. He called out instructions to the policeman who was the only one of our group on board the train. We started to run for all we were worth with Mr. Bettison encouraging us to keep abreast of our carriage. Then, running, Mr. Bettison grabbed hold of us one at a time and threw us up towards the carriage door where the policeman caught us and pulled us in. It was an amazing fete. We all got safely inside, but my leg was a little sore because I had banged it against the carriage door as the policeman grabbed me to pull me in.

The train slowly entered the flood, the water coming well up above the carriage steps. We all stood at the door looking out, it was fascinating; there was a feeling of quiet
solemnity about it. We passed the floods and arrived at Uvinza where the Bettisons left us and Dad took over. On the way up to Kigoma I learned that our little dog had died giving birth to a litter of puppies. Only one puppy had survived. She became my dog and I named her Titchy. I fed her on a bottle and then taught her to eat solids as directed by our cook Kisingwa.

A Pirate and a Beloved Friend.

Another time when we were going home from boarding school, my Dad was coming
on the train from Dar es Salaam to meet us in Itigi. But the Dar train was delayed
and no one was sure when it would arrive. Vincent and I kept running down to the
station to see if it was coming yet. The teachers were worried because it was nearly
time for them and the other children to leave Itigi. As a solution they considered
leaving myself and Vincent in the care of the station master, if necessary. It could be
an overnight wait because it was possible that the train from Dar would be delayed
until the next day.

When we went to see the station master, Vincent and I were dismayed. He was an Indian Sikh with a turban and a black beard. We had known Sikhs before; Mr. Singh and Mr. Bedi were our friends. But this particular man was quite rough looking and had the appearance of a pirate. Plus he carried a curved dagger in his belt in the fashion of the Arabs. He agreed to look after us and, if necessary, to bed us down on his office floor overnight. So it was decided, if my father didn’t arrive before the others left, we would be in the care of the station master.

When we left the station Vincent began to cry, he said, “He’s going to kill us.”
I said, “No he won’t,” and tried to calm him down, but I wasn’t so sure myself.
We kept running down to the station hoping to see the Dar train arriving. Finally
it did arrive, and there was Dad! He jumped down off the train into the dry sand and
we ran into his arms with great relief. An extra bonus for us was that our beloved
Father Victor, an Italian Passionist missionary, was waiting for us inside the carriage.
He was coming home with us for a short visit.

We loved Father Victor; I had known him all my life from when I was about two years old. There was no better surprise or treat, even for us Tanganyika kids starved of sweeties and ice cream and many other simple luxuries that children back in ‘civilisation’ enjoyed. For us a visit from Father Victor was the best treat ever. And he did give us some sweeties; he stuck his hands into his pockets and brought them out again filled with sweeties wrapped in their brightly coloured paper. Double treat!! Father Victor and sweets.


Boarding School, Bus, Plane, Train

Meet the author

author avatar Valeria
I was born in East Africa, of Italian roots and raised my children in the north of Italy. I now live in Australia. My writing may focus on family and religion. And other categories. Love writing.

Share this page

moderator Peter B. Giblett moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Md Rezaul Karim
7th Dec 2015 (#)

I read your story, and it is amazing to me... I feel how you felt long time ago... I became emotional when I saw something that is quite similar to my imagination and past time life..

Reply to this comment

author avatar Valeria
7th Dec 2015 (#)

Thank you Rezaul Karim, I am glad you enjoyed it and that it brought back memories to you. Did you live in a similar place and have similar experiences?

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?