Walker, Barbara Judith Interview
Today is Monday 25th January 2021. I’m about to interview Reverend Barbara Walker QSO. Reverend Barbara is the Lead Chaplain for the Hawke’s Bay Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital in Hastings.
I came to live in Hawke’s Bay on 9th February 2009, to take up the role as Lead Chaplin at Hawke’s Bay Hospital. I’m not from Hawke’s Bay; I was born in Riverton, right down the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand. My parents were schoolteachers and as children we moved all over New Zealand. Dad was always a headmaster of a school, and so we just moved around the South Island and then up to the North. So I was born in the maternity hospital in Riverton, which is now a retirement village; and my grandparents also lived down there, and my grandfather was the bank manager in Riverton. He was a guy called Philip de la Perrelle. I have one older sister, Wendy, and a younger sister, Susan, so there were three of us.
And then my parents decided to move to Millerton on the West Coast of the South Island; Millerton was a coal mining town. Westport was our biggest town and then you headed north to Granity and then you climbed up this very, very windy road to Millerton which was a very small coal mining town … well, coal mining village really. There’s probably a couple of hundred people lived there, and Dad was the headmaster in the school. And everything in Millerton revolved round the coal mine, and I remember as a kid watching the coal miners go off to work in the morning and they’d come home ‘bout three or four in the afternoon, and that’s when you had tea. And being a coal mine there was often sirens going off; and when the sirens went off that meant that something bad had happened in the coal mine, so everyone rushed up to make sure everything was all right.
The road from Granity up to Millerton is now a beautiful highway. Back then it was a dirt track, very windy. And it was pretty scary when Mum and Dad finally got a car and they would drive us up – real hairpin bends; or sometimes we would go up and back in the bus; so we did our shopping in Westport. My grandfather moved from Riverton Bank of New Zealand to Westport Bank of New Zealand, so we spent quite a lot of time with our grandparents when I was growing up. And then in Millerton we had two more children added to our family so we were then five girls.
And after a few years there Dad applied for a larger school … primary school … so we moved to Mokoia, which was a small farming town south of Hawera in Taranaki, and Dad was the headmaster of the school there and there was one other teacher. When we arrived – this was Mum and Dad and five girls – we lived in this terrible old house that was falling down; and after being there for a year, I think it was, the Education Board decided to build a new house. I remember one storm in Mokoia where Dad was on the roof nailing down bits of iron on this old, old house.
In Mokoia there was a Catholic Church and a Presy [Presbyterian] and an Anglican Church; the local store; a dairy factory; but most of the people who lived there were farmers. And I got to know a very special friend called Anne, and Anne’s father owned a big sheep farm so I spent a lot of time in my childhood up with her father, Clarrie, going around, and he taught me how to lamb sheep and … I just loved it, it was fantastic. Apart from one year later on in my primary school time, my father taught me. He was my teacher as well as my father as well as my headmaster.
So we were there for a few years and then Dad decided it was time to move again, so he loaded us all up into the car with Mum, and we drove up to Huntly and stayed with my grandparents – the same grandparents that had been with us in Westport, then moved to Huntly. And we stayed with them for a few days before we travelled up to Portland in Dad’s Morris Oxford. No seat belts in those days, and five kids in the car plus Mum, and a roof rack on. Portland is a cement town just outside Whangārei, and the house wasn’t ready when we arrived so we stayed in the Whangārei Hotel. And it was the same time that … it wasn’t the All Blacks, but some rugby team was staying there. And everyone thought it was really cute – there was [were] five girls, two years between most of us; and Mum tended to dress us all the same and she had a dress made of the same material. So I remember we had to sing some songs for these rugby players, [chuckle] because that’s what you did back then. I went to Portland School, and then time came for me to go to high school, so I went to Whangārei Girls’ High School.
While we were in Portland … our family were Anglicans and we used to attend the Anglican Church and we all got baptised and confirmed … and there was a Sunday School Bible Class group in Portland run by a headmaster of the school down the road. And I went to a camp when I was thirteen at Whangārei Heads. And at that camp I really felt that God was calling me to go overseas and be a missionary nurse. And so I remember going home and talking to Mum about it, and I remember she [her] saying to me, “Barbara”, you knoō, “I’m sure that sounds good, but tomorrow you might want to be an air hostess or a typist or something else.” But that call from God on my life when I was thirteen was very real. Another big event for us in Portland was Mum and Dad finally had a son. So my brother was born when I was thirteen, my elder sister was fifteen, and my youngest sister was eight. So I remember Dad took Mum into the hospital in Whangārei and left her there, and then came back home to look after us kids. And the phone rang a few hours later, and my father burst into tears; and we didn’t know what had happened ‘cause we’d never seen Dad crying; but he was crying ‘cause he was so excited because he got his son. And I remember us as kids – we got on our bikes and rode all over Portland yelling, “We’ve got a brother! We’ve got a brother!” And when Philip came home, he really had five sisters and one mother; but he really had six mothers.
So then I went to Whangārei Girls’ High School for two terms, and then Mum and Dad decided it was time to move again, and we all went down to Ōhaupõ just outside Hamilton; and Dad was the headmaster there. I attended Melville High School which was a new high school; it only had a Form 4, and I was in the final part of my third form year. And my sister, Wendy, went to Whangārei Girls’ ‘cause she was in the fifth form by that stage, I think. So I started at Melville High School and went all the way through that high school, and it was an amazing school to be a … sort of like a foundation pupil. We had a very amazing geography teacher who was also our hockey and cricket coach. But she was also a very keen Christian, and I was very involved in the Crusader Christian group at the school; and Alison had lots of friends who were coming back from overseas; they were nurses working in all parts of Africa and other parts of the world, and they used to come back and tell us the most amazing stories. And I really wanted to go as soon as I’d finished school, but they said to me, “No, you’ve got to go and do your nursing training and your midwifery, and then your Bible College.” So I stayed at school.
I was accredited for my UE, [University Entrance] and then the headmaster of the school rang Dad and said he’d like to make me head girl. My parents were quite keen for me to leave school in the sixth form because I wasn’t going to go to university at that stage because I have dyslexia, so I was really struggling at school. But when the headmaster said, “We really do want Barbara to be head girl”, my parents agreed; and so I went back and was head girl in my seventh form year at Melville High School. And I think that was a really good year; I didn’t do much work, but I organised lots of school balls and other events, and then applied to Greenlane Hospital in Auckland to start my nursing training.
So Mum and I went up on the bus, had the interview, and then I started nursing in January 1970 at Greenlane Hospital. And that was when Brian Barratt-Boyes was beginning to do his heart surgery and he was working in close relationship with Christiaan Barnard in South Africa. And so Greenlane Hospital was sort of one of the main heart hospitals in New Zealand at that stage. And so Brian Barratt-Boyes later became Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes; and there were babies flown from all over New Zealand who came up to Greenlane and had heart surgery. It was a pretty amazing place to work in.
We also had a very strong Nurses’ Christian Fellowship group there which I was very involved in and I really loved being nurse. I really struggled with the theory side of it, but I really enjoyed nursing. You had to stay in the Nurses’ Home for the first year; you were only allowed out, I think it was once every two months, and you had to get a letter from your parents which went to the Matron; to make sure that you know, the Matron had given permission and your parents had given permission. And so I did all my training there, and during my training we had to do six months’ maternity nursing; so I went over to National Women’s [Hospital] which was just next door, right by Cornwall Park in Auckland, and I did my maternity training there. Then I sat my state finals; and then decided to do a year working in infectious wounds, and also, sort of any illnesses like typhoid or anything like that – I worked in that ward for a year. And then I just thought, ‘I really need to go and do some’ … well I wanted to do my midwifery, so I applied to do my midwifery at St Helen’s Hospital in Auckland, but I had about six weeks to fill in.
So a girlfriend and I went up to Vanuatu, to the island of Ambae. Vanuatu is now the New Hebrides [until 1980; now the Republic of Vanuatu] and we worked with an amazing woman called Betty Pyatt who was Matron of this Mission Hospital on this island. And so we worked there for six weeks with her, and that was really amazing, and we learnt a lot. While we were there on the island, a lady went into labour and she needed to be transferred to the Santo [Espiritu Santo] which was an island quite a few hours away by sea. They were able to do caesarean sections there. So my girlfriend and I and two midwives took off in this little fishing boat with this lady in labour and a crew of people from the island, and headed out into the Pacific Ocean. And everything was going fine; we left about early afternoon and we were sailing – it was going to take many hours to get there. And it became dark, and then our boat broke down and a storm came, so we were being tossed around like corks in a washing machine. Our fishing boat had no radio, no life jackets, no dinghies, and we had no way of communicating with the people back on the island that we’d left because there was no cellphones in those days. And here was this lady in very, very strong labour and getting really distressed; so it was incredible scary, and I was very much aware that we were in a very dangerous situation because if we’d sunk … I mean nobody would’ve ever come to our rescue, because there wasn’t that facility in Vanuatu at the time.
So I prayed; we both prayed really hard, and after some time the storm died down and they managed to get this fishing boat restarted. It was sort of early on a Sunday morning that we actually arrived in Santo harbour, and as we went in the boat down the harbour towards the town of Santo this lady gave an almighty push, and pushed out a live baby. So we docked at the wharf and then went to the hospital and she was checked out – she was all, you know, fine to go. But the culture there is that Sunday is a day of rest, so we weren’t allowed to sail or go back in the boat to the island we were on ‘til Monday morning. On Monday morning we left and travelled in our old you know, sort of broken down fishing boat, and arrived back in Ambae Island. It was about, I don’t know, late afternoon, and the people greeted us ‘cause they really thought we’d drowned; they didn’t know where we were and then we arrived back with a lovely baby boy and a very happy Mum. And we were really happy to be able to be on solid ground.
So I was there for six weeks, and then flew back to New Zealand and started my midwifery training at St Helen’s Hospital in Auckland. That was a six-month course and I really enjoyed it. The first day I was there they took us on a tour of the hospital and then into [the] delivery unit; and I don’t know what happened but I fainted and ended up lying in one of the beds in one of the delivery rooms. The consultant arrived, and he was going around the ward asking, you know, “What’s happening with this lady, and that lady”; and then he came to me and he said to the Charge Nurse, “What have we got here?” [Chuckle] And the Charge Nurse said, “Oh, we’ve got a new student midwife – she’s just fainted.” The consultant said, “Oh. Well that’s not a good start for her midwifery career.” Little did he know where I would be working many years later.
I completed my midwifery training, and was still very interested in doing mission work after I completed my training. Dad left Ōhaupō, and they went down to Taumarunui; and then from Taumarunui to Wairoa, here in Hawke’s Bay. I went down and stayed with Mum and Dad for a few months and worked at the Wairoa Hospital as a nurse/midwife. So it’s been really interesting to be back here in Hawke’s Bay, and when I first arrived in Hawke’s Bay over twelve years ago, I met a lot of people from Wairoa who remembered my Mum and Dad, so that was really special.
After my time in Wairoa, I was advised to go and do some Bible College training, so I looked at going to the Bible College of New Zealand in Henderson, but for me it was sort of a bit more academic than what I was wanting, so I went to the WEC [Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ] Bible College in Tasmania, in Launceston. I flew over there and spent two years working [and] studying at this Bible College. So as well as doing things like phonetics and church history and New Testament/Old Testament, I also did car mechanics, carpentry and plumbing, and so for me it was a very practical, down to earth course. And again, I didn’t know, but those skills of carpentry [and] plumbing which I learnt there – and car mechanics – was very, very useful for the work I did overseas afterwards.
I had a really interesting relationship with the principal of the College. I remember after my second term at college in my first year, he said to me one day, “Barbara, you’re going home to New Zealand for a holiday; I don’t really think this place is the right place for you.” And I turned to him and said, [chuckle] “I get my directions from God, not from man”, and went to the airport, flew to Melbourne and then flew home to New Zealand for a holiday. Came back after the holiday, and [I] remember the bus pulled into the courtyard of the college, and Mr D met me and he said, “I told you not to come back – you don’t fit in here.” And I said to him, “I get my direction from God, not from man.” So we had a very interesting relationship, probably for about the next eight or nine months. But at the end when I graduated from college we actually really respected each other, and we had a good relationship.
I came back to New Zealand, and I was involved at Valley Road Church, [a] Baptist Church in Auckland. And there was a Mission Society in Auckland that [which] was looking for midwives to go and work at Manarom Hospital in Thailand, and so I applied to a Mission Society to go and work there. They put me through a number of language tests, both at the Mission Society but also at the Auckland University, ‘cause the Thai language is incredibly difficult; and I failed the six tests they put me through. So when I went to meet the board of this Mission, they said to me, “Barbara, we really don’t think you will ever learn Thai; what we suggest you do is you stay home and pray and support your missionary friends as they go overseas.” So as you can imagine I was pretty devastated at that, but being … yeah, strong-willed, I said again, you know, “You’ve got it wrong; I will go overseas as a missionary, as a nurse. I mean that’s what I’ve trained for all these years.”
So it was about ten days later, I was driving home from work at St Helen’s and there was an ad [advertisement] on the radio from Merv Smith, 1ZB, asking for nurses to volunteer to go up to the Thai-Cambodian border to work in the big refugee camps; because this was during Pol Pot’s regime, and thousands of Cambodian people had been killed by Pol Pot and his soldiers, and thousands of them were pouring across the border into Thailand.
So I applied to World Vision and was accepted, and a few weeks later I was on my way to the camp in Thailand. And that was the beginning of nearly twenty-one years of working around the world in disaster situations, and in mission hospitals in Africa and in Asia. I was on the first New Zealand medical team, and we flew from Auckland to Bangkok, and then we got on the train and went up to a place called Sa Kaeo 1. And Sa Kaeo 1 was a camp which had thirty-five thousand people in it – refugees that [who] escaped from Cambodia into Thailand, all dressed in black. Under Pol Pot, anyone who showed any form of emotion was killed, so these people were like zombies … children, adults, young, old, and they just … all dressed in black; and I remember arriving in the camp, getting out of the vehicle and just seeing masses and masses of people just sitting, staring. It was a sight I’ll never ever forget.
World Vision had a ward there, and there was [were] a number of other NGOs [non-governmental organisations] working there. One of them was a medical team from Israel, so they were sort of like the emergency department, so they screened everyone that [who] was coming in. Most of the people there had pneumonias, or things like cerebral malaria. My girlfriend and I volunteered to work in World Vision’s ward on that first night, and we were given a crash course on how to put a [an] intravenous drip into patients. So we managed this ward – there was [were] quite a few hundred patients, all being nursed on bamboo beds, no sheets; and the girls that [who] helped us that night were Pol Pot soldier girls. A number of those girls were actually in the Khmer Rouge Army; we had no Cambodian, they had no English, so we just had to do sign language, and it was pretty traumatic. We lost a number of patients that night because they were so sick, and our medical supplies were limited. We did a few nights’ night duty, and I remember writing a letter to Rob Muldoon – he was the Prime Minister – and he’d arranged for Air New Zealand to fly us up for free so we were writing a letter back to him, just thanking him for what you know, the New Zealand Government had done; and just telling him about some of the patients that we were dealing with.
I was there for some time, and we lived in a little village. Our team, you know, began to expand. And then one day we heard that one of our team had been shot. She had been sitting in bed; the houses there were sort of … like a group of houses together, and a Thai guy in the house next door – [there was] a very thin wall between their house and our house – was cleaning his gun, and the gun had gone off and the bullet had gone through our nurse’s mouth and out the other side. If she’d been any higher or lower when the bullet went sort of through her jaw, she would’ve died. So we quickly found out what her blood group was, and one of the guys on our team was the same blood group; so they gave her some blood and then they got her to Bangkok and then back to America. It was really interesting because a number of years later I was in Pakistan at a conference and I was sitting beside this girl and we got talking; she was working in Pakistan at that stage, and I said to her, “Oh, have you worked anywhere else?” And she said, “Oh yes, I was working in Thailand in 1980.” And I said, “Oh, whereabouts?” She said, “Oh, I was working in Sa Kaeo 1.” And I said, “Who were you working with?” And she said, “I was with World Vision”, she said, “but I got shot.” And I turned to her – I just couldn’t believe her! She had a tiny wee mark on both sides of her face where the bullet had gone through. So it was just … it was just incredible, and amazing that this was the girl who was on our team.
So after being in Sa Kaeo 1 for some time, some of us where asked to go up nearer the Thai-Cambodian border to a place to Khao-I-Dang. Khao-I-Dang – when we arrived it was like about seven or eight football fields with just a whole pile of blue plastic and some bamboo, and we had to build our hospital; build our wards. So we spent time digging holes, putting up the blue plastic; all made of bamboo, and again my practical skills of [from] Bible College in Australia came in handy. So we set up this ward; when I arrived Khao-I-Dang sort of just had the aid agencies going in there, and when I left some time later there was a hundred and twenty thousand people and two bamboo hospitals with fifteen hundred beds. The World Vision ward was very near the emergency department and very near the operating theatre; the German government sent out a Lufthansa plane with a complete operating theatre in it, everything they needed. It landed, and then it was trucked up to the camp and they put up huge tents and ran this operating theatre, and next door to that was like A&E. [Accident & Emergency]
Being so near the border we had lots of patients coming in who’d stepped on landmines, and lots of patients who had cerebral malaria and typhoid. The trucks would bring in these hundreds and hundreds of injured people and they would be screened and triaged by the nurses and doctors. Some of them were so critically ill that … yeah, there was nothing that could be done for them. Those that could survive with some surgery were taken off to the theatre and operated on, and those that could wait, waited. And so in our ward we had a mixture of people who had cerebral malaria and pneumonia, but we also had people who had stood on landmines.
Yeah – we had an amazing doctor from New Zealand called Robyn; and Robyn basically was in charge of the whole ward when I first arrived. And obviously she couldn’t see all the patients ‘cause we had many, many patients in our ward, so she basically taught us how to listen to chests and percuss chests, and diagnose; so she would assign us a group of patients and we would go down and examine these patients using our interpreters, and then if we had any problems we’d go back to Robyn and she would come and help us.
Our interpreters were Cambodian young people. My interpreter was a guy called Danny, and Danny had been a DJ [disc jockey] for Radio Phnom Penh. But when Pol Pot came to power and the massacre was happening, Danny escaped and went to Thailand; and when all the refugees started pouring out of Cambodia, Danny decided to come back and help his people. So he was my interpreter, and an amazing guy – these young Cambodian people were just incredible. They’d gone through so much; they’d seen so many of their family killed in front of them. And yeah, they were … they were incredible; just amazing.
We hadn’t been in our ward very long and then this guy came one night; he was a Cambodian pastor who was pastoring a church in Battambang, which was in Cambodia. And he came and explained to us that God had given him a vision and asked him to lead his congregation through the killing fields, which were all mined, into Thailand. He ended up in Khao-I-Dang with a lot of his church people, and he came and asked if he could have a Bible study meeting in our ward. So we said, “Absolutely – that would be fine”; so that was the beginning of a sort of a revival that happened amongst the Cambodian people who were in the camp.
The response of the world to the refugee situation in Cambodia was amazing, and we had lots of supplies flown in from all over the world; and we also got lots of celebrities coming, various Kings and Queens from different countries, and pop stars and pop singers would come as well.
Being a midwife I was also involved in delivering some of the complicated Cambodian deliveries. It was an amazing place to work; and it was really special for me because some years later I was at a church in Dunedin, and there was this Cambodian lady there. And we got talking – her English was fairly limited – but I asked her where she’d come from; and she actually came from Khao-I-Dang camp. And it was just … yeah, it was just so incredible.
Last year I was down in Wellington – I went down to a mental health conference – and I was in a taxi going from the hotel to the conference. The driver was an older man, and I said, “Where are you from?” And he said, “I’m from Cambodia.” And I said, “Whereabouts?” And he told me; he said, “Have you worked there?” And I said, “No, but”, I said, “I was working in the camps in 1979, 1980.” He said, “Which camp?” And I said, “Khao-I-Dang.” He said, “Oh, my sister was in Khao-I-Dang.” So we had this amazing conversation, and I said, “You know, the Cambodian people who came to New Zealand in you know, late 1979 and ‘80 have made such an incredible contribution to New Zealand.” I said, you know, “You’re the best pie makers in New Zealand”; you know, it’s just amazing. So we had this conversation as we drove through Wellington and then when I got to where I was going I went to get out of the car and he took my hand and shook it, and said, “Lady, thank you. Thank you for leaving your country and coming helping my people.” Wow! It was incredible, you know – I just felt so privileged that I was able to go as a nurse/midwife from New Zealand and work in these really tough situations on the Thai-Cambodian border, and years later meet this very gracious, humble Cambodian man who really appreciated what we did as aid workers back then. 29.02
So then I spent some time in Singapore, and World Vision had a boat called ‘Seasweep’. And ‘Seasweep’ was like a freighter that they bought, and we just sailed round and round the South China Sea rescuing boat people who were escaping from Vietnam. They were getting into these little fishing boats which normally would’ve gone up the Mekong River; but they were so desperate to get out of Vietnam because of the war they just paid a lot of money and jumped on these fishing boats, which normally would’ve taken about ten people but were taking you know, forty or fifty out into the South China Sea, hoping that they would get to places … maybe parts of Australia, Northern Australia, or … yeah, just anywhere to escape. And they were being attacked by a lot of pirates; and also storms. So I worked on a ‘Seasweep’ boat for six weeks, and we just travelled around the South China Sea spotting these fishing boats, and then going alongside and rescuing the people, helping them up the ladder into our boat. While I was on ‘Seasweep’ we picked up two hundred and fifty people and took them to islands … these are mothers and fathers, elderly, young children, a mixture of everyone … and we took them to islands in Indonesia where they were screened by the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] and they were taken to countries like New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.
So after my time there I came back to New Zealand and got a job at Greenlane Hospital, working in one of the cardiac wards. I was working there as a nurse, and one morning about seven o’clock this lady suddenly arrested and her heart stopped; and of course, that’s an emergency. So everyone rushed down; we had the doctor, we had the night supervisor and myself and other staff. The doctor arrived and started cardiac massage, and the night supervisor was doing mouth to mouth; and the doctor yelled out, “Put in a drip.” Well I’d been putting in drips for quite some time in Thailand, so I just got this lady’s arm and put in a drip. Sadly the lady died. I went home, and the next night I went to work and I was summoned to the Senior Night Supervisor, who absolutely tore strips off me – who did I think I was putting in a drip? That’s not the role of a nurse – even though it is now, it wasn’t back then. And I said, “Well, there wasn’t anyone else to put it in”, and she said, “It doesn’t matter, Nurse, it’s not your job.” So I went home sort of feeling pretty despondent.
World Vision rang me, three o’clock one afternoon [a] couple of days later, and said, “Barbara, we would like you to go to Somalia.” I didn’t even know where Somalia was, but they explained it was the horn of Africa, a country that was going through a war, and there was [were] huge refugee problems and a huge famine. So I said to World Vision, “Yes, I would”; so I had great delight in going back to the hospital, doing my night duty, and then going up to see the Matron, saying that World Vision wanted me to go to Somalia. So I resigned, and I left, and a few weeks later I was on my way to Somalia.
So I boarded the plane, and the flight took me to Singapore, then to Karachi, then to Nairobi. When I landed in Karachi there was a delegation from China got onto the plane, so we had to wait there; and then flew to Nairobi. And when we got to Nairobi, because we had this delegation – I think it might’ve been the deputy leader of China; it was someone obviously very, very important – we landed at Nairobi Airport and had to sit on the plane. Outside was red carpet and a whole lot of very important looking Kenyan people. So we had to sit on the plane for hours while this delegation from China got off the plane.
When we were allowed off we were sort of taken around the back way, and fortunately for me one of the senior World Vision people were [was] there to meet me. He had a vehicle, so we jumped in the car; he knew Nairobi, so we got to the hotel where I was staying, drove up, and it was also the hotel where the Chinese delegation were staying. They were in a panic, ‘cause everyone was rushing around ‘cause this was obviously a very important person from China. So we were sort of ushered in, and this guy, Joshua, who was a very, very tall man from West Africa, went up to the counter and said, “Have you got a room for Barbara Walker?” And even though it had been booked, there was no record. I think the hotel staff were really panicking because of this huge Chinese delegation. So Joshua said, “Well, we’ve booked the room; she needs a room.” So there was a bit of toing and froing; they took me out to a very … it was like a changing room really, by the swimming pool, and it had a bed and a toilet and a shower, so that was going to be my room for a couple of days before I flew to Somalia.
I went and had a sandwich and then went to bed, and in the middle of the night I woke up with … well, you don’t call it Delhi belly in Africa, it’s probably African belly … with the most severe diarrhoea and vomiting. There was [were] no cellphones; Joshua, fortunately, had given me a landline, so I rang him and he could tell by my voice that I was quite sick so he sent a car around and they took me to a doctor’s surgery in Nairobi. Unfortunately it was upstairs so I had to climb up the stairs, and I remember walking into this filled reception area and promptly fainted. So I was taken to the Nairobi Nursing hospital, which was the upmarket version of Kenyatta Hospital; and they put drips in and I slowly recovered. But the second day I was there there was a knock on the door; and in came the most beautiful bunch of flowers I have ever seen in my life – huge. And it was [with the] compliments from [of] the management of the hotel I was staying in, because I think they thought I’d got food poisoning from eating something in their restaurant, but it was actually, I think, something I ate probably on the plane from Karachi to Nairobi. So it wasn’t a good start to Somalia, but I recovered, and a few days later I flew from the small Wilson Airport in Nairobi up to Somalia.
And I arrived at Mogadishu airport, and there was no security, there was no immigration; it was very different than arriving at an airport anywhere else in the world, really. I was met by some friends there, fellow aid workers, and I stayed with them for a few days. Because of the war that was on with Ethiopia and Somalia we could only fly, we weren’t allowed to go on the roads; I flew from Mogadishu up to Hageisa. Hageisa was a town in the northern part of Somalia, and it was a very dusty, dirty … [sigh] yeah, sort of … interesting place with lots of houses and shops, but pretty basic. Sometimes you had water, sometimes you didn’t; sometimes you had electricity, sometimes you didn’t. So that was our base.
Then we drove out to this huge refugee camp called Las Dure, and there was a team of about five nurses working there, nurses from all over the world, and also a doctor from Australia. So I joined that team where there was eighty thousand people in the camp, and we had a huge problem with very malnourished children so we had to organise to weigh and measure thousands of these kids, and set up feeding programmes. So again, that’s where my skills of building came in and we made shelters, and gradually we got more doctors and nurses and World Food Programme came.
So we set up this huge feeding programme; some of the children we fed four times a day; others we fed six times a day. And if you’re going to feed those [that] many kids then you need firewood, and you need water. There was [were] no taps … you know, basically the water … you went down to this river and you dug, or the Somali ladies dug down to try and find the water, and when they did find it, it was sort of brown, and it was just terrible. And then to get the water from the river up to the feeding centres we had to have donkeys, and donkeys need someone to lead them. They had these … like kerosene tins of their back[s] and they would carry the water up; and the kerosene tins would rub and they’d get infected. So as well as treating the people we also treated the donkeys … gave the donkeys penicillin injections and stuff when they got infected wounds.
It was there also that I met my first Somali woman that [who] had been circumcised. Circumcision is a very important practice for the people of Somalia and every young girl is circumcised, and that can cause huge problems when they go into labour. And being a midwife … Most of the deliveries in the camps were done by the traditional birth attendants. They were wise women who had learnt how to deliver babies from their mother[s], who had learnt from their mother[s], going back. And so when they called me to do deliveries I knew it was complex. I spent a number of nights with my male interpreter outside the plastic tents that the Somali people lived in in the camp, and I remember specifically one night I was called and when I arrived it was a tent probably not much bigger than our bathrooms. And here was this Somali lady in very, very strong labour, and all her friends there and they believed the more noise you made the quicker the baby came out, so they were screaming and yelling at the top of their voices. My male interpreter was outside, so I’d have to yell out to him and he would translate into Somali language and then yell back to the people.
So examining a woman who’d been circumcised … radical circumcision … was really difficult, because sometimes you didn’t quite know what you were feeling. Sometimes you could only examine her with the tip of your small finger, and so you didn’t know if it was a forehead or buttock, and you ended up having to do often two episiotomies. I’d spent quite a bit of time with some of the other midwives teaching these amazing, wonderful, traditional birth attendants the importance of when you’re going to deliver [a] baby you need to wash your hands. But water was so precious there, and that night there was no water available, so I opened up my medical kit bag and the only thing I had in that was a bottle of gentian violet, so I just poured that over my hands. And my hands were purple, but I managed to deliver the baby and then stitch up the lady. But it was pretty … yeah, doing obstetrics in Somalia was really hard and difficult. I had the privilege of delivering triplets, three very small babies, and sadly they survived for a few days and then died.
The traditional birth attendants were also quite keen on inviting us to the circumcision parties where young girls [of] nine, ten, eleven, were circumcised; because in Somalia it’s part of going from childhood into womanhood. So it caused quite a lot of discussion in our team which was multi-cultural – we had African nurses, and nurses from America, Australia, New Zealand and England. I remember one day this African nurse said to me, “Barbara, how come you people from the West come to our continent and criticise our culture?” She said, “When I hear about your culture where you abort babies, and you put old people in rest homes … how dare you come and criticise what we do in our countries?” And I was thinking, “Yeah, that’s right”, you know. So we decided as a team we would not discuss female circumcision – oh, they also circumcised males. But we just felt we were in their country, [and] though we didn’t agree with it, it wasn’t something that … I mean I’d never seen a circumcised woman ‘til I went to Somalia. But we were there as guests and so the conversation was halted; and we worked with Somali traditional birth attendants.
We also had a huge problem with people in the camp who had trachoma, where the eyelash rubs in on the eye, and after a period of time it gets infected and they can go blind. So a [an] eye surgeon from England, Jock, came out to Mogadishu and he asked for volunteers from the various refugee camps to go down to Mogadishu and learn how to do this eye surgery. So a friend of mine who was one of the doctors – she and I went down and we learnt how to put basically local anaesthetic in the eye, top and bottom; and he showed us how to do it. So then we went back to the camp, and we thought, ‘If we’re going to do eye surgery we need to have an operating theatre.’ We didn’t have any facilities to build one, so we got a big old white tent; we had some timber and some diesel drums, so that was our operating table. We had a primus and a pot and instruments, and we had a book on how to do it; we had some local anaesthetic, and we had two thirteen, fourteen-year-old nomad boys who knew some English, so they were our interpreters. So this doctor and myself began operating … inverting the eyelash basically, so it wasn’t rubbing on the eye. We also introduced a health programme in the camps where all the children came in and they learned how to wash their hands with probably seven or eight drops of water.
After some time with these two young Somali guys watching us do these operations, they said to the doctor and myself, “Will you teach us how to do this?” And we looked at each other and thought, ‘Why not?’ Because they were going to be staying in Somalia, and we were only there for a short time and then would’ve gone back to our countries, so we trained these guys how to do the eye operation. And I often think, you know, how different it would be if that’d been New Zealand, and I went to one of the local high schools here and asked for two fifteen year old boys to come and do eye surgery at Hawke’s Bay Hospital – it would make the news. But over there you have to invest in the local people because they’re going to be there – that’s their home, they will be there. So I don’t know where those two young guys are now, I don’t know if maybe they are eye surgeons somewhere … I don’t know.
Somalia is a country that’s very, very hot during the day and freezing cold at night; and one Christmas morning we were told that a truckload of really malnourished and really seriously ill people had arrived in the camp overnight. They were up on a hill, so we went to meet them and these people were cold and … yeah, had nothing. We had a whole lot of blankets so we went around and we gave these blankets out to these people who basically … you know, they just had the cotton clothes they had on.
I had probably the most moving Christmas I’ve ever had in my life in Somalia [at] our house in Hageisa. And it was Christmas – what do you do at Christmas? You have a Christmas tree, Well, there was no Christmas tree, so we just got a bare branch, and we got some cotton wool and we put the cotton wool on the Christmas tree; and for Christmas dinner that time I think we had Fanta and some bread and some spaghetti. And yeah, it was an amazing Christmas in some ways because Somalia is not that far from Israel, you know, where the first Christmas happened. And so you know, there was [were] no decorations – I mean people didn’t go out and buy all the stuff that we buy in the west, and for me it was one of the simplest Christmases I’ve ever had.
So I was in Somalia for some time, and then World Vision were going to set up a disaster relief team. So they contacted me, and they wanted me to look at doing that but in order to get onto that disaster team I needed to go and get some more training. So they funded me to go to England; I did a course in tropical medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and also a course in disaster management and refugee health in London. While I was in Liverpool doing the tropical medicine course I went to an Anglican Church and met the vicar and his wife; and during the service the vicar said, “Turn around and say hello to the person sitting beside you”, which I did. And the person sitting beside me was a nurse/midwife … English girl … who’d been working in Pakistan, had caught typhoid and come home and wasn’t able to go back. She said to me, “Barbara, what do you do?” And I said, “Well I’ve been working in various places around the world as an aid worker and nurse/midwife but”, I said, “at the moment there’s no disaster in the world, so I don’t have a job and I’m not sure what I’m going to do.” And she said, “Why don’t you go to Pakistan?” And I said, “Oh, well I don’t have any money”; you know, I couldn’t afford to go. She said, “Here’s the names of three mission societies – when you get back to London, ring them up.”
So after a few weeks I went back to London and stayed with a friend. The top one was the Church Missionary Society, so I rang them up and said, you know, “I’m a nurse/midwife from New Zealand; I’ve been working in various countries and I’m just wondering if you have any openings?” And they said, “You’re an answer to prayer.” And I said, “Why?” They said, “Oh, we’ve just received an aerogramme” … ‘cause there’s no cellphones, no emails in those days … “from Dr Ruth Coggin”, who was an obstetrician/gynaecologist working on the Afghan-Pakistan border, “desperately wanting a midwife; and then you ring – when can you come and see us?” And I said, “Oh”, you know, “probably in half an hour.” Well I mean, we do that in New Zealand but in England you make an appointment. Anyway, I went in to see them and to cut a long story short they said, “Yes.” So they sent me up to the CMS [Church Missionary Society] training college in Birmingham for six weeks.
I left there and flew out to Pakistan, and arrived in Islamabad and was met by this lovely British lady wearing sort of trousers and sort of a loose shirt; and a driver. So you know, we got talking; and as we were driving from airport into Islamabad we sort of went through some slum areas, and then we went to a really nice part of town. So I’m thinking, ‘Hmm’, so I said to this lady, “Oh, have you lived here long?” And she said, “Oh, a few years.” She said, “I live here with my husband.” And I said, “Oh, what does he do?” She said, “He’s the British Ambassador.” I said, “Oh”, [chuckles] “oh, right.” Yeah.
So anyway, a few minutes later we turned into the British Embassy and drove up to the residence. And out we got, and this amazing lady said to me, “This will be your home, Barbara, for the next little while ‘til we take you up to Bannu. So coming from you know, a camp in Thailand, Somali refugee camp, into this beautiful … oh, it was incredible; with servants waiting on us, and … The Ambassador’s wife said, “You go upstairs, and if you want to come down for lunch it will be served at half past one. If you want to sleep, that’s fine.” So I went up, and opened the door of my bedroom which was just this huge room with an ensuite, and overlooking the swimming pool; so I just couldn’t believe it, having lived in a tent in Somalia for a year which, when the rain came it blew down; and on a camp stretcher. So anyway, I had a shower and lay down and then went down for lunch; and I remember when I was at Bible College we were given etiquette lessons, and we were told if you were at a posh place you always start from the outside in. So I sat down at this table, the Ambassador was at one end and his wife was there and I was at the other end, and we had the most amazing meal. After lunch the Ambassador’s wife said, “I’m going into town – do you want to come with me?” And I said, “Oh well, okay.” So we jumped into the Landrover, she drove, and we went around to various places that she had to go. Then a few days later she said, “Oh well, we’re going to take you up to Bannu.” Bannu was a long way from Islamabad, and they took me up there to the Pennell Memorial Hospital in Bannu.
Now this was in 1982, ‘83; the Russians had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and there was [were] millions of refugees pouring across into Northwest Frontier Province, mainly up near Peshawa; then if you travel south from Peshawar on the border you come to Bannu. Bannu was an cantonment; it used to be a British Army base, pre-partition. The hospital was situated in the cantonment area, an area outside Bannu city which was a walled city; the gates were shut at night to stop the tribal people coming down, ‘cause you had Afghanistan, then you had tribal land, and then you had Pakistan. And the tribal people would come down and kidnap the local people and take them back.
So I arrived in Pennell Memorial Hospital in Bannu, and I lived in the house with a group of other woman [women] and Ruth Coggin. Ruth had been there for about twenty years when I got there, and she was the obstetrician/gynaecologist. The house that we lived in was actually built for Theodore Pennell. He was a surgeon from England who in the early 1900s went out to … well it was India then … and set up this hospital. So we lived in his bungalow, and all his furniture was there, and all his diaries were there, and all his instruments were there. So you’d look through his diary, and he would be talking about summer when it’s really hot; they had elephants, and they would load up the elephants with the servants and his mother – his mother went to Bannu with him – and they would go up into the hills of Murree which was sort of near Islamabad. All the supplies that needed to be ordered, you know, everything they had to take was all written in these diaries. And so Pennell was an amazing man who came out, set up schools, set up the hospital, learnt Pashtu for the Afghan people and the tribal people, and yeah, was an amazing man. But very sadly, he died operating on one of his colleagues.
So originally I was going to Bannu for two years but I ended up staying up there for five and a half years, working with Ruth and the other nurses and midwives. I found it really restrictive, because we were basically confined to our compound. It was really frowned upon, us going to the bazaar, because it’s a very conservative part of Pakistan. And if we did go to the bazaar we would be the only women in the bazaar. All the Pakistani women, if they were there, would be totally covered. But my girlfriend and I, we used to go to the bazaar.
So during my time in Bannu, I said to [asked] Ruth when I arrived if she would teach me everything about obstetrics, which she did; and so I ended up delivering hundreds and hundreds of babies. And in Pakistan in the tribal area the woman [women] – again the traditional birth attendants – deliver the normal deliveries, but it’s when the delivery goes wrong; they bring the patient in. So we had woman [women] coming in with prolapse arms, and ruptured uteruses, and … aah, just real high, intense, complex midwifery cases. And we had a limited laboratory, so if anyone needed a blood transfusion – if the husband wouldn’t donate the blood – I’m O Rh-Negative so I used to donate quite a lot of blood; but [chuckle] you’ve got to keep some for yourself as well. [Chuckle] So we would send the husbands down to the bazaar, and they would buy blood in the bazaar. This was pre-HIV/AIDS. Sometimes the husbands would say, “No, let her die. She’s old, I’ll get a new wife.” And maybe his wife might’ve been in her mid-thirties.
So we did some very, very complex obstetrics there. I remember once Ruth went away for some holidays, and this lady came in in labour who was very, very distressed. And I examined her and felt this bulging fontanelle, and thinking, ‘My goodness! What’s going on here?’ Fortunately, there was a friend from New Zealand and another midwife there so I asked them to examine the lady, and they said, ”Oh, I think the baby is a hydrocephalic”, which means they have a big head and there’s fluid in the head. So we had to make a decision, because there was no other alternative – if we didn’t do something pretty soon the mother would’ve ruptured her uterus, and she would have died and the baby would die. So do we lose two people or do we lose one person? And so us [we] three midwives decided that we had to do a craniotomy; I’d watched Ruth doing one, but I’d never done one. My colleague said to me, “Barbara, that’s what needs to happen.” So I did my first and only craniotomy, where you basically put this instrument into the fontanelle and pierce it, and then the fluid drains out. We had a bucket of fluid from the head drained out, and [of] course the head shrinks and we were able to deliver the baby, which was dead. But we saved the mother’s life.
We had two cases where we delivered the baby and the baby was going yellow before our eyes; and I said to Ruth, you know, “I’m O Rh-Negative; how about we do a [an] exchange transfusion? I’ll give the baby some of my blood.” And so we did that; and you know, normally if you do that in a hospital you’d have a paediatrician, and a [an] incubator, and consultants available; we had a mattress, a hot water bottle, a syringe. And Ruth, you know, put the catheter into the baby and took blood off, and then I gave my blood. While we were there a well known New Zealand Professor of Obstetrics just happened to – she was working India – to arrive, and she was just staggered that we were doing such complex stuff. But both the babies survived and did really well.
We were also noticing that we had a lot of babies coming in with tetanus … newborn babies, because the traditional birth attendants would cut the cord after delivery with the same knife that they’d cut the grass with. So we decided that we needed to set up a vaccination programme; we started with vaccinating the mothers against tetanus, but also vaccinating the newborn babies. And we had people coming from Afghanistan; people coming from the tribal area; local people coming and getting their kids vaccinated, because they’d seen how terrible diseases like polio and diphtheria and whooping cough and tetanus were. So the fact that these people would walk for days and days and days and come to our hospital to get their kids vaccinated, really … yeah, I really struggle here in New Zealand where people … you know, won’t get their kids vaccinated.
While I was in Pakistan Ruth was going back to England for six months, so World Vision rang me and asked if I’d go out to Ethiopia. This was in 1984, ‘85; this was the big famine which [when] Bob Geldorf and Bono did all the fundraising for Save the World programmes.
So I went out to Las Dure, which again was this huge camp north of Addis [Ababa], north of Gondar; and again we flew in, because we didn’t travel by road ‘cause it was too dangerous. You’d land on these grass strips and on one side of the road was the camp, and the other side was a hospital. And I got to that camp a few weeks after the Ethiopian government had gone in and burnt the camp down, and thousands and thousands of refugees had gone up into the hills. As I got there a lot of the refugees were coming back into the camp, and a lot of them had caught typhoid. So I hadn’t been in the camp very long – there was a team of nurses and doctors from Ethiopia, but also other countries – and we had this huge cholera outbreak so we nursed hundreds and hundreds of people in these huge, big white tents. Yeah … basically no beds; they just lay on plastic sheeting, and we just worked so hard it was incredible. But we didn’t lose any of our patients, they all recovered.
The Ethiopian government at the time was a Marxist government, and they basically wanted the aid money to come in, and they wanted the trucks and they wanted the radios, but they didn’t want international aid workers coming; so we had lots of doctors who flew out from England and America to Addis Ababa but they weren’t given visas to come up to the camp, so that was incredibly frustrating. Yeah – it was a really hard place to work, trying to work with the military who were in control of the camp. Also, they’d place spies within the camp so we had to be very careful what we said. One of our team made a comment … I can’t remember the details, but he was basically deported from the country. And the UN [United Nations] was also involved, and we had a code; we had a radio contact with Addis, so if we got on the radio and we said this word, then the UN would come up and try and sort out what was going on. So it was a really, really tense place to work.
We had an amazing team of Ethiopian nurses and doctors who worked so hard to look after their people. I was the technical manager of the camp, and one of my jobs each morning was to get into the Landrover and drive down to the airstrip; drive up and down the airstrip noting how far into the ground the tyres on the Landrover went, to make sure the airstrip was firm enough for the plane to land. We got rain there, and so you had to … you know, the plane would be bringing supplies, bringing colleagues; but you needed to make sure that the airstrip didn’t have any wet pats [patches] or mud where the plane would come and land and get stuck; and the result would be disastrous. If the strip was fine, then you’d radio Addis and say, “Yes, bring the plane up.” So that’s how we got from Addis up to the camp and back to the camp.
And we had lots of people arriving. One day we had this celebrity come. We were sitting at the table with my friend from Whangārei, and we said, you know, “I’m Barbara, and this is so-and-so”, and said to this guy, “What’s your name?” He said, “Bono.” And we said, “Bono who?” [Quiet chuckle] He said, “Bono from U2”, and we said, “What’s U2?” [Chuckles] Poor guy. [Quiet chuckle] There was only one Swedish nurse in our camp who’d actually heard of [chuckle] Bono. So anyway … yeah, he and Bob Geldorf went back to England and raised a huge amount of money for the Ethiopian famine.
While I was there I was able to go down and visit Catherine and Reg Hamlin. They’d set up the fistula hospital in Addis Ababa. I know there’s huge links between Hawke’s Bay and the Hamlins, and I had the privilege of staying with them and seeing the amazing work they do repairing fistulas on young Ethiopian women who had got into huge difficulties in labour.
So after my time there I went back to Pakistan; but I was able to contact Ruth Coggin, and when she returned to Pakistan she went via Addis Ababa and actually spent some time with Catherine Hamlin, learning to develop some of the skills; ‘cause Ruth was doing some fistula operations in Bannu, but spent time with Catherine Hamlin who was … well, at that stage probably the leading gynaecologist in the world on that. So it was a real honour and privilege to meet her. She was Australian but her husband was a New Zealander. Sadly both of them have died now, but the legacy that she established … through her thousands of women’s lives have been changed in Ethiopia, and she’s also trained lots of surgeons around the world. There’s [there’re] now lots of fistula hospitals, not only in Addis but out in the regions, so that young girls can go and get the help they need.
I went back to Bannu, and I took my friend from Whangārei who I’d met in Ethiopia; she came back and we worked in Bannu again, as I said, setting up immunisation programmes. Another day I remember, this amazing case … Ruth was doing an hysterectomy in theatre. This lady came in in labour and her waters broke and the cord prolapsed. So we got the lady on all four[s] and I put my hand inside to hold the head up so the cord would keep pulsating. And we got a message to Ruth, and Ruth said, “Look, I’ll probably be about another three quarters of an hour finishing this hysterectomy.” So I stood with the lady’s backside in the air and my hand inside holding the head up; and when Ruth finished the operation we managed to get this lady onto a trolley and wheeled her to theatre. And so I went into theatre as they draped this lady up with all the theatre cloths to do the operation, and Ruth gave the anaesthetic. Then at the right time Ruth said, “Right Barbara, take your hand out”, and she was able to do a caesarean and we had a live baby.
It was just amazing – I just loved working in Bannu. You know, we had women coming in in labour on camels; ladies coming in the back of utes; yeah, it was just … I just loved it.
I loved the obstetrics, but I found living in the confined space really difficult, so I thought, ‘How am I going to survive?’ So I said to my friend from Whangārei, “Let’s go down to the bazaar and buy a sheep” … ‘cause you know, [chuckle] being a New Zealand girl, you need a sheep. So we went down to the bazaar – much to the horror of my colleagues and the utter fury of the Pakistan doctor, because you just didn’t do that – we went down into the animal bazaar, and there would’ve been probably ten thousand men, and we were the only women. We looked at all these sheep, and over there they paint the sheep all different colours; so we were looking, and lifting up the tails; and anyway we bought a sheep, and we were assured it was pregnant. So we took it back and [of] course we went on a horse and cart, so we had the sheep across our legs through the bazaar – everyone staring at us; got back to the house and put it in the garden. And we waited, and we waited, and we waited, and nothing happened. We thought, ‘Oh, this is a dud.’ Anyway, we were making plans that we were going to eat our sheep. But anyway, one day we got home from work and there was a lamb born. So we thought, ‘We need to get another sheep’; so we had quite a few sheep. And one day this sheep delivered but the placenta didn’t come, so I thought, being a good Kiwi girl, I took the sheep into my bathroom and did a manual removal [microphone interference] to remove the placenta. And I was there with my hand up the sheep, covered in blood, and Ruth walked in and just looked at me [chuckle] and shook her head and walked out. So I managed to get the placenta out, and there was a knock on the door from the [??] who was the guard, saying, “Sister Barbara, there’s a human delivery case in the hospital.” So I had to quickly make myself clean and went over and did the delivery.
And then one of our sheep had a prolapse, and it was really difficult. We didn’t want to kill her and we weren’t quite sure what to do, so one morning at breakfast I said to Ruth, “You’re off on Friday, aren’t you?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “You know that operation you did on Bibi Fatima”, who was an Afghan lady with a prolapse, “do you think you could do that on my sheep? ‘Cause”, I said, ”her prolapse is getting all infected, and we’ll probably have to kill her.” So Ruth just looked at me; [chuckles] and I said, “I’ll pay for the syringe and the local anaesthetic.” So anyway, she did it; and the operation worked. And she wrote it up and sent the story to the British Medical Journal, and it was published. She had letters from people all over the world saying it was the best story in the journal, land it was so fantastic, and then people from other parts of the world wrote in that, you know, they’d stitched up hippopotamuses, and donkeys, and dogs, and …
Then after my five and a half years were up in Pakistan I decided it was time to move on. I heard via the grapevine, via emails, that one of the doctors I’d worked with in Ethiopia was [mic interference] working in a mission hospital in a place called Kapedo in Kenya, which was about … well you go Nairobi, and then up to Nakuru and then basically you just go in the bush – no proper roads to this hospital. It was run by a Finnish mission. So I went and worked there with this eye surgeon from Sweden; we would go out and do eye operations … trachoma operations but also cataracts. He was trained to do cataracts so we would do cataracts for ten American dollars [$10USD] in these very remote villages in Kenya, bordering on the Sudan border. And some of the people that came into our hospital … we were working with Turkana and Pokot people who basically just wore leather; and the guards at the hospital at night had bows and arrows. So it was really primitive, and a lot of the people I met there had never, ever, ever seen a white person. It was an amazing place; we had a hospital, but the hospital had windows but no glass. It was miles from anywhere.
And I’d been in the country ten days and it was decided I should go down to Nairobi and learn Swahili. So I went down there and did a few weeks, and then I had a week off so I decided to drive back from Nairobi to Kapedo … well, to Nakuru; we had a team house in Nakuru. One of the language teachers wanted a ride to his village which was on the way, so I took him, dropped him off and then carried on. And I was driving into this village and saw this lady on the side of the road with her son – there was a bus on the other side of the road and I was coming up behind the bus and going very slowly; pulled out to pass, and this lady ran in front of me. And I hit her. I’d been told by people in Kenya that as a white person if you hit someone in Kenya you don’t stop, you go straight to the nearest Police Station. And I remember … I hit her, and I carried on driving up the road about twenty yards. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to turn around.’ So I turned around and went back, and there was this huge crowd of Kenyans; I had no Swahili. But fortunately, the son of the woman I hit spoke English, and he said to me, “Will you help us? Will you take us to the nearest hospital?” Well, the nearest hospital was three and a half hours away, and she was bleeding very badly – she had a big cut on her head and her ankle was just swaying in the breeze. So I said Nakuru was where I was going, so we put the lady – he helped me – in the back of my car, and [I] just showed him how to keep her head up so she had an airway, and started to drive. And as I was driving my feet suddenly became quite wet; she was bleeding from this awful cut on her ankle. So I stopped and put a tourniquet on, and we kept driving and kept driving, stopping every now and then to make sure she was all right.
Got to Nakuru Hospital, totally covered in blood; drove up to the main door and [of] course … I was the only white person, I was like, mzungu, which is the name for a white person. So I went into the hospital and I said … ‘cause some of them speak English … I said, “I need a trolley, I’ve got a critically ill person in my car.” and I went into one room and it was the afternoon tea room; and they said to me, “It’s afternoon tea, go and find someone else.” I was hysterical; I was absolutely beside myself. So I went down looking in rooms, and this old Kenyan cleaner came and she could see I was distressed, so she got a trolley and wheeled it out to my car and we transferred this lady. I wheeled her down to the emergency room, opened the doors – the son was with me – and pushed the lady in the trolley into the room and said to the son, “I’ll come back.” Then I got in my car and drove back to our team house in Nakuru; walked in, and fortunately there was [were] two of my colleagues there, and I just burst into tears. And they said to me, “Barbara, go and have a shower, change your clothes, have a cup of tea.”
So then we went to the Police Station, and we couldn’t find a policeman that wasn’t drunk. After some time we found one; he said, “Well you actually have to go back to the Police Station near to where the accident happened.” My colleague, whose husband had been through the same experience, knew what to do.
So we went to the hospital and we picked up the son, and we went back to the Police Station. And this young policeman came and said, “Fill in the papers, describe what happened”, so we did that. He said to me – and he’d written on my statement, I was driving too fast – and said, “Sign it.” And I said, “No, I won’t, because I wasn’t driving fast.” And the son was there and he said, “She slowed right down, she was not driving fast.” Anyway, this arrogant guy just said, “You either sign that or I’ll arrest you, and I’ll put you in jail overnight; and you’ll come out different than what you went in.”
So I was sitting there praying hard, and my colleague was praying hard; and then there was a knock on the door and in walked the big policeman … the guy in charge of the station. And he said, “What’s the trouble?” And the young policeman said, “This person hit a Kenyan, and she won’t sign that she was driving dangerously.” And so he asked me who I was, and I said, “Well I’ve come to be the Matron of the hospital in Kapedo, and this is what happened.” And the son said, “Yes, I was there – I told my mother to wait but she walked straight out in front of Sister Barbara’s car, and she was hit.” So he said, “Fine – I know the hospital. Don’t you worry, it will be all right. You go back to Nakuru, and in the morning come to the Police Station – we’ll examine your car”; well there was not a mark on my car, there was no dent; there was nothing.
So I then went down to Nairobi to the mission I was working for and they appointed a private investigator to look into it. And we went back with him, and he looked where the accident happened; examined the car; and then he said to me, “You’re to have nothing to do with the family, don’t go and visit her in the hospital because”, he said, “what they’ll do … they’ll want money.”
So that was the hospital where we referred patients to from Kapedo, so if we sent anyone down I’d say to the staff, “Just go and see how this lady’s doing.” And some time later I was in Nakuru at a church service and the son was there and he came up to me afterwards. He said, “My mum is doing okay, and thank you, because if she’d stepped out in front of another car, and if that person hadn’t done what you’d done, she would’ve died.”
That was the only time I drove alone in Kenya; every other time I had a Kenyan with me. But you’d come up to these checkpoints and there’d be these Kenyan soldiers; and I was just … I was just so fearful that that young policeman would’ve been one of those people. And it wasn’t till some time later when I left Kenya for good – I was actually on the plane and up in the sky – that I felt this incredible burden sort of lift from me. I was … yeah, I was free.
While I was down in Nairobi I was staying in this hostel, and I found it really hard to be in a car. I just … I was really nervous and really uptight. And there was this American lady at breakfast one morning, and she said to me, “I was praying before I came to breakfast”, she said, “I felt God saying that I would meet someone at breakfast who’d been through this terrible experience.” And so she said, “Do you mind if I sit at your table?” So I said, “Sure.” And we got talking, and she said, “Well, what are you doing here?” So I explained to her what had happened – a total stranger. So she prayed for me, and prayed that just the whole trauma of the accident would go; which it did. I mean I couldn’t even tell you what her name was, it was like … no idea. But then slowly, I gained confidence to get in the car; when I went out the Kenyans sometimes would drive, or I would drive.
But it was an amazing time in Kenya. I had to get registered with the Kenyan Nursing Council, so when I arrived I submitted all my papers and they called me for an interview; and it’s the only interview in my life where I stood for two hours. There was [were] two men and two ladies sat, and they asked me all these questions. And at the end they said, “Your nursing qualifications of New Zealand” – I was also registered in England and in Australia – “are not up to the standard of Kenyan nurses. You’d need to do six months’ more training.” And I just couldn’t believe it. They said, “But if a Kenyan nurse went to New Zealand you would not accept their training. So you just think you can come to our country ‘cause you’re a white person, and you think you can just walk in.” I said I would get back to them.
So I went outside and the doctor I was working with was there, and he said, “Look, we’ll call into the Provincial Medical Officer of Health in Nakuru”, which we did. They couldn’t get nurses to work in this hospital because it was so remote; no Kenyan nurse would work there, where I was going. So anyway, this Provincial Medical Officer of Health said that he would, he’d be happy for me to work in this hospital and I would be accountable to him. So I did, but if anything had gone wrong, you know, I would’ve been up the creek without a paddle.
So anyway after some time there, the doctor I was working with had got a letter from someone who was working in a Swedish hospital in the copper belt in Zambia, so he said, “Barbara, the Matron’s going home on leave; would you like to go down and be the Matron?” So to cut a long story short, he contacted Sweden, and I was flown to Sweden for an interview and then to England; then came down and worked in the hospital in Zambia as the Matron. And that was a large hospital … well, large for African standards … a hundred and twenty bed hospital.
That was the first time in my life I’d ever come across patients who were HIV positive, who had AIDS, ‘cause AIDS was rife in Zambia then. This is pre-antiretroviral drugs, and so we had lots of patients who came into hospital, and every morning we’d do blood tests on them. And we had a rapid HIV testing kit, and it would come back positive; so I had a Zambian interpreter, and we would sit in the office and tell the patient the result of their blood test, which ninety-nine percent of the time was positive. And sometimes they didn’t believe us ‘cause they were fit, young, healthy guys. But then, in Zambia, the life expectancy was probably three years at the most, so it was really the death sentence for them.
And sometimes we had doctors in the hospital and sometimes we didn’t. We had one English doctor who was going home on leave, and he also used to do a lot of dental work – basically pulling rotten teeth, digging out roots – because the nearest hospital that did that was quite a long way away, and they would charge the earth. The patients would come in and ask the doctor to pull the teeth. So he said to me one day, “Barbara, I’m going on leave. You need to learn how to pull teeth.” So he gave me a crash course, and so I spent many afternoon[s] after I’d done telling people they’re HIV positive, digging out rotten teeth and roots of HIV AIDS positive people; I’d have double gloves on and like a crash helmet with a plastic shield – the same shield that they’ve used in New Zealand preparing for Covid; the same shield that’s every night on television now, what they’re using in England. We used this in Zambia back in [the] 1990s.
Once we had a surgeon came [come] from Sweden; there was [were] three patients he wanted to operate on. One was an elderly patient who had to have his leg amputated ‘cause it was rotten; one was a woman who had to have a mastectomy for breast cancer; and the third was an elective caesarean of a Zambian lady who’d come up from Lusaka. So I said to the surgeon, “What anaesthetic are you going to use?” And he said, “Ketamine.” I said, “What’s ketamine?” ‘Cause I’d never heard of it, and he said, “It’s a drug we give intravenously – here’s the book, read it; I’ll see you in theatre tomorrow morning at quarter past eight.” I was his anaesthetist.
So I put the drip in this old man, and started the operation, and he had a respiratory arrest so we had to stop, resuscitate him, and obviously the operation was cancelled. The second one later on that morning was to do a mastectomy on this lady, so got the drip in … it’s fine. And then about twenty minutes after the operation had started I just noticed that she was just moving a little bit, so I said to the surgeon, “Just stop.” I checked; the drip had tissued, so [we] had to stop, put the drip in, resert [resite] it, went ahead [and] did the operation. The last one of the day was the elective caesarean, and that was really tricky because you had to keep the woman sedated so she didn’t feel it, but you also had to remember you had a baby. Once the baby was out you took her deeper, and normally they would wake up, probably about an hour … half an hour after the operation; well, she didn’t wake up for four hours, so she wasn’t very happy. But she had a live baby, so yeah … yeah, it was incredible.
But we had patients coming in with anthrax. Sometimes there was no doctor in the hospital and we’d have people coming in who were miscarrying and needed to have a D&C. [Dilation and curettage] Well I’d never done one, but the staff … I think the staff thought that because you were white you were more experienced, and … oh my goodness! [Chuckle]
In my spare time in Zambia, there was a guy working for the British government; he was an agronomist working on agricultural programmes. So he and I decided we’d go and join the Luanshya Golf Club, which was about an hour and a half away. So we went down and applied – we had to be interviewed by the chairman of the club, and his first question was, “Have you come to play golf or drink beer?” And we said, “We’ve come to play golf – why?” He said, “Well a lot of Zambians join the club to drink beer”, ‘cause it was easy to buy beer rather than buying it in the shops. So anyway, we used to go and play quite regularly, and it was good; it was a good escape.
So while I was there this guy said to me one day, “You know, Barbara, you’ve got all this experience, but it would be really good for you to get a degree.” ‘Cause I didn’t have a degree. I said, “Oh, but … oh no”, I said, “I passed School C [Certificate] and UE only because …”, you know. I said, “I’m not academic”, you know, “I struggled with English and struggled writing.” He said, “No, no. I think, you know, you’re going to England in a few weeks’ time for a holiday”, he said, “there’s this course in medical anthropology at Brunel University in London. Why don’t you go and talk to them?” And I thought, ‘Ohhh’. Anyway I went and talked to them and said, you know, “I don’t have a first degree and I struggled at school. But you know, tell me about your medical anthropology degree”, which is basically looking at the concept of illness, sickness and health in different cultures, so it was ideal for my work. So anyway, I sent a letter to World Vision New Zealand and they gave me a scholarship, and then friends around the world put in; it was £26,000. So I went in, not to do a Bachelors, but straight in to do a Masters of Medical Anthropology. And I remember sitting in the classroom on my first day and this guy got up to speak about anthropology; well I could spell it, but that was about all. I just sat there and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. So I thought, [chuckle] ‘I’d better go and get a dictionary’… ‘cause I’d come from working in Africa. So I went and bought a [an] Oxford Dictionary, but then that was hopeless ‘cause I needed an anthropological dictionary. So they took us to the library and they showed us – there was [were] a whole lot of mature students like myself. And I kept going back to the librarian; I just couldn’t … she’d go, “This is how you reference a book; this is how you find out if … you know, you go online and you do this.” And after about the fourth time of going back to her asking her to explain what I was trying to do, she said to me, “Barbara, where have you been?” I said, “I’ve been in Asia and I’ve been in Africa”, and I said, “this is the first computer I have ever seen in my life.”
How old were you then?
Oh, probably just forty; maybe a bit older than forty … forty-one?
So anyway, before I went to Zambia I had six months to fill in before the course started in England; so I knew the World Vision Director in Tanzania, so I went up to Tanzania to the border with Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, and I set up with some Tanzanian staff a big HIV/AIDS programme – counselling, setting up home based care, ‘cause AIDS was like Covid basically, so many people were dying. And I worked with the World Vision team, and then went to Brunel [and] started my degree. We had to write essays and do presentation[s], then we had to go and get information for our thesis.
Before I left Tanzania I spoke to the Provincial Medical Officer of Health, saying, “Could I come back and do my research in your area?” Because I wanted to look at the impact that AIDS had culturally on that tribe of people, how their whole culture had changed because of AIDS. So I finished the written course, and then went to Tanzania, back to the town I was working in which was a town on the edge of Lake Victoria, a place called Bukoba. And while I was there the massacre happened in Rwanda; the Hutus and the Tutsis took up arms. And they don’t know, but probably over a million people were slaughtered, and millions of refugees poured across into Tanzania. World Vision was involved in a huge, big camp, and one day the World Vision staff said to me, “Oh, we’re going to go down to Benaco Camp”, which was a wee way away from Bukoba. So we drove down there and as we got nearer the camp – this camp had eight hundred and fifty thousand people living in it.
In one spot?
In one spot. It was huge. The camp went for ten kilometres, and there was [were] all these plastic sheeting huts. I mean that’s probably the population of Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin all together I think, maybe even more. And as we went into the camp, you drove through the camp and here were thousands and thousands of people pouring out … crossing the bridge from Rwanda, across the bridge into Tanzania … just walking, carrying everything they owned. So there was [were] old people who could not go any further, who would just stop. There was [were] women in labour who stopped, delivered, got up. There was [were] thousands of kids who didn’t know where their parents were. So we kept driving through and we went down to the bridge, and there were soldiers … Tanzanian soldiers there, Rwandan soldiers there … and all these people were coming across.
I love bridges. I love bridges in the South Island where you stand on the bridge and you look at the most beautiful water, all different colour blues, and just … So I said to the guard through the interpreter, “Can I go onto the bridge?” And he looked at me. So I went with the Tanzanian interpreter and stood on the bridge that day and looked down into the Kagera River. Floating down the Kagera River were bodies that had been massacred.
And on the corner of the bridge, sort of down in the water, was a rock, and in the rocks was this wee toddler’s body, naked; just lying there. So I said to the interpreter, “We need to go and get the baby, we can’t leave it there.” He said, “Barbara, you can’t.” And he said to me, “If you’d been here last week, the river didn’t flow ‘cause there were so many bodies.” Forty thousand bodies floated down that Kagera River into Lake Victoria. I was living in a hostel on the edge of Lake Victoria, and Lake Victoria is the biggest lake in the world – it is huge. It’s hundreds of times bigger than Taupō, and it borders on to Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, and there’s [there’re] huge, big fishing factories because they get these huge, big fish called Nile perch, which are that big; and they catch them and fillet them and they send them to Europe. It’s a huge, huge money maker. But when the Europeans found out that there was [were] bodies in the lake, no one wanted the fish so the whole economy just … was the end of that.
So I stood on that bridge that day and I just had a conversation with God; I just said, “How come human beings can take up arms against each other and do this?” You know? I mean I don’t hear voices, but it was like God said, “You’re upset; how do you think I feel?” And at that moment a beautiful rainbow appeared from Tanzania right across to Rwanda. Yeah. And to me a rainbow is … God is there. Often when I go to work in the morning there’ll be a rainbow when I leave this house, and when I get to the hospital there’s a rainbow.
So I wrote up my thesis, finished my exams and then went back to Tanzania and worked as their HIV/AIDS consultant. We were setting up HIV education programmes because Tanzania has a rule that no trucks are allowed on the road at night. Tanzania is a huge country and on the coast you’ve got Dar es Salaam and then you’ve got Dodoma which is in the middle … no sea around Dodoma … and then you’ve got Rwanda and Uganda which are land-locked countries. So the trucks go from Dar es Salaam – it takes days, you know; come night time they have to stop on the side of the road, and sometimes we would go and spend time talking to the truck drivers. I mean sometimes there’d be four and five hundred trucks. It’s a bit like Waiouru; they set up a place where you can [they could] drink and sleep and the Tanzanian staff and I would sit in the bars, talking … the guys would talk to the Tanzanian and Somali truck drivers, and we’d talk to the woman [women] who were working the bar or basically prostitutes, about HIV/AIDS and the dangers. I remember talking to one lady and she said to me, “I’m HIV positive; I’m dying, but I can make more money by having sex with the truck drivers than I can selling clothes in the market. So what I’m doing is I’m making this money and [interference] I’m putting it into a bank, so that my daughter doesn’t have to do what I did.”
Yeah – I spent time doing that; spent time with the Tanzanian staff going out and visiting, and when I was in Bukoba, visiting communities. I remember going to one house that was ramshackled and knocked on the door, and there was probably a two-year-old kid sitting in the corner and a five year old girl, and her father was lying on the floor – no mattress; obviously dying of AIDS, and she was the main carer. She couldn’t even sit him up. And the neighbour told us that the wife had left him and left the children, and the neighbour was popping in to see them but … yeah, we were able to give them some food and some blankets. But there were so many people like that – you just couldn’t help everyone.
I remember going to a village with my Tanzanian co-worker, and there was this young girl who was thirteen. She had three brothers; one of the brothers had died just before we got there, and this young girl of thirteen had been pulled out of school by her parents, had nursed her father helped by her mother, and [the] father had died; and then nursed her mother and the mother had died. And some of the men in the village believed that if they slept with a young girl they would be cured of AIDS; so the men would come and ask this young girl to sleep with them, and they would pay the school fees for her brothers and they would give her food. And this young girl knew that that was wrong, because she would die; then who would look after her two brothers? And on the wall in her house, which was just like … I mean it wasn’t even a proper house … she had a poster; I don’t know where she got it from, but it said, ‘Choose today whom you will serve; but as for me in my household, I will serve the Lord.’ I mean, this young girl, thirteen years old, miles from anywhere; and so we were able to help her, and get her onto a programme and get some support for her. But her uncles and aunties had wanted her to go and stay with them, but the house she was in belonged to her parents and she didn’t want to go away because … what would happen? She would never get that land back. It was just unbelievable. Yeah.
Then World Vision asked me if I would then go down to Mozambique, to a place called Tete which is one of the big cities up in the north of Mozambique. Mozambique had just come through seventeen years of civil war, and it was a country that had been heavily mined and it was pretty chaotic. They speak Portuguese there, so I had to go to Portugal to learn Portuguese … with my great linguistic ability. So I spent three weeks in Lisbon learning Portuguese, which was just a total disaster. Anyway, I went out to Tete and worked with a World Vision team and local Mozambiquan staff who were employed by World Vision, setting up a medical programme. We also had a food distribution programme and an agricultural programme, but my role was to oversee the medical programme. We were setting up feeding centres, and teaching women how to read and write in the local language. Mozambique had just joined the Commonwealth so there was quite a push for people to learn English. We would go out and do vaccination programmes. Tete was there [indicates] and we had some feeding programmes sort of down on the border with Malawi but we couldn’t get to them because those roads had been mined. So what we’d have to do is drive out of Tete, cross the border into Malawi and drive all the way down Malawi, cross the border back into Tete, visit the feeding centre and then go back doing the same thing. It was very challenging. And when you were driving on these roads, if you wanted to go to the toilet the men in the Landrover would go to the front of it and I would go to the back, because you couldn’t just go into the bush because the only parts that had been de-mined were the main roads. And all the way through was [were] these signs, you know, ‘Don’t Leave the Main Road’.
Yeah – I’d been there for a number of months and we were on a compound with armed guards. There was a knock on the door one Saturday morning, and the guard handed me a piece of paper, and written on that piece of paper in, you know, not particularly good writing, was, ‘Unless I and the senior Mozambiquan staff increase the salary of the ordinary Mozambiquan staff, I and them would be killed by the end of the year.’ I was just … I was absolutely stunned. I just didn’t know what to do. I was living on a compound, and I went and showed my colleague, and she said, “We need to go immediately to our team leader”, who was living on another compound. So we went, and I showed them the letter, and they were as shocked as I was. Because as I said, Mozambique had come out of civil war; there was still a lot of tension between the different groups. And I was in a dilemma because the people of New Zealand had really got behind the project in Mozambique.
A few weeks prior to this letter arriving I’d been down to Harare … ‘cause Harare was our nearest shopping centre in Zimbabwe … and I’d had a meeting with the New Zealand Ambassador. And I talked to him about funding a project – we would basically feed the children and teach the women how to read and write. And he’d given me funding for that, and we were getting that programme up and running. And I didn’t want to let the people of New Zealand down, ‘cause I didn’t know … if I left, if [whether] the funding would continue.
So as it got nearer and nearer to the end of the year it just got more and more tense, so the team leader went to the local police. The local police had received some of their training in eastern Europe, and the Chief policeman said, “When you come, please bring a pen, a pencil and a light bulb”, ‘cause they had no pens, they had no pencils, and they had power but there was no light bulb. So he asked me if I would list the people I thought might have written that letter. Well I had no idea, and I wasn’t going to name anyone. So he said, “The only way I can find out is to arrest all your medical staff.” So he did, and [of] course everyone denied it. So he came to me and the team leader one day and said, “I’ll re-arrest all your staff and I’ll beat it out of them.” ‘Cause that’s normal. And we said, “No.”
So then a few days later I got an order to come down to the police station, so I took my Mozambiquan colleague who I trusted with my life. And the policeman … this is the big, you know, the big chief … said to me through the interpreter, “I want to interview Barbara on her own.” He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak his language. He spoke some Portuguese; I had no Portuguese. So I looked at my interpreter, and he said, “Barbara, you should go.” And I said, “No, I’m not going”, because … I said, “I can’t communicate with this man.” So I burst into tears, and the big Chief policeman got so angry he just said, “Och! Get out. Get out.”
So by this stage it was the end of October, beginning of November. I wasn’t getting much support from our office in Mozambique … in Tete I was, but not in Maputo, the capital. So I rang the World Vision director here in New Zealand and explained the situation, and so he rang the World Vision boss of Southern Africa who was based in South Africa. Now this was the guy who I’d worked with when I working within Tanzania and he knew me, and he said, “Well Barbara, I want you to fly down to South Africa. Get the driver to take you to Harare, get on a plane, come down and we’ll talk about it.” So I flew down and explained what had happened, and he said, “Well Barbara, we need to get you out. Go back to Tete” – this was a Sunday – “go to work on Monday; say nothing, just act like a normal day, and then at six o’clock on Tuesday morning the driver will come and pick you up, drive you to Harare, and we’ll fly you to England, then from England back to States. You need to be debriefed in America” – ‘cause the World Vision headquarters were in America – “and then we’ll fly you home.”
So I went back to the team. My expat [expatriate] team knew. My housegirl said to me in broken English, what did I want for dinner on Tuesday night; I said, “Oh, you choose.” So I packed up all my belongings in the world, which was one suitcase; everything else had to be left behind. I went to work on Monday – I couldn’t say goodbye to my interpreter; I couldn’t say goodbye to anyone Mozambiquan. And in Africa it’s really important that you have a farewell, ‘cause that gives people an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, on both sides. I couldn’t do that. At six o’clock in the morning the driver arrived and drove me to Harare. I got on a plane, flew to England, stayed with some friends; one of my friends had been involved in working in Afghanistan and headed up a mission so she was very good at debriefing. Then I flew to America and was debriefed there, and told, “Never go back to Mozambique.” And I flew back to New Zealand, shell shocked and just …
And I’d been back here ten days when Sheryl, the Red Cross nurse from Invercargill was murdered in Chechnya. And since being back from Mozambique, I think six or seven ex-pats have been murdered. And each time an aid worker is killed around the world, and there’s been a lot, I think, ‘There, but for the Grace of God …’ It could’ve been me.
So I came back to New Zealand, and … yeah, I just had to take some time out. World Vision offered me a position in Rwanda, but I … I just said, “No.” I was angry with God because I’d broken my contract; and I was looking at maybe finishing at the end of my Mozambiquan time ‘cause I was … I mean, I was tired. Anyway I decided to stay in New Zealand.
I wanted to find somewhere in New Zealand that was third world. I applied for a job in Ruatoria – didn’t get it – and I applied for a job at Rawene Hospital in the Hokianga, and got it. So I went up there and worked as their community health manager, so I oversaw mental health, district nursing, [the] dental programme, and home helps, and it was a privilege to be there. I was in my own country but I was in a totally foreign culture, because ninety percent of the people up there were Māori. But they were amazing – they welcomed me, and looked after me and cared for me. So I worked there for three and a half years.
Was that your healing process?
Partly … partly. And then I left and went down to Milton and managed a health trust in Milton, which is just outside Dunedin, and worked as a part-time district nurse, part-time manager. Working as a district nurse I found really hard because I was back in New Zealand; so what I was doing in Africa I wasn’t allowed to do in New Zealand, ‘cause you know, you’ve got to abide by the Nursing Council and the Midwifery Council. And I just thought, ‘No …’ Yeah, I was just becoming quite restless as to what I wanted to do.
I wanted to move to Dunedin so I applied to the Salvation Army, and they appointed me as the manager of the Redroofs Retirement Village in Dunedin. And during that time … oh, just prior to this, when I was in the Hokianga I got a letter from Sir Michael Hardie Boys, the Governor General, informing me that the Queen wished to award me a Queen’s Service Order. I was to tell no one. I received this when I was in the Hokianga, but by that stage I was in the process of moving down to Milton. So on my birthday, 9th August 2020, I went with my dad – my mum had died by that stage – my sister, brother and a friend to Government House, and Sir Michael Hardie Boys awarded me on behalf of the Queen, a Queen’s Service Order …
I was there …
… which was probably one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had, you know, being in Government House, surrounded by amazing people who had done amazing things. We stood up and sang ‘God Save the Queen’ first, and at the end we sang ‘God Defend New Zealand’, and it was just … it was incredible.
So then I went to Redroofs in Dunedin, and one day I was driving with Bishop Penny Jamieson who was the Anglican Bishop in Dunedin, going to Te Anau. And on the way she said to me, “Barbara, what are you going to do when you finish nursing?” And I said, “I want to become a Hospital Chaplain.” And she said, “Well you’ve got to get ordained.” That was a process which took some years and some more training, and in June 2013 I was deaconed into the Anglican Church, and then … not ‘13; 2003. And in 2004 I was ordained a priest.
Then I moved to Auckland, and I spent some time working for CMS New Zealand, basically recruiting young people to go overseas and work in mission places, so my job was to recruit them – I was part of a panel – but recruit them, support them, then go out and visit them, so I went back to a lot of the places that I’d worked, which was wonderful.
And then I came down here to Hawke’s Bay on a speaking tour for CMS to speak at some of the Anglican churches here; and I was supposed to stay with one lady but she’d broken her arm, so I stayed with John and Alison Kerr. John was a [an] Occupational Physician at Hawke’s Bay Hospital. And I talked to John and Alison about hospital chaplaincy, and then left and went back to Auckland.
Some time later John sent me a text saying the Chaplain at Hawke’s Bay Hospital had resigned, and why didn’t I apply. So I applied, and the rest is history. I came to the hospital in 2009, February 9th, and have been there ever since. And it’s been amazing, because I’ve met and supported people from Somalia and people from Pakistan and people from Zambia; and coming from a nursing/midwifery background has been a huge asset, ‘cause you understand hospitals, you understand nurses, you understand doctors, and so it was very interesting.
Very few people knew my story. A number of years ago I spoke at International Nurses Day at the hospital and got up and told my story and at the end of it people were just …
And then I did a lot of speaking around New Zealand at Rotary conferences and on radio and television – I mean, all that sort of stuff. And then I came to Hawke’s Bay and lots of people asked me to come and speak. And every time I’ve spoken people’ve said to me, “Barbara, you need to write your book” … you need to write your book, you need to write your book. So about five years ago I sat down and just wrote … just wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote; and then gave it to Alison Kerr. She was the first person – she looked at it and said, “Barbara, I know what you’re trying to say but it doesn’t make sense.” So she spent hours helping me, and then other friends as well. Then there was a big discussion about, ‘Shall I self-publish or get a publisher?’ I mean I was working full time at the hospital, plus doing this book – every [bit of] spare time I had I sat down, ‘cause I had all my diaries, I had all my letters, I had all the letters I’d written Mum and Dad; I mean, all this stuff … was huge.
So anyway, I sent the draft of my book down to my sister-in-law who’s from America, so she sort of divided it up into small chapters with sort of groovy headings. And I sent it down to the publisher in Wellington, and he came back and said, “Yes, I’d like to print it.” I was really hoping to have it printed in 2019, but Covid came; it was delayed. It was delayed for various reasons, and then in January he came back to me and said, “I can do it this year.” So I submitted it; I think it was in February last year, not realising it was [the] International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and it was two hundred years since Florence Nightingale was born, so there was big celebrations all round the world for nurses and midwives. And then Covid came, and everything changed.
The book was published, and I thought, ‘Well if you’ve written a book you have to have a book launch.’ I’d never been to one, so I googled and it said, ‘This is what you need to do.’ So I thought, ‘Well’ – it was the Opera House, Toi Toi; the smaller foyer place …
The Cushing one?
… the Cushing one. I went and saw Toi Toi and said, “I’d like to rent this for the evening”, and they were amazing. My family flew from all over New Zealand; some of the people I’d worked with overseas came down … no one from overseas ‘cause we couldn’t have them. A very good friend from the hospital did a mihi, and welcomed everyone; and then various people got up and spoke. And my family spoke and some of my family sang, and then I got up and spoke, and the book was launched.
Then they did an interview with me on Radio Rhema, and I sent a copy of the book to Jacinda [Ardern] – got a letter back from her PA; [personal assistant] sent a copy of the book to the Queen – got a letter back from her lady-in-waiting; sent a book to Kate and William – got a letter back from … ‘Cause I just thought, you know …
So I’ve given away a huge amount [number] of the book. And then a few months ago I did a presentation at the Grand Round at the hospital to the doctors and nurses, and it was through that that one of the retired doctors rang me and said, “Barbara, they need to interview [you] at the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank, and tell your story.” So that’s the story.
Wonderful. I’ve got one question I’d like to ask you – you were sort of exposed to all those diseases … how did you not get them?
Well I was vaccinated; I got typhoid, I was hospitalised in Pakistan with typhoid … survived that.
What were the symptoms with that?
Oh – diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, rash. I got an infected finger in Pakistan, and they operated by putting in a ring block; and that didn’t work and my whole hand blew up, so they gave me an anaesthetic with a metal mask with a cloth and drops of chloroform and drops of ether. Yeah … I had lots of diarrhoea and vomiting – that was normal. All my time overseas, unbeknown to me, I had very bad [mike interference] endometriosis and I just used to buy pethidine [or] whatever I needed from the bazaar, ‘cause that’s what you do. And then in Pakistan they did a laparoscope, which is an incision just below the belly button and put in a camera and look and they found endometriosis. So I went to England, and they did a laparotomy and confirmed it; and then came back, carried on working in Pakistan, and then it was decided that I needed to … I was having a lot of pain on huge medication to keep going, so I went back to England and had a hysterectomy at the Chelsea Women’s Hospital, ‘cause there was a reciprocal arrangement with New Zealand. Six weeks after having a hysterectomy I went to Zambia on HRT, hormone replacement [therapy], but it didn’t really work ‘cause we didn’t have a proper fridge. So I’ve a fair share of sicknesses, yeah.
During my time overseas both my grandmothers died, and I just got a telegram from my family. I was in Pakistan when the Edgecumbe earthquake happened, and there was no communication; to make a phone call you’d be there the whole day in the post office place. So a friend in New Zealand who I’d worked with sent a message to the British Embassy in Wellington who sent a message to the British Embassy in Islamabad, and the British Embassy in Islamabad got a message to us in Bannu, basically saying that no one had been killed. ‘Cause Mum and Dad were living in Whakatāne at the time, so I knew no one had been killed; then some time later my parents sent me a letter. But I heard about the Edgecumbe earthquake one afternoon as I was about to go to the hospital to work; it was on the BBC – said a large earthquake had struck in Edgecumbe and Whakatāne – whereas people today have cellphones. You know, whatever’s happening overseas, you turn on the television and you’re there, whereas we had aerogrammes; we had telexes, not faxes. I would write a letter to friends or my family, and [in] six to eight weeks they’d send a letter back.
I think you gain incredible resilience. Yeah. First of all for me, I knew God had called me and I knew that he would be there. And I think if it wasn’t for my Christian faith I would’ve never survived. I would’ve never survived. But looking back, I would do the same thing again but I would want the wisdom I have now that I didn’t have then. [Chuckle] So that’s my story.
Well thank you very, very much, Reverend Barbara. On behalf of the Knowledge Bank, I thank you very much. You’re just [an] amazing person, you really are.
Well thank you. Thank you, I’m sorry it was quite long, but it’s a complex [story].
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Format of the originalAudio recording
Interviewer: Lyn Sturm