Working short term abroad for ten years during the 1990’s, I was often asked on my return, “what was it like” by a whole host of people. Most were not really interested, and either wanted me to ask them how their lumbago was or at best reinforce their minimalist image of particular countries. Especially when I went to Africa, the only response that would make any impact on them would be to say, “It was hot”. Sometimes this wasn’t the truth, as I froze in a frost pocket in the Zambezi Valley, but it was the only thing they could relate to. If I started a conversation on the rich tapestry of life, environment and experience that I would pack in to all the trips, they would not be able to find a starting point in relating it to their lives, they would have little comprehension of the overall picture, and would just say “oh, how interesting” and get back to their lumbago. So it was never worth going into too many details.
But in the form of a blog, people have more time to dip into the different aspects of being away, from the long days of travel, the interminable boredom of hotel rooms and airports, the protracted hours behind a computer or going from meeting to meeting, to the wonderful day trips with locals that gave such an insight in how people across the world spend their lives, the incredible scenery of different countries. Here I give you a taste of the wide variety of places I visited, times when I worked out in the deepest bush of Africa, as well as a couple of holidays I took in Colombia and South Africa during this period, and I also throw in my first ever experience abroad in 1989 in Portugal. So here at last is the series of adventures and non-adventures that had befallen me while working in third world research.
For most of the time within which these tales are told, I was working for the Natural Resources Institute, once an agency of the UK Foreign Office working on the Overseas Development Administration’s Science programmes. The work done by NRI was not the front line drought or war relief that made the headlines, but the serious underlying research and collaboration with third world governments and institutes that helped people help themselves, gave them simple technologies to grow crops and keep stock, avoid pest and diseases and store their food properly. They also gave people an understanding of what resources they had – their soils, their land, their plants and animals, and allowed techniques to help their economic fortune (such as establishing credit unions and loan systems for individual entrepreneurs) and work on social understanding and justice. When I started at NRI, 600 scientists were employed in this work. By the time I left in 2001, less than 150 were continuing the work as part of the University of Greenwich. It is still a vibrant research and teaching organisation, but I feel it lost a lot from moving out of the consultancy and narrowing the focus of its work. If only changing political viewpoints, different management and a broader understanding among the British and overseas public of the substantial and worthwhile work many of these people did, the institute would still be a huge force in improving the livelihoods of millions of people across the world. In this book, amongst the travellers’ tales and quirky characters, I hope I bring out some of the work I got close to, my own projects and others, and show just how important having NRI in the world was.
Many others in the world have travelled far more widely than I, and probably have had more daredevil experiences, several people from NRI I knew come into both categories. But the trivial details of working or being abroad are sometimes as interesting as great escapades, and rarely get written down. This book is intended to describe in the best way I can, what working and travelling abroad was really like to me, and it was more than just hot.
Why is it called String, Knife and Paper?
Like this blog? Then why not check out my second one here called When I went to about more recent travels since 2004.