Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Gift From The Sky

We heard the drone of the engine even before we saw the plane. It was the mid-morning break-time and the pupils were spread all over the school premises. They looked up, saw the plane and started shouting to each other in great excitement. The sight of a plane was a very rare occurrence in Luwingu.

The plane flew in a low arc, almost touching the tree-tops. Something was dropped from it in a clearing not very far from where we stood. The aircraft then gained altitude and disappeared beyond a cluster of trees. Someone ran and picked up the object. It looked like a parcel wrapped in brown paper. The headmaster came out of his office and the parcel was handed to him. He took a look at it and brought it to me where I was standing, watching all the commotion. “It is for you” he said. “I think someone from Lusaka is at the airstrip. Perhaps you could go and pick him up” he added.

The parcel was addressed to the Head of Science and the contents indicated as “Science Equipment Catalogue”. On the brown paper wrapping it was scrawled with a felt-tip “Please come and pick us up – Syme”.

The airstrip was not very far, about 3 km. away. I jumped into my car and drove fast. By the time I reached, the plane had landed and the pilot had come out of the cock-pit. He was still wearing his goggles and I recognized him as Mr. Syme, the inspector of Science. There was another gentleman along with him whom I had met before, at the Regional Science Fair in Kasama. He was Mr. Huxley, who also belonged to the Science Inspectorate. They had come all the way from the Ministry Headquarters in Lusaka.

After the preliminary greetings, Mr. Syme told me that he had brought something for me from Lusaka and pointed in to the plane. I looked in and found something for which I had been pestering the Science Inspectorate ever since I took over the Science Department- a brand new Honda generator!

In this present age of computers in class rooms and laptops in school bags, a Honda generator may sound silly and too trivial. However, during the 70's it was a precious gift for a secondary school in rural Zambia where electricity was a rare commodity. Luwingu was not on the main grid and had no supply of its own as in Kasama or Mansa. The school, dormitories and staff houses had a limited supply, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. provided by the massive diesel generator housed in the generator shed.
As this generator was shut off during the normal school hours, most of our electrical equipment in the science laboratories remained idle and practically useless. What we needed was a small generator which could supply electricity for the various gadgets in the laboratories whenever we wanted to use them. A 2400v generator was the answer and my request was granted at last. Even though the normal practice would have been for the school to make arrangements for the collection and transport of the equipment, in this case, the science inspector decided to make an official visit to Luwingu and deliver the equipment as it would give him an opportunity to visit the school for the first time by taking advantage of his newly acquired pilot’s licence.

We brought the Honda in the trunk of my car and set up in the physics lab. One of our teachers, Mr. Proctor who had some knowledge of generators assisted by the laboratory assistant started working on it. As the arrival of the inspectors by plane and the bringing of the generator had created a lot of excitement, a large crowd had gathered in and around the physics lab. to watch the procedures. The generator had a “pull-start” mechanism. After filling up with petrol, the lab.assistant gave a tug on the pull-cord, but nothing happened. However, on the third pull, the generator roared into life, with the emission of a small cloud of smoke from its exhaust. There was a great shout and clapping of hands from the onlookers.
The lab.assistant procured an electric bulb on a holder and connected the wires from it on to the A.C terminals of the generator and the bulb lighted up promptly. There was another shout and clapping of hands from the crowd even though not as vigorous as the previous one.

After a tour of the laboratories and a brief meeting with the science staff, the inspectors decided it was time to return. The “Cessna” was waiting at the airstrip unhindered, even though there was no one to keep watch. The inspectors got in. Mr. Syme put on his goggles and raised his thumb. Soon the engine came to life and the single propeller started turning as if reluctantly at first and then gained speed. Slowly the aircraft started rolling to one end of the field where it took a U-turn and then surged forward at full speed. Soon I could see it lifting off from the grassy runway and climbing higher and higher smoothly and effortlessly until it disappeared from sight.

I do not know where Mr. Syme and Mr. Huxley are at present. However I acknowledge the fact that they both contributed a lot to the teaching of science in Zambia by their untiring efforts in encouraging the science teachers and pupils throughout the country by organizing science fairs, seminars and workshops and also providing the necessary teaching materials even to those schools in the most remote parts of the country. There is no doubt that their efforts will be remembered with gratitude by the pupils and teachers of Zambia who had come into contact with them during their stay in the “Friendly Country”.